Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Psalm commentaries: A guide, Part II - Patristic commentaries

Today to mark the start of Lent, I want to continue on my series on psalm commentaries, looking at the key Patristic commentaries available in English, just in case anyone is still looking for a book to read for Lent!

Antioch vs Alexandria

I should note that the Patristic commentaries largely fall into two camps - those focused on the more literal/historical context, such as St John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus; and those that also draw in the more allegorical meanings, such as Origen, Eusebius, Jerome and Augustine.  

I noted in my previous post that SS Ambrose and Augustine's are in my view the best psalm commentaries of all, closely followed by Cassiodorus and Bellarmine.   

But the psalms are so rich in meaning that multiple interpretations are possible, and so many of these commentaries are well worth a look.

Fragments or texts only available in their original language

I should note that the list below is not complete - there are a few early commentaries on individual psalms that I haven't as yet collected together, as well as many more for which there is as yet no available English translation.

Some of the latter are quite important for various reasons, so one can only hope the situation is soon remedied! These include: Didymus the Blind (313-398) - translations of only two psalm commentaries are available in English; Hilary of Poitiers (210-367), for which a critical edition is available, but no complete translation as far as I know; Arnobius Junior, and more.

Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

I should also mention the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, which offers two volumes of extracts edited by Craig Blaising and Carmen Hardin, arranged for selected verses of each psalm.

The strength of this series is that it includes material not just from psalm commentaries, but also from  patristic commentaries on other works that take in the psalms.  And it provides a useful taster and source for some very obscure writers not otherwise available in English (including the authors listed above).

For each psalm they also provide an overview of the commentaries.

The problem with this excellent (in principle) series, though, is that it is very dependent on editorial choices, and when it comes to the psalms, I find some of the choices perplexing. Still, there is a wealth of interesting material there to be explored!

Commentaries available in translation

1. Origen (184-253)


Michael Heintz, trans, Origen Homilies on Psalms 36 - 38, Fathers of the Church vol 146, Catholic University of America Press, 2023. [translations from Rufinus' Latin versions of the psalm commentaries]

Joseph W Trigg (trans), Origen Homilies on the Psalms: Codex Monacensis Graecus 314, Fathers of the Church vol 141, Catholic University of America Press, 2020

Psalms commented on: Psalms 36 - 38; 15, 36, 67, 73-77, 80.

Why they are worth reading

Although Origen held heretical views on some subjects, he was nonetheless easily the most influential of all early exegetes of Scripture, and his works were studied carefully and translated into Latin by a number of different church Fathers (albeit with amendments in places)!

For centuries, only extracts preserved in catenas, together with a few of his commentaries in the Latin version by Rufinus, were thought to have survived.  But a recent manuscript discovery has yielded a new set of them for a selected psalms in the original Greek, and they offer many important insights, both on the psalms themselves, and on early Christian approaches and uses of them.

In particular, one theory popularised in recent decades is that the psalms only came into prominence in early Christian thinking as a consequence of the fourth century monastic movement; this work makes it clear that their use was part of Christian culture from its very beginnings.

I'm still working these two books myself at the moment, but they certainly look as if they will repay the effort.

2. Eusebius of Caesaria (d339)

Editions: Justin M. Goh (trans), Eusebius, Commentary on the Psalms, 2023. You can find these on the translator's blog, or a consolidated version on his page.

Psalms covered: Prefatory Material, 8, 9, 22, 23, 44, 50, 51, 52, 57, 62, 63, 67, 68, 71, 73, 77, 81, 86, 87, 89, 90, 92, 94, 117, Hypotheseis on Pss 119-133, 136.

Why they are worth reading

Like Origin, Eusebius seems to have composed one of the earliest commentaries on all of the psalms; but as for Origen, not all have survived, at least in full.  The critical edition of the Greek was only completed in 2022, so this is another largely untapped source.

3. Evagrius (345 - 399)

Luke Dysinger (trans)

Why these are worth reading

Another very early commentary, this time by an extremely influential, but highly controversial monastic writer whose work has largely been transmitted into the tradition through Cassian.   

They are mostly very short, so worth a look, and while you are doing so, take a look around Fr Dysinger's fabulous texts and sources website, which is full of goodies not otherwise readily accessible.

**4. St  Basil (330-379)

Edition: Sr Clare Agnes Way (trans), Saint Basil Exegetical Homilies, Fathers of the church vol 46, Catholic University of America Press, 1963 (available on internet archive).

Psalms covered: 1, 7, 14, 28, 29, 32, 33, 44, 45, 48, 59, 61 and 114.

Why its worth reading

Although the homilies cover only a small sub-set of psalms, they are wonderful commentaries on them, and some seem quite pertinent to St Benedict's use of these psalms in the Office.  the other homilies in the volume relate to the days of creation, and also well worth a read.

5. St Gregory of Nyssa (c335-395)

Edition: Ronald Heine, Gregory of Nyssa's Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, Oxford, 1995

Why its worth reading

This is not a commentary on the psalms per se, but rather the psalm titles plus a commentary on the overall ordering of the psalter.  

