Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Commentaries on the psalms: St Alphonse Liguori

Continuing my series on the major commentaries by the Fathers, Theologians and Saints on the psalms, this week a brief look at St Alphonse Liguori (1696-1787).

St Alphonse is best known as the founder of the Redemptorists, for his mariology and his moral theology.  But his psalm commentary, written specifically in the context of the Divine Office, is a useful contribution to the genre, summarising as he often does, the work of commentators close to his own time.

Life of the saint

But first, some background on his life, from a General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI given on 30 March 2011:

"Today I would like to present to you the figure of a holy Doctor of the Church to whom we are deeply indebted because he was an outstanding moral theologian and a teacher of spiritual life for all, especially simple people. He is the author of the words and music of one of the most popular Christmas carols in Italy and not only Italy: Tu scendi dalle stelle [You come down from the stars].

Belonging to a rich noble family of Naples, Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori [known in English as Alphonsus Liguori] was born in 1696. Endowed with outstanding intellectual qualities, when he was only 16 years old he obtained a degree in civil and canon law. He was the most brilliant lawyer in the tribunal of Naples: for eight years he won all the cases he defended. However, in his soul thirsting for God and desirous of perfection, the Lord led Alphonsus to understand that he was calling him to a different vocation. In fact, in 1723, indignant at the corruption and injustice that was ruining the legal milieu, he abandoned his profession — and with it riches and success — and decided to become a priest despite the opposition of his father.

He had excellent teachers who introduced him to the study of Sacred Scripture, of the Church history and of mysticism. He acquired a vast theological culture which he put to good use when, after a few years, he embarked on his work as a writer.

He was ordained a priest in 1726 and, for the exercise of his ministry entered the diocesan Congregation of Apostolic Missions. Alphonsus began an activity of evangelization and catechesis among the humblest classes of Neapolitan society, to whom he liked preaching, and whom he instructed in the basic truths of the faith. Many of these people, poor and modest, to whom he addressed himself, were very often prone to vice and involved in crime. He patiently taught them to pray, encouraging them to improve their way of life.

Alphonsus obtained excellent results: in the most wretched districts of the city there were an increasing number of groups that would meet in the evenings in private houses and workshops to pray and meditate on the word of God, under the guidance of several catechists trained by Alphonsus and by other priests, who regularly visited these groups of the faithful. When at the wish of the Archbishop of Naples, these meetings were held in the chapels of the city, they came to be known as “evening chapels”. They were a true and proper source of moral education, of social improvement and of reciprocal help among the poor: thefts, duels, prostitution ended by almost disappearing.

Even though the social and religious context of the time of St Alphonsus was very different from our own, the “evening chapels” appear as a model of missionary action from which we may draw inspiration today too, for a “new evangelization”, particularly of the poorest people, and for building a more just, fraternal and supportive coexistence. Priests were entrusted with a task of spiritual ministry, while well-trained lay people could be effective Christian animators, an authentic Gospel leaven in the midst of society.

After having considered leaving to evangelize the pagan peoples, when Alphonsus was 35 years old, he came into contact with the peasants and shepherds of the hinterland of the Kingdom of Naples. Struck by their ignorance of religion and the state of neglect in which they were living, he decided to leave the capital and to dedicate himself to these people, poor both spiritually and materially. In 1732 he founded the religious Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which he put under the protection of Bishop Tommaso Falcoia, and of which he subsequently became the superior.

These religious, guided by Alphonsus, were authentic itinerant missionaries, who also reached the most remote villages, exhorting people to convert and to persevere in the Christian life, especially through prayer. Still today the Redemptorists, scattered in so many of the world’s countries, with new forms of apostolate continue this mission of evangelization. I think of them with gratitude, urging them to be ever faithful to the example of their holy Founder.

Esteemed for his goodness and for his pastoral zeal, in 1762 Alphonsus was appointed Bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti, a ministry which he left, following the illness which debilitated him, in 1775, through a concession of Pope Pius VI. On learning of his death in 1787, which occurred after great suffering, the Pontiff exclaimed: “he was a saint!”. And he was not mistaken: Alphonsus was canonized in 1839 and in 1871 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. This title suited him for many reason. First of all, because he offered a rich teaching of moral theology, which expressed adequately the Catholic doctrine, to the point that Pope Pius XII proclaimed him “Patron of all confessors and moral theologians”.

In his day, there was a very strict and widespread interpretation of moral life because of the Jansenist mentality which, instead of fostering trust and hope in God’s mercy, fomented fear and presented a grim and severe face of God, very remote from the face revealed to us by Jesus. Especially in his main work entitled Moral Theology, St Alphonsus proposed a balanced and convincing synthesis of the requirements of God’s law, engraved on our hearts, fully revealed by Christ and interpreted authoritatively by the Church, and of the dynamics of the conscience and of human freedom, which precisely in adherence to truth and goodness permit the person’s development and fulfilment.

Alphonsus recommended to pastors of souls and confessors that they be faithful to the Catholic moral doctrine, assuming at the same time a charitable, understanding and gentle attitude so that penitents might feel accompanied, supported and encouraged on their journey of faith and of Christian life.

St Alphonsus never tired of repeating that priests are a visible sign of the infinite mercy of God who forgives and enlightens the mind and heart of the sinner so that he may convert and change his life. In our epoch, in which there are clear signs of the loss of the moral conscience and — it must be recognized — of a certain lack of esteem for the sacrament of Confession, St Alphonsus’ teaching is still very timely.

Together with theological works, St Alphonsus wrote many other works, destined for the religious formation of the people. His style is simple and pleasing. Read and translated into many languages, the works of St Alphonsus have contributed to molding the popular spirituality of the last two centuries. Some of the texts can be read with profit today too, such as The Eternal Maxims, the Glories of Mary, The Practice of Loving Jesus Christ, which latter work is the synthesis of his thought and his masterpiece.

