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Preparing For Lent: The Seven Penitential Psalms

In the traditional Roman Liturgical Calendar, the two and a half weeks before Ash Wednesday are known as Septuagesima, after the Sunday which heads this pre-Lent season.  With the ministers vested in violet and the Alleluia replaced by the Tract, this season helps ease the faithful into Lent. 

Prior to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, all the days of Lent, including Sundays, were days of abstinence, while non-Sundays were also days of fasting.  Lent, then, would have been 40 days of fasting and 46 days of abstinence.  Over the course of the 20th Century, the Lenten discipline was progressively reduced to today where the only days of mandatory fasting are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Ash Wednesday along with all of the Fridays of Lent are days of mandatory abstinence (in the United States, the regulation which allows a replacement for abstinence on Fridays does not apply in Lent). 

Beyond this, it is now left to the discretion of the faithful as to how each will keep Lent as a penitential season.  This can be accomplished by means of prayer, bodily mortification, and almsdeeds.

One possible way the faithful may keep their Lent would be to incorporate the praying of the Seven Penitential Psalms, perhaps by praying one each day of the week.  These Psalms are indicated in the traditional breviary and are given, along with the Litany of the Saints and the associated versicles and prayers, as penances to those who receive Tonsure and the Minor Orders. 

The Seven Penitential Psalms, along with brief descriptions from Dom Guéranger’s Liturgical Year (Septuagesima), are given below (please note that the Psalms are numbered following the Vulgate numbering).

1. Psalm 6 (Domine, ne in furore.) – “David, struck down by sickness, asks pardon of God, and beseeches Him to heal the wounds of his soul.”

2. Psalm 31 (Beati, quorum.) – “David experiences the happiness felt by a soul whose sins have been forgiven her by God; he expresses his feelings, by comparing himself to a sick man, who was at the point of death, and is restored to health.”

3. Psalm 37 (Domine, ne in furore.) – “The royal prophet feels the consequences left in him by his past sins, and he begs God to have pity on him.”

4. Psalm 50 (Miserere.) – “The grief and prayer of David, when the prophet Nathan was sent, by God, to reproach him for the twofold crime he had committed by his sin with Bethsabee, are the subject of this psalm.”

5. Psalm 101 (Domine, exaudi.) – “David laments over the captivity of God’s people in Babylon, and prays for the restoration of Sion.  His words are appropriate for the soul, who grieves over her sins, and implores to be regenerated by grace.”

6. Psalm 129 (De profundis.) – “The sinner seeing the depths of the abyss into which sin has led him, can hope for help from none but his God, whose mercy is infinite.”

7. Psalm 142 (Domine, exaudi.) – “David, who had taken refuge in a cave, sees himself surrounded by the army of Saul; he beseeches God not to deal with him according to the rigour of His just judgments, but to show him a way whereby to escape the danger that threatens him.  The sinner implores God to deliver him from the sins and temptations which beset him.”

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