The psalm titles are one of those things ignored or outright rejected by most modern commentators who don't seem them as an authentic part of Scripture (some official decisions to the contrary notwithstanding).  But the Fathers took them very seriously indeed.

**6. John Chrysostom (347-407)

Edition: Robert Charles Hill (trans), St John Chrysostom Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998.

Psalms covered: 4-12; 43-49; 108 - 117; 119 - 150.

Why it is worth reading

St John's commentary is very rich indeed, often brining in a lot of interesting contextual material and variant text readings.  The commentaries are not short though, but provide a lot of moral instruction in particular.

**7. St Jerome (c342-7 - 420)

Edition: Sr Marie Liguori Ewald (trans), The Homilies of St Jerome, vol 1 (1-59 on the Psalms), Fathers of the Church vol 48, CUA press, 1964.

Psalms covered: 1,5,7,9, 14,66,74-78, 80-91, 93, 95 - 115, 119, 127-133, 135 - 137, 139-143, 145 - 149.

Why it is worth reading

There was a theory advocated some years ago that these were essentially translations of Origen: the rediscovery of Greek texts for more of his commentaries has now effectively disproved that, though they were certainly strongly influenced by his work.

St Jerome's homilies have two key virtues in my view.  First, unlike virtually every other commentary, they are generally very succinct.  And secondly, they often include references to monastic perspectives, and emphasize ideas that became important to the later tradition.

8. Theodore of Cyrus (393 – c. 458/466)

Edition: Robert C Hill (trans), Theodoret of Cyrus Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols, Fathers of the Church vol 101&102, CUA Press, 2000.

Why it is worth reading

This is one of the few patristic commentaries that covers all of the psalms, and the expositions are very clear and straightforward.  And for those who find the allegorical exertions of Augustine and others a stretch at times, this is your commentary! 

9. Pseudo- Athanasius (prob early fifth century)c. 296-373) c. 296-373)

Edition: Robert W Thompson, Athanasiaana Syriaca Part IV Exposition in Psalmos, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Louvain, 1977 (selected pslams only)

Why you should read them

St Athanasius' letter on the interpretation of the psalms remains justly famous; whether or not these short and longer series commentaries are really by him remains a matter of academic debate however.

I'm still working through these, and this is a hard to obtain book, so possibly not worth recommending, but the commentaries do offer some great insights.  They largely follow in the tradition of Origen and Eusebius, but also draw on several other early Eastern Fathers.

I will look at some of the later commentaries in the next post.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Psalm commentaries: a guide (Pt 1)

I realised that is a long time since I have updated my set of notes on the various psalm commentaries by the Fathers, Doctors and Saints that are available, and thought that it might be an opportune time to do this over a few parts.

Where to start

I should, though, set out a few of my own views, so you know where I'm coming from.

First, I have to say that there is no one psalm commentary that I would recommend as your one and only source - they all have strengths and weaknesses, and you can get a lot out of many of them.

Secondly, in general, I'll stick to pre-twentieth century commentaries (though if I have time I'll mention a few more recent ones in a later part).  

I haven't found any satisfactory modern commentaries from a traditionalist point of view - the early twentieth century ones generally reflect an attitude to the Septuagint that has now been thoroughly discredited, while the more recent ones either mostly still reflect literary-historical approaches to Scripture that I  dislike, or have some dodgy theology embedded in them.

Thirdly, while there are a number of interesting and worthwhile medieval commentaries on the psalms now available in translation, such as those by St Thomas Aquinas, St Bruno, and Denis the Carthusian, personally, I don't think that these are good starting points from the point of view of understanding the use of the psalms in the Office.

Instead, I'd generally suggest focusing on the great patristic commentaries such as those of St Augustine, Ambrose, Basil, Jerome, Chrysostom and others.

That said, there are two more modern commentaries of note, namely that of St Robert Bellarmine and St Alphonsus Liguori that can be very useful early on in your voyage!

You have to start somewhere, so in this post I'll highlight a few of what I consider the best commentaries, and related resources, and then in subsequent posts I'll do a more systematic listing of Patristic, medieval, later commentaries plus a few collections of extracts.

1. St Ambrose: Commentary on Psalm 118


English: Ide Ni Rian trans, Halcyon Press, Dublin, 1998.

Latin and Italian: Commento al Salmo CXVIII, Luigi Franco Pizzolato (Introduction, translation, notes, Opera Omnia di Sant' Ambrogio commento al salmo 118, 2 vols, Biblioteca Amborisana citta' Nuova Editrice, 1987.

Latin only: Expositio de psalmo CXVIII

Why you should read it

I've included this book in the list because if ever see a copy, grab it. 

Even though it only covers one psalm (albeit by far the longest), if there is one patristic book on the psalms I would recommend reading above all others, this is it - it is an absolutely wonderful book with profound insights to offer on the virtue of humility (which the psalm centres on), the spiritual life, and much much more.  

St Ambrose's starting point was Origen's (now lost) commentary on the psalm, which was also independently translated by St Hilary of Poitier around the same time.  St Ambrose's version, though, is four times longer than St Hilary's, as it also incorporates a commentary on the Song of Songs, a guide to lectio divina and how to interpret Scripture more generally, and much more.