He stressed the need for prayer, which enables one to open oneself to divine Grace in order to do God’s will every day and to obtain one’s own sanctification. With regard to prayer he writes: “God does not deny anyone the grace of prayer, with which one obtains help to overcome every form of concupiscence and every temptation. And I say, and I will always repeat as long as I live, that the whole of our salvation lies in prayer”. Hence his famous axiom: “He who prays is saved” (Del gran mezzo della preghiera e opuscoli affini. Opere ascetiche II, Rome 1962, p. 171).

In this regard, an exhortation of my Predecessor, the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II comes to mind. “our Christian communities must become genuine ‘schools’ of prayer…. It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning” (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, nn. 33, 34).

Among the forms of prayer fervently recommended by St Alphonsus, stands out the visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or as we would call it today, “adoration”, brief or extended, personal or as a community, before the Eucharist. “Certainly”, St Alphonsus writes, “amongst all devotions, after that of receiving the sacraments, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament takes the first place, is the most pleasing to God, and the most useful to ourselves…. Oh, what a beautiful delight to be before an altar with faith… to represent our wants to him, as a friend does to a friend in whom he places all his trust” (Visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin Mary for Each Day of the Month. Introduction).

Alphonsian spirituality is in fact eminently Christological, centred on Christ and on his Gospel. Meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation and on the Lord’s Passion were often the subject of St Alphonsus’ preaching. In these events, in fact, Redemption is offered to all human beings “in abundance”. And precisely because it is Christological, Alphonsian piety is also exquisitely Marian. Deeply devoted to Mary he illustrates her role in the history of salvation: an associate in the Redemption and Mediatrix of grace, Mother, Advocate and Queen.

In addition, St Alphonsus states that devotion to Mary will be of great comfort to us at the moment of our death. He was convinced that meditation on our eternal destiny, on our call to participate for ever in the beatitude of God, as well as on the tragic possibility of damnation, contributes to living with serenity and dedication and to facing the reality of death, ever preserving full trust in God’s goodness.

St Alphonsus Maria Liguori is an example of a zealous Pastor who conquered souls by preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments combined with behaviour impressed with gentle and merciful goodness that was born from his intense relationship with God, who is infinite Goodness. He had a realistically optimistic vision of the resources of good that the Lord gives to every person and gave importance to the affections and sentiments of the heart, as well as to the mind, to be able to love God and neighbour.

To conclude, I would like to recall that our Saint, like St Francis de Sales — of whom I spoke a few weeks ago — insists that holiness is accessible to every Christian: “the religious as a religious; the secular as a secular; the priest as a priest; the married as married; the man of business as a man of business; the soldier as a soldier; and so of every other state of life” (Practica di amare Gesù Cristo. Opere ascetiche [The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ] Ascetic Works 1, Rome 1933, p. 79).

Let us thank the Lord who, with his Providence inspired saints and doctors in different times and places, who speak the same language to invite us to grow in faith and to live with love and with joy our being Christians in the simple everyday actions, to walk on the path of holiness, on the path towards God and towards true joy. Thank you."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Comparing the Offices/3 - The psalmody that structures the hours: Matins and Lauds

I want to turn now, in my series comparing the various forms of the Office and the effects these differing forms have our spirituality, to the ways the hours are structured in terms of their psalmody.  As this is fairly long, I'll split it into a couple of sub-parts, so today, a look at Matins and Lauds.

One of the major differences between the various form of the Office is the number, structure and nature of each of the hours. This part of the series considers them one by one.

Matins aka Vigils

Matins was traditionally said in the darkness of the night. There was a strong symbolism to this which is entirely abolished in the modern “Office of Readings” that can be said at any time of the day.  The symbolism of light and darkness has a long history in the Office (reflecting Scripture), with the darkness symbolising both the long wait for the Messiah before Our Lord's incarnation, and our long wait for his Second Coming during which we must pray and hope, and light (celebrated at Lauds) the Resurrection.

Because Sunday was the day when the Resurrection was especially celebrated in the liturgy, the length of the Sunday Vigil has traditionally (until 1911 been longer than the weekday version of the hour.  One could speculate as to whether the abolition of the concept the concept of the longer Vigil for Sundays by Pope St Pius X paved the way for Saturday night so-called Vigil masses and other innovations that have served to undermine the proper keeping of the Lord's day. 

Originally, Matins, at least in its longer forms, was primarily a monastic hour, and the longer forms of the earlier Offices, such as the Benedictine, reflect that. It is useful to keep in mind that although the Office in general seems to have been something equally said by the laity, ascetics and priests in the early and medieval church, even then Matins or night prayer was regarded as something more appropriate to religious than the laity (see for example the description of Eastern Offices by the fourth century nun Egeria on her pilgrimage).

Even today, this view still holds in many places.   In traditional monasteries, the monks rise at hours such as 3.30am  to say the long form.  Abbot Lawrence of Christ in the Desert for example argues that this hour is absolutely crucial to the monastic vocation: "We can probably say, without much dispute, that Vigils is a defining office of the monk. The monk is a Christian who keeps vigil every day."   For this reason it has often been regarded as the most problematic hour for secular priests and the laity, the reason it has been progressively shortened over the years, and then abolished altogether at least as a Vigil.  This seems a rather extreme solution!  The various traditional 'short' Offices do include it, but with only three psalms said on a rotating basis.

