Monday, June 27, 2016

St Ephraim: Protecting the vineyard of your life with psalms

Get ready to go forth to thy work, and gird thyself to cultivate thy field.

The field is your present life, and for a hoe take with you the Old together with the New Testament.

Put a hedge of thorns about your field and your soil, by prayer and fasting together with instruction.

If you are protected by this enclosure, the wild beast shall not invade thee, by which I mean the devil.
Tend thy soul after the manner of a beautiful vineyard.

And as the guardians of the vineyard strike at the thieves with their fists, and call out to them with warnings, and keep them at a distance with stones, so you cry out in prayer, and shout with the song of psalmody, and put to flight the thieving fox, that is the devil of whom Scripture says: catch the little foxes that destroy the vines (Cant ii15).

(St Ephraim: On Patience, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol 1, Advent 1).

Friday, June 24, 2016

Athanasius/4 - Why we should sing the psalms


Athanasius insists that the psalms be sung, not said:
But we must not omit to explain the reason why words of this kind should be not merely said, but rendered with melody and song; for there are actually some simple folk among us who, though they believe the words to be inspired, yet think the reason for singing them is just to make them more pleasing to the ear! 
This is by no means so; Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate, and it is rather for the soul's own profit that the Psalms are sung. This is so chiefly for two reasons. In the first place, it is fitting that the sacred writings should praise God in poetry as well as prose, because the freer, less restricted form of verse, in which the Psalms, together with the Canticles and Odes, are cast, ensures that by them men should express their love to God with all the strength and power they possess. And, secondly, the reason lies in the unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer
For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man's whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil, as Pilate did when, though saying I find no crime in Him, he yet allowed the Jews to have their way; nor desiring evil though unable to achieve it, as did the elders in their sin against Susanna - or, for that matter, as does any man who abstains from one sin and yet desires another every bit as bad. And it is in order that the melody may thus express our inner spiritual harmony, just as the words voice our thoughts, that the Lord Himself has ordained that the Psalms be sung and recited to a chant.
Moreover, to do this beautifully is the heart's desire and joy, as it is written, Is any among you happy? Let him sing!  And if there is in the words anything harsh, irregular or rough, the tune will smoothe it out, as in our own souls also sadness is lightened as we chant, Why then art thou so heavy, O my soul, why dost thou trouble me? and failure is acknowledged as one sings, My feet were almost gone, and fear is braced by hope in singing, The Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man can do to me.
Well, then, they who do not read the Scriptures in this way, that is to say, who do not chant the divine Songs intelligently but simply please themselves, most surely are to blame, for praise is not befitting in a sinner's mouth.  But those who do sing as I have indicated, so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them. So was it with the blessed David when he played to Saul: he pleased God and, at the same time, he drove from Saul his madness and his anger and gave back peace to his distracted spirit. In like manner, the priests by their singing contributed towards the calming of the people's spirits and helped to unite them with those who lead the heavenly choir. 
When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit's cry and breath. 
And similarly, as it is written that By the Spirit a man lives and mortifies his bodily actions, so he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

St Athansius/ 3: The psalms as a mirror of the soul

Athanasius' letter to Marvellinus continues:
And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. 
With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one's own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts...the marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person's feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart's utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.
 It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. 
Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 50; another time, hearing how God helps those who hope and trust in Him, the listener too rejoices and begins to render thanks, as though that gracious help already were his own. Psalm 3, to take another instance, a man will sing, bearing his own afflictions in his mind; Psalms 10 and 11 he will use as the expression of his own faith and prayer; and singing the 53th, the 55th, the 56th, and the 141nd, it is not as though someone else were being persecuted but out of his own experience that he renders praise to God. 
And every other Psalm is spoken and composed by the Spirit in the selfsame way: just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.

Monday, June 20, 2016

St Athanasius/2 - the psalms as spiritual formation

More from St Athanasius' famous letter to Marcellins, this time on the psalms as a source of spiritual formation:
...among all the books [of the Bible], the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given
Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour's coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.
Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. 
Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin. Repentance, for example, is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show you how to set about repenting and with what words your penitence may be expressed. 
Again, Saint Paul says, Tribulation worketh endurance, and endurance experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed [Rom 5:3, 5]; but it is in the Psalms that we find written and described how afflictions should be borne, and what the afflicted ought to say, both at the time and when his troubles cease: the whole process of his testing is set forth in them and we are shown exactly with what words to voice our hope in God. 
Or take the commandment, In everything give thanks.  The Psalms not only exhort us to be thankful, they also provide us with fitting words to say. 
We are told, too, by other writers that all who would live godly in Christ must suffer persecution; and here again the Psalms supply words with which both those who flee persecution and those who suffer under it may suitably address themselves to God, and it does the same for those who have been rescued from it. 
We are bidden elsewhere in the Bible also to bless the Lord and to acknowledge Him: here in the Psalms we are shown the way to do it, and with what sort of words His majesty may meetly be confessed. In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls' need at every turn.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