Unfortunately the English translation has long been out of print, rarely comes onto the market and is extremely expensive when it does.  I really really hope someone can negotiate the copyright to this (and ideally St Ambrose's other commentary on twelve psalms) and do a reprint...

2. St Robert Bellarmine, A Commentary on the Book of Psalms.


Ven John O'Sullivan (trans), Loreto Publications, 2003.

Online: St Robert Bellarmine

Why you should read it

I love this commentary because St Robert gets straight to the spiritual juice of the text, providing a lively commentary that draws heavily on the tradition, but also offers some new insights and focuses, spurred not doubt by the Reformation, but which remain particularly pertinent to our time.

If you can only buy one psalm commentary, or need a good starting point, this is the one I'd recommend.

The only downside to it is that it generally takes a fairly literal approach to the text, often ignoring many of the allegorical meanings that the Fathers emphasized, and that are, I think, important to understanding why certain psalms were said at particular hours and on particular days.  But it is a great foundational text all the same.

I've written more on it here and here.

3.  St Cassiodorus Explanation of the Psalms


English: P G Walsh (translated and annotated), Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, Ancient Christian Writers, 3 vols, Paulist Press, 1990. Online: Internet archive

Latin: Adriaen, Marc (ed), Magni Aurelii Cassiodori expositio psalmorum, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 97, 98, Turnhout: Brepols, 1958.

Why you should read it

This is a commentary that has grown on me over the years -  I initially found it a bit hard going, but I've come to appreciate it a lot more over time, and if you want a good starting point on Patristic interpretations of the psalms, reflecting the milieu that St Benedict would have been influenced by, then this is probably it.

Cassiodorus' commentary was written in the mid-sixth century, so is more or less contemporaneous to St Benedict, and was probably the single most read commentary (albeit under other names!) by monks up until the reformation.  There is, though, a certain irony in this, for St Benedict famously fled the teaching of classical grammar that Cassiodorus championed, and St Gregory the Great was none to convinced of the merits of Cassiodorus' attempts to wed classical methods to Scriptural interpretation. 

Nonetheless, it has proved immensely influential, and was written to instruct novices at his monastery of the Vivarium, so includes notes on grammatical structures employed in the psalms, as well as a lot of instruction on how to interpret Scripture generally, a commentary on the meaning of numbers in Scripture and much more. 

Cassiodorus claims to provide a distillation of St Augustine's (extremely long) commentary, but in reality it isn't that much shorter!  And while it is certainly heavily influenced by St Augustine, it draws on other sources as well, and is a genuinely original composition.

The format is also nice - each psalm has a brief introduction that says what it is about and provides notes on the psalm title, then verse by verse notes, and a conclusion on the lessons to be drawn from it.

You can read more on it here.

4.  St Augustine, Enarrations on the Psalms


English: Multiple (but be careful, some of them have been made very politically correct).

Online: New Advent (extracts only)

Why you should read it

St Augustine's is probably the greatest of all psalm commentaries.  And his work can be reread many times getting more out of it each time.

The 'enarrations' also includes extensive discourses on other books of Scripture, especially the Pauline epistles, since most of these were originally sermons preached either at Mass or the Office, and sparked off the texts used on that particular day.

The extracts on the New Advent site are a good way into this work, as the downside to it is that it is very long, with several different commentaries on some psalms - as a result it amounts to six volumes or more in translation, depending on which version you buy.

You can read more on it here and here.

5. St Alphonsus Liguori: The Divine Office Exposition of the Psalms and Canticles


English: PDF

Why you should read it

Arranged around the Roman Office cursus, the book provides a very short summary of the meaning of each psalm, and then notes on key words or selected verses as aids to understanding.

The notes on each psalm are very brief, but the summaries and translation notes are often a useful starting point all the same.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Traditional Benedictine Office Ordo - 2023-2024


This is to let you know that the Ordo for the coming liturgical year (starting from December) is now available for purchase on Lulu. in both paperback and PDF form.

Ordo for the Benedictine Office according to the '1962' books

As usual, the Ordo provides detailed instructions on the Office according to the General Calendar and Rubrics of the Benedictine Confederation, which I have, in the past, shorthanded as 1962.

But to be technically correct, they should perhaps be referred to as those of 1960, when they were approved  - or perhaps 1961, since they came into effect on 1 January 1961 (and later also published in the Monastic Breviary of 1963)!

The Monastic Calendar is broadly aligned to that of the 1962 Roman, but there are differences in both the feasts included, and the rubrics.

Contents of the Ordo

The core of the Ordo is a detailed guide to the seasons, days and feasts of the monastic Office as set out in the Monastic Diurnal published by St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, with cross-references to the Antiphonale Monasticum for those who wish to chant the Office (or follow podcasts of monasteries such as le Barroux). 

This year the Ordo also contains some quick reference guides to pages in the Diurnal for the day hours for reference purposes.

A new feature of this years Ordo is the inclusion of references to the Nocturnale Monasticum published by Le Barroux earlier this year.