The main differences between the various schemas are as follows:

  • In the earliest form of the Roman psalter it consisted of twelve psalms on weeknights, taken in order (save for a few moved to other hours), starting from Psalm 1 (on Sunday) to Psalm 108. The Sunday Office was double the length of other days;
  • St Benedict changed the Vigil Office significantly from his Roman model by adding two invitatory psalms to it (Ps 3&94); starting from Psalm 20 on Sunday instead of psalm 1 (allowing each days psalms to include some thematic groupings, though still finishing up at Psalm 108 on Saturday; splitting the longer psalms; and adding three canticles to Sunday rather than additional psalms;
  • the post-Trent Roman Office had 18 psalms on a Sunday, twelve on other days, plus Psalm 94 as an invitatory;
  • the 1911 Pius X psalter shortened the hour to nine psalms each night, with some of those split into several parts, and dropping the concept of the longer Office on Sunday. Though it still started with Psalm 1 on Sunday, it ended earlier, at Psalm 106 on Saturday, with the psalms previously said at Matins redistributed to Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline during the week;
  • the LOOH abolished the concept of the Vigil altogether and made it into an ‘Office of Readings’ (which has no historical basis whatsoever; the focus of the hour has always been the psalms not the readings), with three psalms that could be said at any time of the day.

Lauds traditionally has been regarded as a sister hour to Matins, said immediately after it. St Benedict’s Office is slightly unusual in this regard in that during the winter at least he assumes a substantial break between the two hours: the crucial thing for him was to ensure that Lauds started at first light, to take advantage of the full symbolism of the association between the coming of the light and the Resurrection.

Lauds actually takes its name from the three ‘Laudate’, or praising psalms (Ps 148-150) which traditionally ended the psalmody for this hour. In the pre-1911 Roman Office, many of its psalms were said every day, namely Psalms 62, 66, 50, 148-150. These repetitions, retained in the traditional Benedictine Office, are important, setting a proper pattern and balance for the day: those praying the Office daily ask the Lord’s blessing (Psalm 66), beg forgiveness for sins (Psalm 50) and gave praise to God (Psalm 148-150).

One could speculate, perhaps, as to whether the abandonment of the Miserere in particular as part of the priest’s daily regime might have contributed in a small way at least, to the path to the late twentieth century revolution, including the abandonment of traditional morality. The daily reminder of King David’s repentance for his sin with Bethsheba surely grounded the priest, both in his own life, and in his preaching.

The other possible effect on the spirituality of those saying the Office of the Pius X (and 1971 reforms) is the loss of the emphasis between man and creation as a whole. In its earlier forms, the psalms of Lauds all had direct and obvious allusions to the coming light/dawn/Resurrection, reminding us that we are part of the daily cycle of life God has instituted. And the psalmody for each day had the psalmist joining us to the praise of all created things in the Laudate psalms. Could the abolition of these connections in the Pius X Office have served to reinforce the alienation of man from creation promoted by the rise of technology and secularist attempts to supplant God? Personally, I tend to think so!

In any case the main differences between the various schemas is:
  • the older Roman Office’s variable component was one psalm (5, 42, 64, 89, 142, 91) and a canticle each day;
  • St Benedict’s version of the hour cut out one of the fixed psalms (Ps 66, said on Sundays only in his Office) and added an extra variable psalm each day except Saturday when the very long canticle was split in two (35, 56, 63, 75,) all of which both fit the dawn theme and contribute to broader themes associated with each day in the Benedictine Office. He also changed switched Psalm 142 from Friday to Saturday;
  • the Pius X revision of the psalter made all of the psalms variable (except in Lent when Psalm 50 is said each day), of necessity abandoning the criteria of references to the light/Resurrection in many cases, and utilizing several of the psalms traditionally said in the evening rather than the morning. The Laudate psalms no longer closed the hour;
  • the four week schema of the 1971 psalter assigns two psalms and a canticle each day. Several of the traditional psalms of the hour don’t make the cut.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

St Augustine on the Psalms/2

van Wassenhove, c1474
St Augustine had a great attachment to the psalms: he discovered them in the period between his conversion and his baptism while on retreat, and his enthusiasm continued right up until the end of his life: as he lay dying, he read the penitential psalms, which he had requested be written out in large writing and put on the wall of his room.

The psalm commentaries

St Augustine's Commentary on the Psalms is one of his major works, taking up to five volumes in modern editions, and were written over a period of thirty years starting from just after his ordination, between 390 and 422. 

They were originally given as sermons, as many of the comments in them make clear.  Pope Benedict XVI talked about it in his General Audience on the saint of 20 February 2008:

"The mass of homilies that he would often deliver "off the cuff", transcribed by tachygraphers during his preaching and immediately circulated, had a special importance in this production destined for a wider public. The very beautiful Enarrationes in Psalmos, read widely in the Middle Ages, stand out among them. The practice of publishing Augustine's thousands of homilies - often without the author's control - precisely explains their dissemination and later dispersion but also their vitality. In fact, because of the author's fame, the Bishop of Hippo's sermons became very sought after texts and, adapted to ever new contexts, also served as models for other Bishops and priests."

Old Latin translation of the Septuagint

St Augustine famously exchanged a rather heated correspondence with St Jerome (well, he was hardly unique in this, St Jerome was a man of strong opinions, unafraid of stating them forcefully indeed!) over whether to translate the Bible into Latin (amongst other topics) from the Septuagint or the Hebrew text of the time - St Jerome of course favoured the Hebrew, St Augustine the Greek.  St Jerome got his way for most of the Old Testament - but not in the case of the psalms.  St Augustine's commentaries of course, are not based on either of the Jerome translations, but from an older Latin translation of the Septuagint. 

The Christological focus of the psalms

The two greatest strengths of St Augustine's Commentary, in my view, are its strong Christological focus and their practicality.

