"Virga tua, et baculus tuus, ipsa me consolata sunt."
“Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me.” [Ps. 22(23):4]
The Psalmist’s expression is as seed fallen upon a land worn out by overuse. How many times have we heard the Pastoral Psalm, the grave and hallowed lines, contraposing the extremes of the “green pasture” and the “valley of death.” Yet these lines are full of depth not often plumbed. Indeed, how did this Psalmist, who is made to lie down in green pastures, find himself in such a darkened valley? What is the green pasture then, that the memory of it (or the hope?) provides courage and peace in the midst of its very opposite? What is it but the peace of charity, the grace of connaturality with God which He deigns to give undeserved to us through the mediation of Christ? Only this can make the darkness of the valley of death pale in comparison to the vibrancy of our hope, to be with our Beloved, who leads us in our inmost being to that peace beyond our comprehension (Phil. 4:7).
But this Psalm has yet another paradox, perhaps more paradoxical for our time. I say “our time” because of a particular confusion which plagues it, namely, the divorced conceptions of mercy and justice. For mercy is thought of as the suspension and contradiction of the justice of the law, or the mere understanding and acceptance of the evil state of a man “for what it is,” without bringing to bear upon him the “weight” of the law. Yet the Psalmist, in this often cited and little attended to passage, declares: “Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me.” But what is a rod? It is an instrument of correction. It points out the narrow path and chastises he who strays from it; “For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Heb. 12:6; cf. Prov. 3:12). And what is a staff but a sign of the power to rule? It is the command of the Lord, the very law He gives which is a comfort to the Psalmist. For “the Lord is sweet and righteous; therefore He will give law to sinners in the way.” [Ps. 24 (25)]
The law itself is therefore a mercy, and the just punishment rendered upon a breach of the law is so also. No father is merciful who allows the transgressions of his son to go uncorrected. Uncorrected, the son will perish in false and miserable “joy” of his sin. Chastised, the son might, through penance with charity, amend himself. The law is merciful because it points out the sin. For this reason, Holy Mother Church has always included among the spiritual acts of mercy to “admonish the sinner.”
“Thou hast prepared a table for me against them that afflict me” [Ps. 22 (23):5]. Herein lies the comfort of the rod and the staff of the Lord. For His law comforts first by providing the rule, then by waylaying the enemy. And this enemy is two-fold: “Who can understand sins? from my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord: And from those of others spare thy servant” [Ps. 18 (19):13-14]. But the law of God sets a table for us against them both. The sins of others are clearly indicated as sin and due for punishment by the law, are therefore kept far from us. Yet the more dangerous enemy, the secret sins of one’s own heart, are also revealed in the light of the law. Those sins which hide behind the disguise of the love of good things, of strident affection for the creatures of God--yet which of themselves would rather despise the Creator than lose creation--these sins are revealed not by any wit or insight in the deceitful heart of man, but by the contemplation of the law of the Lord alone. “For the heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). The Lord alone searches and judges the heart of man, and this by His law.
Thus, it is the law which is mercy to us; for without it, we are a complete enigma, unknown even to ourselves. Only the “rod” and the “staff” of the Lord can provide the comfort of being truly known, inside and out, by the only just and merciful Judge, all of whose ways are both “mercy and truth” [Ps. 24 (25):10]. Thus, to pit justice against mercy is a nonsense. It does violence to the truth of God and His creation. Mercy without justice is nothing but candy-coated apathy, unbefitting of the consuming fire of the Love of God visible in the Crucified Lord. He pursues us, through the blood and bitter toil, through the violence of sin and death, not simply to pat us on the head and tell us we are “all right,” but to ransom us from the snare of the enemy (which, recall, is most especially our own self-willed bondage to sin) as our Champion and King, the true Bridegroom of our souls. The laws of God and his Church are therefore not opposed to mercy and joy, but are instead the very expressions of mercy in which the Psalmist rejoices:
“The law of the Lord is unspotted, converting souls: the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones. The justices of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts: the commandment of the Lord is lightsome, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is holy, enduring for ever and ever: the judgments of the Lord are true, justified in themselves. More to be desired than gold and many precious stones: and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb. For thy servant keepeth them, and in keeping them there is a great reward.” [Ps. 18 (19): 8-12]