Although the Ordo is primarily based around the General Calendar and rubrics for the Benedictine Confederation (with modifications permitted by more recent decrees such as Cum Sanctissima), the Ordo also contains cross-references to:

  • the 1962 Roman Extraordinary Form calendar of 1962 (where this differs to the Benedictine);
  • feasts specific to some monasteries and congregations, including the newer feasts of the 1975 Benedictine Congregation calendar;
  • pre-1962 practices revived by some monasteries, such as I Vespers for Saturday of Our Lady and Class II feasts, with rubrical notes to aid those following these;
  • older feasts, octaves and days removed from the 1960 calendar but revived by some monasteries;
  • selected feasts of saints canonised (or in the case of Benedictines, beatified) since 1962 for whom optional Class III feasts can be said; and
  • updated national calendars for the USA, Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand.
The liturgical calendar online

I have also made a liturgical calendar for the Benedictine Office according to the 1960 calendar with brief notes on the day hours, including the key page references for the Monastic Diurnal,  available on the Saints Will Arise Blog via the 'pages' widget at the top of the blog.

The version on the blog though, is the barebones version - if you want more detailed instructions on how to say the Office on feasts and special days, or notes on where Le Barroux, Gower and others follow alternative rubrics, you will need to consult the full Ordo!

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Book review: Latin Prayer by David Birch

This is a very belated review, for which my deepest apologies, of a book I flagged well over a year ago on the Saints Will Arise Blog, but which I think will be of interest to many readers.

David Birch, Latin Prayer Aspects of Language and Catholic Spirituality, Rivo Torto@Drouin: Pax et Bonum, 2022. $US 27.95 (paperback); also available on kindle.

Latin, private devotion and the liturgy

There is a growing genre of books that focus on the reasons for retaining both Latin, rather than using the vernacular, and the traditional forms of the liturgy, in the face of the antipathy to the tradition that led to the revolution in worship post-Vatican II, and is currently in high favour.

This book though, tackles the problem from a rather different perspective, namely the Latin language's importance in conveying the truths of the faith; its deep integration into the spiritual infrastructure of the Western Church; and its importance to the very nature of prayer in the Catholic tradition.

Although it draws on numerous liturgical texts, including the office hymns, psalms and more, its primary focus is actually the relevance of Latin to public and private devotional prayer.

It is also almost unique in that rather than being polemical in character, it is clearly both the product of lectio divina, and a potential source for it.

The book provides a rich source of liturgical, devotional and other material to meditate on from all ages of the Church's history, and is surely meant to be read slowly; savoured and pondered, rather than read right through quickly in one go.  

The problem of translation

A key focus of the book is the problems associated with trying to translate theologically dense concepts from Latin into English. 

For most of the Church's history, prayers, litanies, theological formulas were normally composed in Latin: capturing all of the nuances of them in a single English translation is virtually impossible.  

Early on the text, the book points out that most the translations in Missals and other sources do not even attempt to convey the underlying grammatical structures of the original, but rather focus on trying to convey the meaning in terms a person speaking today would understand. 

This leads to two key threads running through the book. 

Layers of meaning

First, Dr Birch, a retired academic linguist, provides a lot of explanation of the differences between the way the two languages work, and the alternative possible translations of many Latin prayers that should ideally co-exist in our minds as we read or pray them.  

There are of course quite a number of books that explore similar ground for students of Latin, but rather fewer that do so in an ecclesiastical context, or in such a systematic way. 

As such, the book will be extremely helpful for those with a knowledge of Latin but who want to gain a greater depth of understanding of it, as well as for those with little or Latin but who want to understand the way the language works in the context of the liturgy. 

And on this topic the book is also a very useful bibliography for liturgical Latin, which includes links where texts are available online.

The book will also, I think, hopefully serve to inspire those with no Latin to actually learn the language.

Retention of Latin as a liturgical and theological language

The second thread running through the book, though, is a plea, based on these issues, to retain Latin as the language of the church (regardless of the form of the Mass) since without it, the tradition is all too easily distorted.  

The book avoids entering into judgments on the reasons for the anti-Latin push, but the cynics amongst us (and that means pretty much all traditionalists these days) would say that that is precisely why so many church leaders today are intent on eradicating the use of Latin even in the Novus Ordo Mass. 

 How, after all, can one possibly justify so many novel propositions if people are constantly assailed with traces of the tradition!

The spiritual infrastructure of the church

The second, and perhaps equally important theme of the book is that the liturgy - in the form of the Mass, Office and sacraments - does not exist in isolation from either public devotional or private prayer, rather it is part of a much broader spiritual infrastructure that also needs to be preserved.

Litanies and other prayers, the book argues, provide important distillations of theological truths that both build on and support our understanding of the liturgy and faith more generally, and we need to pay deep attention to them.

Prayer and 'grammar'

The third key theme, and perhaps the most difficult for the non-linguist (such as myself!) to grasp, is on the nature of prayer, where Dr Birch categorizes types of prayer not by their purpose (thanksgiving, intercession, etc), but by linguistic, functional categories.

The terminology used - nominative prayer, vocative prayer, sociative prayer and so forth - though sometimes requiring some effort to grasp, need not necessarily be a barrier, since they are all carefully explained.  