His Commentary on Psalm 1, Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, for example states firmly that:

This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man. For He came indeed in the way of sinners, by being born as sinners are; but He "stood" not therein, for that the enticements of the world held Him not. He willed not an earthly kingdom, with pride, which is well taken for "the seat of pestilence;" for that there is hardly any one who is free from the love of rule, and craves not human glory... "the seat of pestilence" may be more appropriately understood of hurtful doctrine; "whose word spreadeth as a canker...

St Augustine does not over stretch the Christological interpretation of the psalms, and always grounds his interpretations in the original historical context of the psalm where this is clear.  But he draws out their meaning in the context of the whole of Scripture in a way that should serve as a model for our approach to the psalms today. 

A practical guide

Above all, though, his expositions are not just empty theology, but provide a deeply practical guide to the spiritual life.  Psalm 56, said at Lauds on Tuesday in the Benedictine Office, for example, is treated as a psalm on the Passion.  And saint's message is that it is intended to teach us how to pray.

On verse 1, for example,"Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me: for my soul trusts in you" he says:

"Christ in the Passion says, Have pity on Me, O God. To God, God says, Have pity on Me! He that with the Father has pity on you, in you cries, Have pity on Me. For that part of Him which is crying, Have pity on Me, is yours: from you this He received, for the sake of you, that you should be delivered, with Flesh He was clothed. The flesh itself cries: Have pity on Me, O God, have pity on me: Man himself, soul and flesh. For whole Man did the Word take upon Him, and whole Man the Word became. Let it not therefore be thought that there Soul was not, because the Evangelist thus says: The Word was made flesh, and dwelled in us. John 1:14 For man is called flesh, as in another place says the Scripture, And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Shall anywise flesh alone see, and shall Soul not be there?...You hear the Master praying, learn thou to pray. For to this end He prayed, in order that He might teach how to pray: because to this end He suffered, in order that He might teach how to suffer; to this end He rose again, in order that He might teach how to hope for rising again."

St Augustine is essential reading for anyone studying the psalms.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Commentaries on the psalms: St Augustine/1

c6th fresco, the Lateran
I want to continue my series providing some background on the key commentaries on the psalms by the Fathers, Saints and Theologians, by turning now to perhaps the greatest of them all, St Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day is this coming Sunday (though the celebration itself is displaced by the Sunday).

St Augustine's Psalm Commentaries

Of all the surviving traditional psalm commentaries around, St Augustine's remain, I would suggest, by far the most influential.  Substantial key extracts from St Augustine's extended Expositions on the Psalms are available in several places, including the wonderful New Advent site.  And there are also several modern translations of them available in print. 

But first, some background on the great Doctor of the Church.  Pope Benedict XVI gave several General Audiences on the saint in 2008.  Here is the first.

Life of St Augustine

"....I would like to return to the meditations on the Fathers of the Church and speak today of the greatest Father of the Latin Church, St Augustine. This man of passion and faith, of the highest intelligence and tireless in his pastoral care, a great Saint and Doctor of the Church is often known, at least by hearsay, even by those who ignore Christianity or who are not familiar with it, because he left a very deep mark on the cultural life of the West and on the whole world. Because of his special importance St Augustine's influence was widespread. It could be said on the one hand that all the roads of Latin Christian literature led to Hippo (today Annaba, on the coast of Algeria), the place where he was Bishop from 395 to his death in 430, and, on the other, that from this city of Roman Africa, many other roads of later Christianity and of Western culture itself branched out.

A civilization has seldom encountered such a great spirit who was able to assimilate Christianity's values and exalt its intrinsic wealth, inventing ideas and forms that were to nourish the future generations, as Paul VI also stressed: "It may be said that all the thought-currents of the past meet in his works and form the source which provides the whole doctrinal tradition of succeeding ages" (Inaugural Address at the Patristic Institute of the "Augustinianum", 4 May 1970; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 21 May 1970, p. 8). Augustine is also the Father of the Church who left the greatest number of works. Possidius, his biographer, said that it seemed impossible that one man could have written so many things in his lifetime. We shall speak of these different works at one of our meetings soon. Today, we shall focus on his life, which is easy to reconstruct from his writings, in particular the Confessions, his extraordinary spiritual autobiography written in praise of God. This is his most famous work; and rightly so, since it is precisely Augustine's Confessions, with their focus on interiority and psychology, that constitute a unique model in Western (and not only Western) literature—including non-religious literature—up to modern times. This attention to the spiritual life, to the mystery of the "I", to the mystery of God who is concealed in the "I", is something quite extraordinary, without precedent, and remains for ever, as it were, a spiritual "peak".

But to come back to his life: Augustine was born in Tagaste in the Roman Province of Numidia, Africa, on 13 November 354 to Patricius, a pagan who later became a catechumen, and Monica, a fervent Christian. This passionate woman, venerated as a saint, exercised an enormous influence on her son and raised him in the Christian faith. Augustine had also received the salt, a sign of acceptance in the catechumenate, and was always fascinated by the figure of Jesus Christ; indeed, he said that he had always loved Jesus but had drifted further and further away from ecclesial faith and practice, as also happens to many young people today.

St Augustine at the school of Tagast,
Gozzoli, c15th
Augustine also had a brother, Navigius, and a sister whose name is unknown to us and who, after being widowed subsequently became the head of a monastery for women. As a boy with a very keen intelligence, Augustine received a good education although he was not always an exemplary student. However, he learned grammar well, first in his native town and then in Madaura, and from 370, he studied rhetoric in Carthage, the capital of Roman Africa. He mastered Latin perfectly but was not quite as successful with Greek and did not learn Punic, spoken by his contemporaries. It was in Carthage itself that for the first time Augustine read the Hortensius, a writing by Cicero later lost, an event that can be placed at the beginning of his journey towards conversion. In fact, Cicero's text awoke within him love for wisdom, as, by then a Bishop, he was to write in his Confessions: "The book changed my feelings", to the extent that "every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom with an incredible ardour in my heart" (III, 4, 7).

