Upon reflection, the last stanza in the Responsorial Psalm for today’s readings (the proper readings for the Memorial of St. Bernard) could come across to us as perverse: “in the way of your decrees I rejoice.” Why should a decree, law, or regulation give someone joy?
If we glance at the rest of Psalm 119, we encounter more of the same: “your statutes become my songs wherever I make my home”; “your law is my delight” (this last one is repeated twice). The beginning of Psalm 1 calls a man blessed for whom “the law of the Lord is his joy.”
This seems backward. Rules curtail our liberties. We may rejoice that other people have to follow laws—such as the fifth commandment—but that I have to follow them either doesn’t impact what I would ordinarily do or abridges my range of potential actions. Who delights in that? Usually, those who do delight in rules strike us as odd. Classmates for whom particular grammatical styles regarding comma use provoke uncontainable mirth or coworkers charmed by the finer points of corporate personnel policies are not our first choices for table companions. Far less amicable are those who delight in the power that rules and regulations give them over others.
Expressing this modern intuition, Grant Gilmore, a Yale Law professor, remarked: “In Heaven there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb…. In Hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed” (Ages of American Law, 110-11). The implication is that law is a necessary evil to curb what is wayward in men and in human societies. Framed in this way, law is a kill-joy. It is present because it needs to be, but it would be better if there were no need.
Yet this gives us no way to understand the blessed man depicted by the psalmist. A necessary evil isn’t something delightful. To understand the delight of the blessed man requires a different understanding of law. A more classical definition of law, such as St. Thomas’s, goes as follows: a certain rational ordinance promulgated for the common good by one who has care of the community (ST I-II q. 90, a. 4).
Put in this way, someone under a law is not unfree. Someone under a law enjoys the good to which that law orders him and is included as a member of the community among whom that good is held in common. A chess player “delights” in the rules of chess because they order him in a competition with a fellow player. Someone who cheats in chess to obtain victory is only an apparent victor; whatever he’s won, he’s not won a game of chess. A chess player who loves victory to some extent loves the rules by which that victory is obtained.
This is why the psalmist says the blessed man “delights in the law of the Lord.” The Law was Israel’s way of maintaining a relationship with God as his chosen people. The man who delighted in the Law—the Old Law—delighted in being close to God and being part of God’s chosen people. The Law ordered Israel and the Israelites to God.
Yet this law—the Old Law—was only “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb 10:1). The New Law established by the New Covenant is that of perfection—the law that is “put into our hearts and written on our minds” (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-12; 10:16) through grace. The New Law incorporates us into Christ as members of his Church, his mystical body. The New Law forever binds us perfectly to God in charity (see St. Thomas, ST I-II q. 107, a. 1). How much more do we say to God now, as the psalmist said under the Old Law, “your law is my delight”?
Image: Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen of La Lois, Jean-Jacques Feuchère (CCC BY 3.0)