And there certainly is some value, I think, to be gained from thinking about analysing prayer from a linguistic perspective, though these categories wouldn't be my ultimate choice for regular use.

Competing approaches to exegesis and contemplation

That said, the book's emphasis on grammar and textual analysis as a way to prayer and contemplation (albeit not with these particular grammatical categories) is not entirely novel: as the book points out, an emphasis on the tools of the linguist to draw out meaning has a long genealogy in the Church, going back to influential writers such as Origen amongst others.

But it has to be said that the emphasis on grammatical analysis, even if only as a starting point for exegesis, has long been the subject of considerable debate, with the pendulum swinging back and forth, both within the Benedictine Order and more widely in the Church. 

St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus, for example, sought desperately to preserve the Classical grammatical  tradition in his Monastery of the Vivarium, but St Gregory the Great was directly critical of his approach, instead lauding St Benedict's rejection of the liberal arts, and proclaiming that the Bible was superior to the rules and analytical methods of the grammarians.

My own perspective is that while this type of analysis can certainly provide a useful starting point, it shouldn't be an end-point - and personally I see more gain from the study of typological and other allegorical approaches to meaning in Scripture and liturgy than deep grammar. But that is just my own personal preference!

Moreover, the book provides a rich selection of hymns, litanies, prayers, Magisterial documents, Scriptural and other liturgical texts that will be useful fodder for lectio divina, and the dimensions of them drawn out in the text will certainly repay the reader's effort.

It is worth noting too, that the royalties from the book go to Colebrook (Notre Dame) Priory, a traditional Benedictine foundation in Australia.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Book alert: Jewel of the Soul by Honorius Augustodunensis

Augustodunensis, Honorius, Jewel of the Soul, Zachary Thomas and Gerhard Eger (ed and trans), 2 vols, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 2023 (US $34 per volume).

I wanted to alert readers, in case you haven't already come across it, to the availability of a newly published translation of a wonderful twelfth century commentary on the liturgy, Jewel of the Soul.

Jewel of the Soul (Gemma Animae) is one of a number of medieval liturgical commentaries which now becoming more accessible through either Latin editions or translations (or in this case both).  Others available in English include Dunbarton Oakes edition of Amalarius of Metz' On the Liturgy, and William Durand's Rationale (from the Corpus Christianorum in translation series).

Liturgy as Scriptural interpretation

Most of these texts share a common approach to the Mass and Office, namely that the liturgy is a form of Scriptural and theological interpretation, embodying deep symbolic meanings.

The traces of the idea that the various forms of the Office, for example, are not simply mechanistic constructions (as most twentieth century liturgists would suggest) but rather reflect particular theological ideas (and in the case of monastic offices, particular distinctive charisms) can be found in many early Patristic and monastic sources, as well as several Western and Eastern saints' lives.  

The fourth century pilgrim-nun Egeria, for example, commented on the particular aptness of the psalms chosen for the weekly Jerusalem Resurrection of Office which spanned Saturday night into Sunday morning. St Cyprian (and many others) provided assorted rationales for the timing of particular hours of the Office, and the number and choice of at least some of the psalms said at them.  And a number of early medieval saints lives from both the East and West draw attention to the reasons for the choice of particular forms of the Office and related psalm practices. 

Most of the surviving early descriptions of various forms of the Office though, such as the Rules of St Augustine, Shenoute, Caesarius of Arles, Benedict and the Master, are more concerned with providing instructions on what to say and when, rather than setting out a rationale for the particular choices made.

Jewel of the Soul

Jewel of the Soul, and other texts like it, then, represent later attempts to fill in this gap, and help the reader understand the deeper meanings implicit in the design of the liturgy.

Like Amalarius' wonderful work, Jewel of the Soul covers both the Mass and Office (as well as related topics), and while primarily focused on the Roman Office, includes quite a bit of commentary on the Benedictine.

Jewel builds on, but goes rather further than Amalarius in his allegorical explanations.  To illustrate this, here is an extract on the Benedictine Office (Bk I, ch 65, On the Monastic Cursus):

One may ask why St. Benedict ordered the hours for monks in a way that differs from the custom of the Church, and why the eminent pope Gregory approved this order with his authority. In my opinion, what is intended in this most wise distribution of the Psalms made by that man “full of the spirit of all the saints,” is that the contemplative life should be distinguished from the active life by office just as by habit, and by this privilege the observance of monastic discipline is to be commended. So St. Gregory, endowed with all wisdom, seeing that that “man full of God” had ordered all these things by this principle, duly confirmed them by his own authority. Though he altered the psalms, he ordered the office with the same meaning in mind. For because we work for six days in this life, just as mankind has worked for six ages in the vineyard, and just as we rest on the Lord’s day, so in the seventh age we will receive the denarius of eternal life. For this reason he is thought to have instituted the psalms of Prime for the six days of the week which tell of the just men], who worked in the Lord’s vineyard throughout six ages of the world, as if for various hours of the day (Matthew 20).

The particular allegorical meanings the Jewel ascribes to the liturgy are of course, entirely contestable: many will seem a stretch to modern minds!  Nonetheless, their spiritual value, I think, comes from helping us get into a mindset of meditating on the liturgy and all of its components.