However, since he was convinced that without Jesus the truth cannot be said effectively to have been found and since Jesus' Name was not mentioned in this book, immediately after he read it he began to read Scripture, the Bible. But it disappointed him. This was not only because the Latin style of the translation of the Sacred Scriptures was inadequate but also because to him their content itself did not seem satisfying. In the scriptural narratives of wars and other human vicissitudes, he discovered neither the loftiness of philosophy nor the splendour of the search for the truth which is part of it. Yet he did not want to live without God and thus sought a religion which corresponded to his desire for the truth and also with his desire to draw close to Jesus. Thus, he fell into the net of the Manicheans, who presented themselves as Christians and promised a totally rational religion. They said that the world was divided into two principles: good and evil. And in this way the whole complexity of human history can be explained. Their dualistic morals also pleased St Augustine, because it included a very high morality for the elect: and those like him who adhered to it could live a life better suited to the situation of the time, especially for a young man. He therefore became a Manichean, convinced at that time that he had found the synthesis between rationality and the search for the truth and love of Jesus Christ. Manicheanism also offered him a concrete advantage in life: joining the Manicheans facilitated the prospects of a career. By belonging to that religion, which included so many influential figures, he was able to continue his relationship with a woman and to advance in his career. By this woman he had a son, Adeodatus, who was very dear to him and very intelligent, who was later to be present during the preparation for Baptism near Lake Como, taking part in those "Dialogues" which St Augustine has passed down to us. The boy unfortunately died prematurely. Having been a grammar teacher since his twenties in the city of his birth, he soon returned to Carthage, where he became a brilliant and famous teacher of rhetoric. However, with time Augustine began to distance himself from the faith of the Manicheans. They disappointed him precisely from the intellectual viewpoint since they proved incapable of dispelling his doubts. He moved to Rome and then to Milan, where the imperial court resided at that time and where he obtained a prestigious post through the good offices and recommendations of the Prefect of Rome, Symmacus, a pagan hostile to St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

In Milan, Augustine acquired the habit of listening - at first for the purpose of enriching his rhetorical baggage - to the eloquent preaching of Bishop Ambrose, who had been a representative of the Emperor for Northern Italy. The African rhetorician was fascinated by the words of the great Milanese Prelate; and not only by his rhetoric. It was above all the content that increasingly touched Augustine's heart. The great difficulty with the Old Testament, because of its lack of rhetorical beauty and lofty philosophy was resolved in St Ambrose's preaching through his typological interpretation of the Old Testament: Augustine realized that the whole of the Old Testament was a journey toward Jesus Christ. Thus, he found the key to understanding the beauty and even the philosophical depth of the Old Testament and grasped the whole unity of the mystery of Christ in history, as well as the synthesis between philosophy, rationality and faith in the Logos, in Christ, the Eternal Word who was made flesh.

Augustine soon realized that the allegorical interpretation of Scripture and the Neo-Platonic philosophy practised by the Bishop of Milan enabled him to solve the intellectual difficulties which, when he was younger during his first approach to the biblical texts, had seemed insurmountable to him.

Thus, Augustine followed his reading of the philosophers' writings by reading Scripture anew, especially the Pauline Letters. His conversion to Christianity on 15 August 386 therefore came at the end of a long and tormented inner journey - of which we shall speak in another catechesis -, and the African moved to the countryside, north of Milan by Lake Como - with his mother Monica, his son Adeodatus and a small group of friends - to prepare himself for Baptism. So it was that at the age of 32 Augustine was baptized by Ambrose in the Cathedral of Milan on 24 April 387, during the Easter Vigil.

Baptism of St Augustine
Louis de Boulogne, 1702
After his Baptism, Augustine decided to return to Africa with his friends, with the idea of living a community life of the monastic kind at the service of God. However, while awaiting their departure in Ostia, his mother fell ill unexpectedly and died shortly afterwards, breaking her son's heart. Having returned to his homeland at last, the convert settled in Hippo for the very purpose of founding a monastery. In this city on the African coast he was ordained a priest in 391, despite his reticence, and with a few companions began the monastic life which had long been in his mind, dividing his time between prayer, study and preaching. All he wanted was to be at the service of the truth. He did not feel he had a vocation to pastoral life but realized later that God was calling him to be a pastor among others and thus to offer people the gift of the truth. He was ordained a Bishop in Hippo four years later, in 395. Augustine continued to deepen his study of Scripture and of the texts of the Christian tradition and was an exemplary Bishop in his tireless pastoral commitment: he preached several times a week to his faithful, supported the poor and orphans, supervised the formation of the clergy and the organization of mens' and womens' monasteries. In short, the former rhetorician asserted himself as one of the most important exponents of Christianity of that time. He was very active in the government of his Diocese - with remarkable, even civil, implications - in the more than 35 years of his Episcopate, and the Bishop of Hippo actually exercised a vast influence in his guidance of the Catholic Church in Roman Africa and, more generally, in the Christianity of his time, coping with religious tendencies and tenacious, disruptive heresies such as Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism, which endangered the Christian faith in the one God, rich in mercy.

And Augustine entrusted himself to God every day until the very end of his life: smitten by fever, while for almost three months his Hippo was being besieged by vandal invaders, the Bishop - his friend Possidius recounts in his Vita Augustini - asked that the penitential psalms be transcribed in large characters, "and that the sheets be attached to the wall, so that while he was bedridden during his illness he could see and read them and he shed constant hot tears" (31, 2). This is how Augustine spent the last days of his life. He died on 28 August 430, when he was not yet 76. We will devote our next encounters to his work, his message and his inner experience. "

Simone Martini, c1320-5

Monday, August 22, 2011

Comparing the Offices/2: why the psalms in a week?

