By the rivers of Babylon there we sat weeping when we remembered Zion.
My first memory of Psalm 137 is hearing it sung during Lent in Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine Catholic Church in Annandale, Virginia. This psalm appears in the Roman Lectionary as well, so I had undoubtedly heard it before, though it had apparently never made an impression on me; but once you’ve heard the haunting words of this psalm set to the plaintive strains of Byzantine chant, you’ll never forget it again.
Psalm 137 is about exile — specifically, the exile of the Jews during the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C. But as with much of sacred Scripture, the literal event that it describes is but a shadow of a deeper spiritual reality that we all experience.
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget. May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights.
Jerusalem is a place, the place from which the Jews were exiled; but it is also a sign of something more important: our heavenly home, from which we are in exile on this earth. The Church, like Jerusalem, provides us with a taste of that home and increases our longing to reside there for all eternity.
But as the psalmist makes clear, we do not always listen to our heart and remember where it longs to reside. And so we find ourselves in exile, too often self-imposed, and we need to remind ourselves why our heart is restless and unfulfilled.
We often hear that we weren’t made for this world but for the next, but the Church has never really taught that. We were made for this world — and for the next. Had Adam and Eve not fallen, not placed themselves — and us — in exile, we would already be living in the life of the world to come. Christ, through his incarnation, death and resurrection, healed that breach, and the life of the world to come can be found within the liturgy of the Church and especially in the reception of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our existence.
The Jews had forgotten God at the time of the Babylonian exile — or perhaps it might be better to say that, in their idolatry, they had reduced God to just one among many and had created a life for themselves in which he was no longer at the center. Other considerations, especially political, had taken precedence. The Babylonian captivity awakened their hearts to what they had lost through their actions and revived their desire for Jerusalem and the God of their fathers.
That reawakening was painful, as the words of Psalm 137 make clear. We experience the same pain when we have fallen and recognize that we need the Sacrament of Reconciliation to reunite us to our earthly Jerusalem, the Church. Both spiritual exile itself and the pain it evokes serve a purpose: to remind us that, as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in God himself. Or, to put it another way, unless God is at the center of our lives, we cannot clearly see our way home.
In the recent discussions of Eucharistic consistency — in particular, in the question of whether it is “fair” for someone to be deprived of Communion for public opposition to Church teaching — this reality of the curative role of exile has often been ignored or dismissed. Like good Americans, we focus on people’s “rights” and ignore the reason why the Church might deprive someone of Communion: not out of spite or anger or a desire to control, but to awaken within his or her heart the healing sorrow expressed by the Jews as they sat weeping by the rivers of Babylon, remembering what they had lost.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.