The new translation

The new translation of the Jewel of the Soul can actually be found in draft form on the excellent Canticum Solomonis blog (though you will have to search for the sections covering the Office, as it is not well-indexed there), but having it in print form is a wonderful step forward. 

The Dumbarton Oaks editions are generally very nicely put together, and this is no exception.  They also have the enormous advantage of providing the Latin and English texts in parallel.

The limitations of the work are that it is not, unfortunately based on a critical edition, but rather largely based on a choice of one manuscript, and the text notes (provided at the end) identify most of the Scriptural references, but not (in the main) the other sources it draws on.  

But these are minor quibbles - I'd far rather have an accessible edition of the Latin (beyond Patrologia Latina) and translation of this and other similar works than wait  many more years for someone to map out variants in the seventy two or more surviving manuscripts! 

Please do consider buying it.

Monday, April 3, 2023

The design of the Benedictine Office and Thursday Vespers Part 4: Days of creation

In today's post, the focus is the days of creation, as Patristic interpretations of the 'fifth day' can, I think, provide a helpful interpretative lens for the psalms St Benedict placed on the fifth day of the week at Vespers. 

The Vespers hymns

The idea that there might be a connection between the of particular to each day of the week and the days of creation is at least implied by the set of hymns assigned to Vespers throughout the year, long attributed to St Gregory the Great.

Each of these hymns (with the exception of the hymn of Saturday), takes as its starting point the day of creation, and then includes some prayers and lessons linked to the particular day of creation.

The hymn for Thursday, for example, is Magnae Deus Potentiae, which in the English translation by Edward Caswell begins as follows:

Lord of all power, at whose command, the waters, from their teeming womb, brought forth the countless tribes of fish, and birds of every note and plume.

Who didst, for natures link’d in birth, far different homes of old prepare; sinking the fishes in the sea; lifting the birds aloft in air.

Lo! born of thy baptismal wave, we ask of thee, O Lord divine, keep us, whom thou hast sanctified in thy own blood, for ever thine.

 The psalms of the day and the days of creation

The idea that at least one of the psalms each day contains a reference to the relevant day of creation, though, is not obvious on a simple reading of the psalms with modern eyes.

There is, it is true, one quite literal references to the relevant day of creation in the Vespers psalms: Psalm 135, said on Wednesday at Vespers, contains a fairly straightforward paraphrase of the days of creation up to the fourth day in its litany:

Who made the heavens in understanding...Who established the earth above the waters...Who made the great lights...The sun to rule the day...The moon and the stars to rule the night...

One such reference alone though, could be simply coincidence.

In reality, there are, I believe, allusions to the relevant day of creation on each day at Vespers (Saturday excepted, since the seventh day has no evening in the Scriptural account).  

Most of these allusions, though, depend on the allegorical interpretations of the psalms beloved of the Fathers, but long been out of favour with modern exegetes.

The first group of such allusions depend on typological readings of inanimate events as symbolic, both following an established pattern, and foreshadowing something yet to come.   

Just as on day two of creation, God divided the firmament, separating the sky from the waters below it, for example; so too the Red Sea and river Jordan were divided at key points in salvation history, allowing the people to pass through, and pointing us to the sacrament of baptism.  And both these events are referred to in Psalm 113, said on Monday (feria secunda, or day two of the week) at Vespers in the Benedictine Office.

A second group of allusions depend on a purely allegorical interpretation of the days of creation in reference to people. 

St Ambrose, for example, drawing on St Basil the Great, made a connection between the gathering together of the waters into one place on the third day of creation, and the gathering together of Christians into the Church.  Psalm 132, said at Tuesday Vespers, with its reference to 'brothers living together as one' can be seen as reflecting exactly this typology.

 Day 5 of creation: fish, sea animals, birds

When it comes to the fifth day of creation, and the creation of sea creatures and birds, there are at least a few references in Psalm 138 that could perhaps be interpreted as typological references to the fifth day of creation, most notably in the verse 'If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea'.

This verse fits rather better though, if read in the light of the broader allegorical interpretation of the fifth day as a whole, and since most later interpretations of the day (including those of SS Basil, Ambrose and Augustine) were heavily influenced by that of Origen, so I start from his sermon on the topic to tease out the basic approach and concepts.

Sea creatures and birds as good and evil thoughts

Origen introduced his commentary by arguing that at the allegorical level, the creation of sea creatures and birds is akin to bringing our thoughts, both good and evil, out into the open:

According to the letter "creeping creatures" and "birds" are brought forth by the waters at the command of God and we recognize by whom these things which we see have been made. But let us see how also these same things come to be in our firmament of heaven, that is, in the firmness of our mind or heart.  

I think that if our mind has been enlightened by Christ, our sun, it is ordered afterwards to bring forth from these waters which are in it "creeping creatures" and "birds which fly," that is, to bring out into the open good or evil thoughts that there might be a distinction of the good thoughts from the evil, which certainly both proceed from the heart. For both good and evil thoughts are brought forth from our heart as from the waters. 