I want to continue my series comparing the various orderings of the psalms used in the Divine Office with a look at how frequently they are said in the various psalm schemas.

And I want to suggest with a fairly controversial proposition: that the idea that all of the psalms should be said once a week (and as far as possible, only once a week), is essentially a twentieth century invention, at least so far as the Western Church is concerned. 

The more traditional idea, I would argue is for a much more repetitive and, contemplative monks aside, selective psalter scheme.

Origins: psalms in scriptural order

The question of how frequently the psalms should be said, and how a one week distributions of the psalms came to be standard in the Church, has not, as far as I can find, unduly preoccupied modern liturgists, who have been more intent on attempting to generate rationalisations for spreading the psalms over as long a period as possible, such as the current four week schema for the liturgy of the hours.

Nonetheless, they are right I think in suggesting that in the earliest forms of the Office, the idea of a one week distribution of the psalms was not the norm.  Instead the assumption was that monks would say the psalms much more frequently than once a week - even up to once a day in extreme cases, as St Benedict suggests in his Rule - while clerics and the laity would say a much smaller selection of nearly the same psalms everyday. 

The typical monastic pattern, even after St Benedict, was to start at Psalm 1, say the psalms in order, and keep going until you reached the end then start again, regardless of what day of the week it was.  The times of prayer and number of responsories and other prayers might be fixed, but the number of psalms and/or which day they were said was not.

Allocating psalms to particular hours

By contrast to the Scriptural 'running cursus' system, in the fourth century and later 'cathedral' Offices, for example, the psalms used at the day hours started to become relatively fixed.  In the old Roman Office, for example, which St Benedict in turn adapted in his Office, Psalms 1-108 were allocated to the night Vigil and morning hours, and psalms 109-147 to the day and evening hours.  In addition, particular groupings of psalms, such as the last three 'Laudate' psalms became associated with particular hours, in the case of Psalms 148-150, Lauds.

The two competing traditions - the monastic and the Cathedral - reflect differing principles of selection.  Monks, who said all of the psalms frequently, could be expected to pause and ponder the more important psalms as they needed to.  Those who had less time to allocate to the task had to focus on the more important psalms: for while all Scripture is preserved for our benefit, not all Scripture is equally important for our spiritual life.  Moreover, many of the psalms deal with similar themes, and duplicate verses or even whole sections of the text.

For these reasons, there doesn't seem to have been a presumption, at least until the middle ages, that anyone other than monks could or would say all of the psalms over some particular period.  In the early Roman cathedral office for example:
  • Lauds had only one variable psalm and canticle each day (the Benedictine Office added an extra variable psalm in);
  • Prime consisted of Psalm 53 and sections of Psalm 118 each day except Sunday (when Psalm 117 was substituted in), whereas in the Benedictine Office Prime works through psalms 1-19;
  • Terce to None were the same each day, with sections of Psalm 118 (St Benedict spreads Psalm 118 over Sunday and Monday, then substitutes in the first nine of the gradual psalms for the remaining days); and
  • Compline was always Psalms 4,90 and 133, as for the Benedictine Office. 
Clerics and the laity did join in with the variable Office of Vespers, but according to contemporary reports, the remaining psalms were said only by the monks and/or nuns who maintained the night vigil on behalf of all. 

And in fact, even once psalm schemas became standardized, this pattern persisted in diluted form through much of the Middle Ages.  Although the Benedictine Office, for example, is arranged on a one week cycle, it has many repetitions so that in fact the monk or nun traditionally says some 247 psalms each week.  But the laity typically used much shorter Offices, participating in the day hours of the Roman Office (Lauds and Vespers had variable psalms, but Prime to None and Compline were the mostly the same each day), or short Offices such as the Little Office of Our Lady and the Office of the Dead, both of which use the same psalms for the day hours everyday, with a three day rotation of psalms for Matins.

The Benedictine Revolution

St Benedict's (480-547) one week schema for the Office, set out in his Rule, is thought to have borrowed heavily from the Office used by both clerics and religious in Rome in his time (indeed, rather than listing out the canticles to be used at Lauds, he simply specifies the one's customary in the Roman Church).

St Benedict's schema, though it clearly did have early fans, seems to have taken a long time to become widely accepted in monastic practice: most of the surviving evidence for the continuation of his Rule in the period immediately after his death is for 'mixed-rule' monasteries, where his general prescriptions were combined with a much more intensive liturgical regime.  Indeed, St Columbanus (540-615) was positively scathing about monks who said a mere twelve psalms, as St Benedict prescribed, at the night vigil: his own rule prescribed 36 at night on weekdays, increasing to 75 on Saturdays and Sundays in winter! 

Even after the Benedictine Rule's provisions became the monastic norm in the West as a result of the Carolingian reforms, monks were expected to say many extra psalms in the additional devotional offices that became the norm.

No wonder then that St Benedict's throwaway line in his Rule allowing for alternative distributions of the psalter, providing that all of the psalms are said at least once a week, gained no traction at all until the nineteenth century. 

Offices of the saints

The other complicating factor to keep in mind is the development of special Offices for feasts and the saints.  St Benedict's Rule actually prescribes that on saints days the structure of the Office should be as for Sunday (ie an extended Vigil), but the actual psalms to be said those of the day of the week.  But in fact in both the Roman and Benedictine Offices the psalms of the day came increasingly to be displaced by specific sets of psalms appropriate to the feast, or from the 'Commons' for particular types of saints or classes of feast, which in practice drastically reducing the variety of psalms said, even for those nominally saying the full Office, rather than one of the abbreviated versions such as the Office of Our Lady. 

