Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law (Ps 119:18).
Rules, rules, rules. I admittedly often grow weary of instructing my young children in the ways of decorum and decency:
We don’t put our teeth on people. We only bite food.
Color on paper, not on furniture.
You may not answer the door naked.
Please don’t touch your food while we say the blessing.
You are in church, not on a playground—do not swing on the handrails.
Your mother is allowed to dance in her own home. Stop telling me I can’t.
With seemingly never-ending repetition and reminders, they appear to make no progress. I begin to despair of living with barbarians in perpetuity. But then, they do begin to make progress. And they often do so joyfully, priding themselves on their use of a napkin, their remembering to put on underwear, their reverent reception of a blessing at Mass. While they certainly can’t articulate their transition in such terms, they do, in fact, rejoice at their own understanding of the ways of the world and at the increased freedom that comes with obedience to parental instruction. As much as their behavior often appears otherwise, they do delight in keeping our precepts.
Being a mother has shed great light on my own child-like behavior toward God. I, too, often resist instruction, need endless reminders, and little by little, come to rejoice in the goodness of his instruction. It is indeed by adhering to the instruction of his word and the magisterium of the Church that I have found the greatest peace, happiness, and freedom in my life. It is in being a child of God and observing his decrees that I find my identity and my bearing, a way forward in this oft tumultuous world.
Today’s psalm gives voice to the joy of a life lived in obedience to God: Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord! Psalm 119 gives thanks for the great gift of God’s law and commandments. One edition subtitles it, The Glories of God’s Law. Though we listen to only a handful of verses in the selection today, Psalm 119 is the longest in the book of Psalms, an extended litany of praise for God’s instruction, comprising 176 verses. Every verse contains one synonym for law, translated as decree, precept, statue, commandment, promise, word, judgment, way, or instruction.
Furthermore, the very structure of Psalm 119 echoes the child-like heart of its author. That is, it is an alphabetical acrostic, a poetic structure well-known to readers of children’s books. Each of its twenty-two sections, comprising eight verses each, corresponds to one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The first eight verses begin with Aleph, the next with Bet, and so on. Such a structure resists adequate translation into English, but I can only imagine the beauty of such a poem recited aloud in the original. The poet thus uses the structure of the poem to reinforce the content—in adhering to a disciplined poetic form, by submitting to the constraints of the acrostic and the repetition of the theme of the law, beauty and simplicity shine forth and make ready the way for meditation. So it is with our lives—when lived in adherence to the laws of God, our lives unfold beautifully, simply, with unceasing wonder and prayer, and with a form only fully realized at its completion. In the way of your instruction lies my joy, a joy beyond all wealth (vs. 14).
Do not grow weary, therefore, mothers, in giving instructions, in transmitting the faith, in passing on the commandments of God. While it is doubtful that your children will ever compose a litany of praise for your household rules, they may, God willing, be among those whom the psalmist calls blessed.