Creeping creatures of the sea, he goes on to suggest, represent our evil thoughts and actions; the birds our thoughts when we flee from temptation and sin towards heaven, and thus escape the snares set for us by the devil.

It is noteworthy then, that the three of Thursday Vespers all contain references to both good and evil thoughts, and our hearts and minds.

Psalm 138 opens with the recognition that God scrutinises the psalmist's thoughts, and concludes with his condemnation of all evil ones; Psalm 139 focuses on the evil plans concocted in the 'hearts' of evildoers; and Psalm 140 includes pleas for God to guard our hearts from the temptation to evil in Psalm 140.

God's scrutiny and guidance

The allegorical connections, though, go deeper than this, for Origen goes on to argue that the reason that these things are brought forth is firstly so that we can place our thoughts before God, and obtain his guidance and judgment in order to separate the good from the evil:

 But by the word and precept of God let us offer both to God's view and judgment that, with his enlightenment we may be able to distinguish what is evil from the good, that is, that we may separate from ourselves those things which creep upon the earth and bear earthly cares... I think impious thoughts and abominable understandings which are against God are indicated in those great whales. All of these, nevertheless, are to be brought forth in the sight of God and placed before him that we may divide and separate the good from the evil, that the Lord might allot to each its place...

This idea is surely reflected also in several verses of Thursday's psalms. Psalm 138, for example, concludes:

Prove me, O God, and know my heart: examine me, and know my paths. And see if there be in me the way of iniquity: and lead me in the eternal way

Similarly, Psalm 140 contains pleas to help the psalmist stay on the right track, and for him to be corrected when he falls off it, and avoid pride, in contrast to the fate of those false judges, dashed against the rocks.

Note then, the final verse of Thursday's Vespers hymn:

Ut culpa nullum déprimat: Nullum levet iactántia: Elísa mens ne cóncidat: Eláta mens ne córruat.

Caswell's translation of it reads:

Safe from all pride, as from despair; Not sunk too low, nor raised too high: Lest raised by pride, we headlong fall; Sunk in despair, lie down and die.” 

We grow through adversity

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Origen's analysis is his discussion of how God could say that the creations of the day 'were good' if the things created represent evil thoughts as well as good.  

The answer he supplies is that we grow in holiness by facing up to and overcoming adversity:

But someone asks how the great whales and creeping creatures are interpreted as evil and the birds as good when Scripture said about all together, "And God saw that they were good." Those things which are opposed to the saints are good for them because they can overcome them and when they have overcome them they become more glorious with God. Indeed when the devil requested that power be given to him against Job, the adversary, by attacking him, was the cause of double glory for Job after his victory. What is shown from the fact that he received double those things which he lost in the present is that he will, without doubt, also receive in the same manner in the heavenly places. 

And the Apostle says that "No one is crowned except the one who has striven lawfully."" And indeed, how will there be a contest if there not be one who resists? How great the beauty and splendor is of light would not be discerned unless the darkness of night intervened. Why are some praised for purity unless because others are condemned for immodesty? Why are strong men magnified unless weak and cowardly men exist? If you use what is bitter then what is sweet is rendered more praiseworthy. If you consider what is dark, the things which are bright will appear more pleasing to you. And, to put it briefly, from the consideration of evil things the glory of good things is indicated more brilliantly. 

The three psalms of Thursday Vespers, I would suggest, all echo this theme strongly, in dwelling on the persecution of, and traps set for the good.

Indeed, St Augustine stretches the analogy even further to suggests that God's instruction to multiply and increase can be indirectly linked to the multiplication of sins that necessitated Christ's Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection:

Here we should, of course, note that God blessed those animals, when he said, “Increase and multiply, and fill the waters of the sea, and let the flying things multiply above the earth.”  For, from the time of their dispersal among the nations, the nation of the Jews really grew greatly in number. The evening of this day, that is, of this age, is the multiplication of sins among the people of the Jews, who became so blind that they could not recognize even the Lord, Jesus Christ

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Psalm 140 v 11: Christ in his Passion

 The final verse of Psalm 140 reminds of the certainty of God's justice. 

Looking at the Latin



Cadent in retiáculo ejus peccatóres: * singuláriter sum ego donec tránseam.


cadent in retiaculo eius peccatores singulariter sum ego donec transeam.


Cadent in retiacula sua peccatores simul, ego autem ultra pertranseam.



Incident in rete eius impii simul: ego autem transibo.



πεσοῦνται ἐν ἀμφιβλήστρῳ αὐτοῦ ἁμαρτωλοί κατὰ μόνας εἰμὶ ἐγὼ ἕως οὗ ἂν παρέλθω

[Key: V=Vulgate; OR=Old Roman; NV=Neo-Vulgate; JH=St Jerome's translation from the Hebrew; Sept=Septuagint]

St Jerome's translation captures the Masoretic Text sense of the text, that once they have been caught in their own traps, I can pass on.  The Septuagint version, though, which says I am alone until I pass, was given a Christological interpretation by the Fathers, so should not lightly be dismissed.

 Phrase by phrase

Cadent in retiáculo ejus


singuláriter sum ego

donec tránseam.