Indeed, one of the primary aims of  Pope Pius X's 1911 reforms of the Breviary was to drastically prune back the displacement of the regular psalter by feasts.

So where did the idea of a one-week distribution come from?

Throughout the Middle Ages a number of different psalm schemas competed, including the short one, two and three day devotional Offices, as well as the two week schema of Milan. Still, the two dominant ones were the one week distributions of St Benedict and the Roman Office.

Professor Dobszay, in his reflections on the Bugnini reforms of the psalter, has suggested that the reason for settling on a week rotation is the tie in with the seven days of creation.  It is certainly true that several of the modern Vespers hymns do contain allusions to the respective days of creation, but the allocation of these hymns to the particular days are actually a (relatively) recent development.  None of the recent histories of the Office point to any patristic or medieval discussions of this link as far as I could find (though do point me to them if they exist!) though. Nor is there any obvious allocation of psalms pertinent to each day of creation to particular days of week in the older Roman Office at least. 

Nonetheless, the idea is certainly plausible, and in fact, I do think at least some allusions to the days of creation can be found in the ordering of the Benedictine Office, albeit 'Christianized' so that Sunday rather than Saturday becomes the day of rest, when we reflect on the goodness of creation; Monday focuses on the first day of creation, including of light, opening with Psalm 32 on the role of the Word in creation, and in Psalm 35 which St Benedict added to Lauds, in the section of Psalm 118 that starts at Terce (Lucerna...); on Tuesday there is a strong focus on the city of Jerusalem (the day starts with the first of the 'songs of Sion', Psalm 45, and features the Gradual Psalms during the day and at Vespers), a focus on heaven, created on the second day; and so forth. 

Still, even if there is such a tie in, it doesn't really explain why all the psalms should be said in the course of a week.  Though perhaps there was thought to be a link to the mystical function of liturgy in the maintenance of the cosmos, and the book of Psalms. 

Practical reasons?

In reality one can't help suspecting that the real origin of weekly psalter schemas is both practically and spiritually based: psalms said every day are easy to memorize and keep in mind.  At a week's remove it is still possible to say them from memory without too many errors creeping in, though having a large proportion of the psalms repeated within the week makes this easier.  A weekly psalter serves to both emphasize the importance of the messages contained in the repeated psalms by keeping them top of mind, and reduces the memory workload on the brain! And in age where books were scarce and extremely expensive, these were important considerations. 

At a month's remove however, as for the Liturgy of the Hours, the chances of memorizing and keeping key psalm messages top of mind must surely greatly diminish, if not become all but impossible.

The beginning of the wreckovations?

In fact the psalter schemas that are designed around the idea of saying all of the psalms once a week, only once a week, one quickly suppressed sixteenth century experiment aside, in fact mostly date from the nineteenth century onwards. 

In 1842 the Hungarian Maurist Congregation took up the opt-out clause in St Benedict's Rule and designed a one week psalter that eliminated most repetitions.   The 1979 Benedictine 'Thesauris' similarly offers a one week arrangement that differs from St Benedict's as an option, and number of monasteries have adopted it in order to follow the Roman Rite suppression of the hour of Prime.

The most drastic and dramatic reorganization of the traditional psalter prior to Vatican II though, that set the precedent for the 1971 Liturgy of the Hours, was the thoroughly anti-traditional reform of Pope Pius X in 1910, reflected still in the Roman 1962 breviary.  

The governing principle of Pope Pius X's reform was to say each of the psalms at least once a week, and to reduce the overall load on those bound to say the Office.  The objective was perhaps noble.  In the process though, his breviary jettisoned the traditional allocations of psalms to morning and day; implied that all of the psalms were equally important (or unimportant as the case may be!); largely destroyed the particular character of many of the hours, particularly the Resurrection focus of Lauds and the short and sharp focus of the little hours; and completely revamped Compline by giving it variable psalms. 

And in the wake of Pope Pius X's reforms, further innovations occurred, most notably revamps of the Little Office of Our Lady occurred to allow (or require) religious sisters who had previously said a much more limited selection of psalms of that Office to say the whole 150 over two weeks.  And thus was the path set to Vatican II's wholesale wreckovation of the psalter.  But I'll come back to these issues in due course...

Notes:  For my discussion I'm primarily drawing on the following sources, though my ultimate conclusions do differ significantly from the authors in some cases:

Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church A Study of the Origin and Early Development of the Divine Office, Wipf and Stock: Eugene, Oregon, 1981, republished 2008

Laszlo Dobszay, “Critical Reflections on the Bugnini Liturgy: The Divine Office”, 1983 PDF available from

Marilyn Dunn, Mastering Benedict: Monastic Rules and Their Authors in the Early Medieval West”, English Historical Review 105 No. 416 (1990): 567-594 and “The Master and St Benedict: A Rejoinder”, English Historical Review, 107 No. 422 (1992): 104-111.

Theo Keller, "Short" Breviaries of 2oth and 21st Century America, keller book

Ruben M Leikam, “The Liturgy of the Hours in the Roman Rite”,  in Handbook for Liturgical Studies Liturgical Times and Space, Anscar J Chupungco ed, A Pueblo Book, Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2000.

Alcuin Reid in The Organic Development of the Liturgy The Principles of Liturgical Reform and their Relation to the Twentieth Century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council, St Michael’s Abbey Press: Farnborough, 2004.

Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, Second Revised Edition, 1993, The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota, Second Revised Edition 1993

Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB, The Rule of Saint Benedict A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary, trans John Baptist Hasbrouck, Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1983.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lectio notes on the Propers: Psalm 24 (25), Offertory

St Albans Psalter, c12th

Today's meditation notes focus on the Offertory for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Ad te Domine levavi.

