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Psalm 40 (41)

Prayer in sickness
"One of you will betray me - one who is eating with me" (Mk 14, 18).

Happy the man who considers the poor and the weak.
  The Lord will save him in the day of evil,
will guard him, give him life, make him happy in the land
  and will not give him up to the will of his foes.
The Lord will help him on his bed of pain,
  he will bring him back from sickness to health.

As for me, I said: 'Lord, have mercy on me,
  heal my soul for I have sinned against you.
My foes are speaking evil against me.
  'How long before he dies and his name be forgotten?'
They come to visit me and speak empty words,
  their hearts full of malice, they spread it abroad.

My enemies whisper together against me.
  They all weigh up the evil which is on me:
'Some deadly thing has fastened upon him,
  he will not rise again from where he lies.
Thus even my friend, in whom I trusted,
  who ate my bread, has turned against me.

But you, O Lord, have mercy on me.
  Let me rise once more and I will repay them>
By this I shall know that you are my friend,
  if my foes do not shout in triumph over me.
If you uphold me I shall be unharmed
  and set in your presence for evermore.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel
  from age to age. Amen. Amen.

Catechesis by Pope St John Paul II on Psalm 40 (41)
General Audience, Wednesday 2 June 2004 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

Vespers, Friday, Week 1 - Prayer in sickness

"1. One reason that impels us to understand and love Psalm 40 which we have just heard is the fact that Jesus himself quoted it: "I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is so that the Scripture may be fulfilled, "He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me'" (Jn 13: 18).

It was the last evening of his earthly life and in the Upper Room, Jesus was about to offer the best morsel to Judas, the traitor. He thought back to this phrase in the Psalm, which is indeed the supplication of a sick man, abandoned by his friends. In this ancient prayer, Christ found the words and sentiments to express his own deep sorrow.

We will now attempt to follow and to elucidate the whole plot of this Psalm, uttered by a person who was certainly suffering an illness, but especially from the cruel irony of his "enemies" (cf. Ps 40, 6-9) and his betrayal by a "friend" (cf. v. 10).

2. Psalm 40 begins with a beatitude. It is addressed to the true friend, the one who "considers the poor" [weak]: he will be rewarded by the Lord on the day of his suffering, when he is lying "on his sickbed" (cf. vv. 2-4).

The heart of this supplication, however, lies in the following section where it is the sick person who speaks (cf. vv. 5-10). He begins his discourse by asking God's forgiveness, in accordance with the traditional Old Testament concept of a pain corresponding to every sin: "O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!" (v. 5; cf. Ps 37 [38]). For the Jew of ancient times sickness was an appeal to the conscience to begin to convert.

Even if it is an outlook surpassed by Christ, the definitive Revealer (cf. Jn 9: 1-3), which is in question, suffering in itself can conceal a secret value and become a path of purification, interior liberation and enrichment of the soul. It is an invitation to overcome superficiality, vanity, selfishness and sin, and to trust more intensely in God and his saving will.

3. At this point, however, the wicked enter the scene: they have come to visit the sick person, not to comfort but to attack him (cf. vv. 6-9). Their words are cruel and wound the heart of the person praying, who senses their merciless wickedness. The same experience will be the lot of many humiliated poor people, condemned to loneliness and the feeling that they are a burden even to their own relatives. And if they occasionally hear some words of consolation, they immediately discern the false and hypocritical tones in which they are spoken.

So, as was said, the person praying experiences indifference and even harshness on the part of his friends (cf. v. 10), who are transformed into hostile, hateful figures. To them the Psalmist applies the gesture of "lifting the heel", the threatening act of those on the point of trampling upon the defeated foe or the impulse of the horseman prodding his horse on with his heal to make him ride over his adversary.

Our bitterness is profound when it is the "friend" we trusted, literally in Hebrew: the "man of peace", who turns against us. We are reminded of Job's friends: from being his companions in life, they become indifferent and hostile presences (cf. Jb 19: 1-6). In our prayer resounds the voices of a crowd of people forgotten and humiliated in their sickness and weakness, even by those who should have stood by them.

4. Yet the prayer of Psalm 40 does not end in this gloomy setting. The person praying is sure that God will appear on his horizon, once again revealing his love (cf. vv. 11-14). He will offer his support and gather in his arms the sick person, who will once again be "in the presence" of his Lord (v. 13) or, to use biblical language, will relive the experience of the liturgy in the temple.

The Psalm, streaked by pain, thus ends in a glimpse of light and hope. In this perspective, we can understand how St Ambrose, commenting on the initial beatitude of the Psalm (cf. v. 2), saw in it prophetically an invitation to meditate on the saving passion of Christ that leads to the Resurrection. Indeed, this Father of the Church suggests introducing into the reading of the Psalm: "Blessed are those who think of the wretchedness and poverty of Christ, who though he was rich made himself poor for us. Rich in his Kingdom, poor in the flesh, because he took this poor flesh upon himself.... So he did not suffer in his richness, but in our poverty. Therefore, it was not the fullness of divinity that suffered... but the flesh.... So endeavour to penetrate the meaning of Christ's poverty if you want to be rich! Seek to penetrate the meaning of his weakness if you want to obtain salvation! Seek to penetrate the meaning of his crucifixion if you do not want to be ashamed of it; the meaning of his wounds, if you want yours to heal; the meaning of his death, if you want to gain eternal life; and the meaning of his burial, if you want to find the Resurrection" (Commento a dodici salmi: SAEMO, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, pp. 39-41).