Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Mercy Me! Sometimes We All Need to Have a Heart-to-Heart with God and Own Up to Our Shortcomings. Psalm 51 Shows Us How to Do It

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Mercy Me! Sometimes We All Need to Have a Heart-to-Heart with God and Own Up to Our Shortcomings. Psalm 51 Shows Us How to Do It

Article excerpt

I MUST CONFESS THAT OUT OF ALL THE PSALMS IN THE BIBLE, my favorite is Psalm 51, known as the Miserere, the psalm's first word in its Latin translation, which means "to pity." This psalm is often said to be the greatest of the seven "Penitential Psalms" (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), each of which expresses sorrow for sin. In fact, Pope John Paul II once wrote that "the Miserere is our most profound meditation on guilt and grace." In the Catholic Church, some of the times we collectively pray the Miserere are on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, at Masses for the deceased, and on Fridays during Morning Prayer.

Like many other psalms, the Miserere is attributed to King David. It is said to be David's heartfelt response to a reprimand by the prophet Nathan when David sinned, not only by committing adultery with a married woman, Bathsheba, but also by having her husband, Uriah, murdered.


IN MY OWN SPIRITUAL LIFE I pray the Miserere during my morning walk as a kind of walking meditation. While I like to think that my sins pale in comparison to David's, nonetheless for me there is a spiritual catharsis in these timeless words from the Old Testament. I find that the recitation of the Miserere becomes almost a mini-Confession.

There are many things that I like about Psalm 51. One of the most endearing is that instead of talking with the priest as we do in Confession, in the Miserere our conversation is with God. In praying, "Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness," we stand directly before God, face to face and heart to heart.

Also like Confession, the Miserere provides us a ready opportunity to examine our conscience. When we pray those powerful words, "For I acknowledge my offense," we can, for one brief moment in our busy day, pause to open our hearts and reflect on the consequences of our thoughts and actions.

Praying this prayer over and over has also helped me to understand the meaning of mercy. Mercy can be defined in a number of different ways, such as "kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness" or "a disposition to forgive, to pity, or to be kind." I prefer the last one. We all like to envision our God as merciful, ready and willing to forgive our every transgression, and yet, more often than not, we humans are sorely lacking in mercy.

Although our society today glorifies violence and vengeance, the power of mercy resides within each of us. We can, if we so choose, be merciful. Whenever we are vengeful, I believe a part of our soul dies. Whenever we show mercy, our souls unite with all that is good in the universe.

In Psalm 51 David says, "My sin is before me always." I think that, like David, each of us harbors somewhere in our hearts sin that may always be a part of our lives. …

Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.