St Athanasius and the garden of delight

The introduction to St Athanasius' letter to Marcellinus points to the re-eminence of the book of Psalms in Scripture:
SON, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as it is written; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.
Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressors, and for the Gentiles also have a special word.
Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Psalms of the day in the liturgy of the Temple

One of the ongoing debates is the extent to which the Divine Office (and the liturgy more generally) represents a continuation of ancient Jewish practice.   Unfortunately, while there are passing references to the liturgy in the Old Testaments (such as King David's instigation of choirs of priests singing in the first temple) very little concrete evidence survives.

Still, those crumbs that do survive are interesting.  Consider this rationale for one of the psalms set for use each day, tied to the days of creation, an idea reflected in our Office today in the Vespers hymns (and arguably in certain other psalms set for the Benedictine Office at least).

The source for this daily service in the Temple  is theTamid, sect. vii, and Maimonides in Tamid:
On the first day of the week they sang Psalm 23, 'The earth is the Lord's,' etc., in commemoration of the first day of creation, when 'God possessed the world, and ruled in it.'
On the second day they sang Psalm 47, 'Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,' etc., because on the second day of creation 'the Lord divided His works, and reigned over them.'
On the third day they sang Psalm 81, 'God standeth in the congregation of the mighty,' etc., 'because on that day the earth appeared, on which are the Judge and the judged.'
On the fourth day Psalm 93 was sung, 'O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth,' etc., 'because on the fourth day God made the sun, moon, and stars, and will be avenged on those that worship them.'
On the fifth day they sang Psalm 80, 'Sing aloud unto God our strength,' etc., 'because of the variety of creatures made that day to praise His name.'
On the sixth day Psalm 92 was sung, 'The Lord reigneth,' etc., 'because on that day God finished His works and made man, and the Lord ruled over all His works.'
Lastly, on the Sabbath day they sang Psalm 91, 'It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord,' etc., 'because the Sabbath was symbolical of the millennial kingdom at the end of the six thousand years' dispensation, when the Lord would reign over all, and His glory and service fill the earth with thanksgiving.'

Monday, May 30, 2016

On the power of Psalm 1

From the History of the Monks in Egypt:

"Before us there was this splendid man, our Father Mutius by name. He was the first monk in this place and was the first to teach the way of salvation to all of us in this desert. He was a pagan (gentilis) at first, a most notorious thief and tomb robber, a connoisseur of every kind of wickedness. His saving moment happened in this way:

"He went one night to the house of a certain consecrated virgin in order to burgle it. He climbed up on to the roof, equipped with a well known type of tool-kit, trying to find a method or an opening by which he could break in. The operation proved too difficult for him, and he spent the greater part of the night on the roof to no avail.

 Frustrated by the failure of many attempts he felt weary and fell asleep and saw in a vision someone standing by him dressed like a king, who said: 'Desist from all these crimes, and from the spilling of blood. Turn all your efforts towards religious purposes instead of shameful theft, and join the angelic host of heaven. From now on live with virtue in mind, and I will make you the principal leader of this host.'

"He listened to what was being said to him with a great feeling of joy, and was then shown a great army of monks, of which he was bidden to be the leader. As he awoke he saw the virgin standing there, demanding to know who and whence he was and what he was doing there. Like somebody out of his mind all he could say was: 'Please take me to a church.' She realised that some divine operation was working in her, and she took him to the church and introduced him to the priests.

He prostrated himself in front of them and begged to be made a Christian and do penance. The priests knew this man to be the instigator of all kinds of wickednesses and wondered if he were really genuine.

But he persisted, and convinced them he really meant what he was asking for. They warned him that if that was what he wanted he would have to leave off from his former way of life.

He was baptised, and begged to be given some precepts by which he might begin to walk along the way to salvation. they gave him the first three verses of Psalm 1 [Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the waterside, that bringeth forth his fruit in due season, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper] They told him that if he diligently took these verses to heart it would be enough to lead him into the way of salvation and to a growth in holiness (scientia pietatis). He stayed with them for three days and then went off to the desert where he stayed for a long time, persevering day and night in prayers and tears, living off roots and herbs.

"He went back to the church where the priests realised how the three verses of Psalm 1 which they had given him had affected his speech, his actions and his whole way of life...