[they] shall fall in his net:

The wicked

I am alone

until I pass.

 Word by word 

Cadent (they shall fall) in retiáculo (in the net) ejus(their) peccatóres (sinners): singuláriter (alone) sum (I am) ego (I) donec (until) tránseam (I have passed on by [safely]) . 

Key vocabulary 

cado, cecidi, casum, ere 3  to fall, esp. in battle; to bow down, fall down, prostrate one's self; to happen, fall, befall.
retiaculum i n a net
singulariter, adv.  alone, only
donec, conj., till, until
transeo, ivi and ii, itum, ie,  pass by, on, or away visit, to go to a place; to pass over as waves; to go through, 

Selected translations 


The wicked shall fall in his net: I am alone until I pass.


Sinners shall fall by their own net: I am alone until I shall escape.


Let the sinners be caught in their own net: whilst I alone shall pass unharmed.


Let the wicked together fall into their own nets, while I escape.


Let the ungodly fall into their own nets together, and let me ever escape them.


Into their own net, sinner upon sinner, may they fall, and I pass on in safety.


Let the wicked fall into the traps they have set while I pursue my way unharmed.

  [Key: DR=Douay-Rheims Challoner; MD=Monastic Diurnal; RSV=Revised Standard Version; Cover=Coverdale]

God's net

The first half of the verse is a statement that justice will ultimately prevail.  As Theodoret put it:

The sinners will fall in his net, that is, God's: those who set traps for others will be caught up in divine retribution like a kind of netting, will have to bear whatever they commit, and will suffer what they inflict on others. 

There is in this life, though, always hope of conversion, and so St John Chrysostom interprets the net to be more all-encompassing:

Whose net will they fall into? God's very own. That is to say, they will be snared, they will be caught: the righteous, to the point of correction and awakening their sound values; sinners, suffering incurable ailments as they are, to the point of punishment and retribution. 

Preserving our souls until we reach our true home

The sense of the second half of the verse is, according to St Robert Bellarmine, that by observing the precepts listed out in the psalm - shunning worldly gatherings, and keeping guard of heart, mind and words and so forth - we will eventually pass over into our true home, heaven:

 I will keep aloof from the whole world, until I should have passed all snares and stumbling blocks. Though I may be kept an exile for a time in this world, I will not belong to it. “I am alone,” until I shall have passed to my country, where I shall have no shares or stumbling blocks to encounter.

Christ reopens the way 

The final phrase, though, surely refers above all to Christ in his Passion, as St Augustine pointed out: 

Pascha, as they say who know, and who have explained to us what to read, means Passover. When then the Lord's Passion was about to come, the Evangelist, as though he would use this very word, says, When the hour had come that Jesus should pass over to the Father.  We hear then of Pascha in this verse, I am alone, until I pass over. After Pascha I shall no longer be alone, after passing-over I shall no longer be alone. Many shall imitate me, many shall follow me...Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it die, it bears much fruit...



Psalmus David.

A psalm of David.

1 Dómine, clamávi ad te, exáudi me: * inténde voci meæ, cum clamávero ad te.

I have cried to you, O Lord, hear me: hearken to my voice, when I cry to you.

2  Dirigátur orátio mea sicut incénsum in conspéctu tuo: * elevátio mánuum meárum sacrifícium vespertínum.

2 Let my prayer be directed as incense in your sight; the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice.

3  Pone, Dómine, custódiam ori meo: * et óstium circumstántiæ lábiis meis.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: and a door round about my lips.

4  Non declínes cor meum in verba malítiæ: * ad excusándas excusatiónes in peccátis.

4 Incline not my heart to evil words; to make excuses in sins.

5  Cum homínibus operántibus iniquitátem: * et non communicábo cum eléctis eórum

With men that work iniquity: and I will not communicate with the choicest of them

6  Corrípiet me justus in misericórdia, et increpábit me: * óleum autem peccatóris non impínguet caput meum.

5 The just man shall correct me in mercy, and shall reprove me: but let not the oil of the sinner fatten my head.

7  Quóniam adhuc et orátio mea in beneplácitis eórum: * absórpti sunt juncti petræ júdices eórum.

For my prayer shall still be against the things with which they are well pleased: 6 Their judges falling upon the rock have been swallowed up.

8  Audient verba mea quóniam potuérunt: * sicut crassitúdo terræ erúpta est super terram.

They shall hear my words, for they have prevailed: 7 As when the thickness of the earth is broken up upon the ground:

9  Dissipáta sunt ossa nostra secus inférnum: * quia ad te, Dómine, Dómine, óculi mei: in te sperávi, non áuferas ánimam meam.

Our bones are scattered by the side of hell. 8 But to you, O Lord, Lord, are my eyes: in you have I put my trust, take not away my soul.

10  Custódi me a láqueo, quem statuérunt mihi: * et a scándalis operántium iniquitátem.

9 Keep me from the snare, which they have laid for me, and from the stumbling blocks of them that work iniquity.

11  Cadent in retiáculo ejus peccatóres: * singuláriter sum ego donec tránseam.

10 The wicked shall fall in his net: I am alone until I pass.