Psalm 103 also has a special place in my heart as it is chock full of vivid descriptions of God’s merciful love for creation that constantly find their way into my mind and heart when I am in most need of some light in the dark. For whatever reason, I am especially moved by verses 15-16,
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flowers like the flower of the field;
the wind blows and he is gone
and his place never sees him again.
“…the world in its present form is passing away.” 1 Corinthians 7:31
Nearly every time I pray that stanza, I think of an elderly man I knew back in the 90’s, a real “old salt” as they say, who used to frequently throw at me the Latin dictum whenever he wanted to help me put things in perspective: Sic transit gloria mundi. He loosely translated it, “The world’s glories go faster than they come,” and then would usually add, “What’ll it all matter in a hundred years?”
Because of his age, he would often refer to his impending death. Once, on that note, he told me that he winces when he hears the afterlife referred to as “eternal reward.” He said, “My God, I really need a few more lifetimes to even begin to consider what I’ve done that merits an eternal reward. Based on my unimpressive achievements, I’ve little to offer? I know the Bible says we’re judged by our deeds [cf Revelation 20:13], but I think, ‘What deeds?’ When I think of hearing God say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter the joy of your Lord.’ Done what? Please! It hardly seems like I’ve even begun. I think I’ll be very embarrassed.” Later in the conversation he added, “I flirt with depair over this, but it seems to me too many people nowadays err on the side of presumption, thinking of eternal life is somehow due them; like an after dinner drink that comes as part of a meal-deal package. ‘Oh, yes, and then I will live forever no matter what.’ Really? Other than the great saints, who can face death with anything other than fear and trembling? But even the great saints trembled, probably more than me, because they knew even better that I do that they were unworthy. Me? I’ll have my hat in my hands and stand in the beggars’ line with all the other sinners.”
His words, in turn, remind me of Semyon Marmeladov’s words in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,
…but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge. He will come in that day and He will ask: ‘Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?’ And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once … I have forgiven thee once … Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much.’ And he will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it … I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek … And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him.… and we shall weep … and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all! … and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even … she will understand … Lord, Thy kingdom come!”
Chant it, ladies!
In the Eastern Church, Psalm 103 is known as the “First Antiphon” and is sung at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy after the first litany. After years of hearing this chanted in the Eastern liturgy, in 1990 I finally found a tape recording of Greek Orthodox nuns chanting Psalm 103 in English. I must have listened to it a hundred times, cementing it in my memory so that to this day I can chant the whole thing when I pray. I actually found on youtube those same nuns chanting it, which thrilled me as I had lost the cassette tape years ago. If you have a quiet 4 minutes, take a listen: