As this blog has had occasion to remark, the 50th Psalm (Miserere) represents a spiritual drama, in which King David struggles with all his might to find his Lord, only to realize that it is the Lord who seeks him.
Steeped in sin as we are, our nature still cries out for our Creator. Due to our fallen condition, however, reunion with our Maker demands that we accept him as our Redeemer.
Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.
Though we are conceived in iniquity, the prophet reminds us, we were created in justice, and hence our reconciliation with God is a restoration of our original being:
Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.
What the Douay scholars (bless their holy and erudite souls!) render here as “a perfect spirit” is in Latin (pardon my lack of Hebrew) spiritu principali.
The Latin princeps signifies, first of all, firstness, and secondly, chiefdom. This double meaning is well captured in the English term “primacy,” though I can think of no vernacular adjective in which the senses are not fragmented.
In Jerome’s rendering, David prays that the Lord will renew in him the primal spirit in which he was fashioned by divine wisdom. At the same time, the King is asking that he be granted a recovery of that princely spirit by which our first ancestors were given, under God, dominion over all things.
David’s desire to regain his original self, by the gift of God, explains the intensely personal tone pervading the bulk of this song. The conclusion of his prayer, however, demonstrates not only his own kingly heart, but the royal character bequeathed to every human soul:
Deal favorably, O Lord, in thy good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up. Then shalt thou accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and whole burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon thy altar.
Personal renewal is the foundation of public prosperity, secured by strong walls and right worship. The separation of one from the other, whether by quietism or activism, is a rejection of the divine design by which we were made, and remade, in his providential image.
This rendering of the Psalm by Michel Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), alternating between solo soprano and a sublime chorus, admirably captures that personal and public dynamic:
As our world descends into chaos, let us, like David, beseech the Lord to restore within each of us that princely spirit through which we can assist in building up the walls, and altars, of Jerusalem.
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