This text actually gets several runs at Mass during the liturgical year: as an Offertory it is also used on the first Sunday of Advent, the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, on Wednesday during the second week of Lent; the text also gets a few runs as an Introit and in a tract.

A paradoxical text

The opening verse of the Offertory, 'Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam', or 'To you, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul', actually seems at first blush an odd choice to go with a Gospel that honours keeping one's eyes looking at the ground, as St Benedict instructs in his Rule, to show one's humility, in contrast to the over-bold Pharisee.

But in fact the line reflects the idea that the just man lifts up his soul, conscious of his sinfulness, rather than thinking, as some protestant sects do, that once saved always saved!

The text then goes on to make the connection to the Gospel clearer, pointing to the fact that though the Pharisee may sneer at the publican now, in the future, when our hope is realized in heaven things will be different: 'Deus meus, in te confido' (My God, I put my trust), non erubescam, neque irrideant me inimici mei (let me not be ashamed, neither let my enemies laugh at me), etenim universi, qui te expectant non confundentur (for none of them that wait on you will be confounded). Our faith, in other words, may bring forth derision now, but we must persevere in the hope of ultimate vindication.

The verses of the Offertory point to the whole psalm...

The longer setting of the Offertory in the Offertoriale Triplex offers a few extra thoughts to consider: first a plea for God to direct us in truth and teach us (Dírige me in veritáte tua, et doce me: quia tu es, Deus, salutaris meus, et te sustínui tota die), and secondly to look down upon us and have mercy (réspice in me, et miserére mei Domine...).

The really key verse of this psalm though in the context of today's Gospel is one not actually included in the chant setting, namely, 'Vide humilitátem meam, et labórem meum: et dimítte univérsa delícta mea', or 'See my abjection and my labour; and forgive me all my sins'.

The message of today's Gospel, and of this psalm, is that the difference between the just and unjust man is acknowledgement of our continuing sinful state, and willingness to keep trying to do better. St Robert Bellarmine comments:

"...For, though a soul fearing God may be grievously afflicted, and take great pains in resisting concupiscence, still the just man falls seven times; and yet, from his fall, he may be proved to be just; because, at once, by his tears, his prayers, and his contrition, he quickly wipes away the filth and dirt into which he had incautiously fallen..."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Comparing Offices/1

I've been planning to make some comments about 'psalm cursus' or the running order of the psalms for various purposes, particularly in the Divine Office, and I've seen as couple of requests for psalter comparisons recently, so I've been spurred into action!

Psalm schemas and their effects

My primary interest is the construction of the traditional Benedictine Office (so please do jump in and comment, especially if you are more familiar with other forms of the office or disagree with my comments, questions and conclusions).  My premise is that the way the psalms are arranged so that we hear and/or say them clearly affects how we interpret them, and thus how they affect us.  So my starting point is that the differing arrangements of the psalter affect our spirituality.

The practice of rearranging the psalms into particular groupings and orders is ancient.

In Scripture itself, there are both distinct groupings of psalms arising from their use for particular purposes (such as the 'Gradual Psalms' and 'Hallel Psalms' which both had a place in traditional Jewish liturgy), and an overall ordering which arguably reflects one or more editorial programs.  In addition, some of the ancient titles to the psalms include notes as to the particular day of the week they are associated with, presumably for liturgical purposes.

In the EF Mass the selected psalm verses have generally serve to reinforce or help interpret the messages implicit or explicit to a particular Sunday or feast.

In the Divine Office the number, length, content of particular allocated psalms can give that hour and day a distinctive character.  Indeed, many would suggest that the particular orderings of psalms, choice of repeated psalms and other such features contribute to the distinctive spirituality for the group using them, for example, peculiar to the various religious orders.

Some comparisons

In this series I plan make comparisons between five main orderings of the psalter (though I will make comments about others), namely:
  • the ancient Roman Psalter. And here I will primarily rely on the (speculative) reconstruction of the c5-6th century psalter included in Robert Taft's The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp136;
  • the Monastic schema as set out in the Rule of St Benedict.  This schema is used in the 'traditional' Benedictine Office for weekdays, although over the centuries the Benedictine Office has adopted additional psalm schemas for feasts;
  • the pre-1911 Roman Psalter  used from the Council of Trent to 1911;
  • the Pius X psalter that forms the basis of the 1962 Roman Office; and
So what are the nature of the differences?

I want to work through this rather systematically, so this series will stretch over several parts, but let me start by giving a bit of an overview.

Psalm schemas, it seems to me, differ in:
  • the timeframe in which the selected psalms are said - the Liturgy of the Hours (LOOH) is spread over four weeks, whereas the major pre-Vatican II schemas listed above rotate on a one week system;
  • how many 'hours' (sets of prayers) are said a day -  the pre-Vatican II norm was eight hours; Vatican II abolished the hour of Prime, and requires only one of Terce, Sext or None to be said;
  • which psalms are said - the Benedictine and older Roman forms of the Office use all 150 psalms from the Book of Psalms plus a number of additional 'canticles' (ie psalms from other books of the Bible).  The LOOH omits some psalms and many verses considered 'too hard' for modern readers, but adds in additional 'canticles';
  • whether psalms are divided or not - the pre-1911 Roman Office kept all psalms together regardless of length, whereas the Benedictine and other later Offices divided psalms for length and thematic reasons;
  • the number and length of psalms said at particular hours - Terce, Sext, None and Vespers in the Benedictine Office for example are much shorter than any of the older Roman variants, while Matins is much longer;
  • the extent to which psalms are repeated.  The older forms of the Office all included a number of repeated psalms.  The Benedictine Office for example actually involves saying 247 psalms (plus an additional 24 canticles) each week, not 150.  The various revisions of the Roman psalter have gradually reduced, and in the LOOH all but much eliminated, these repetitions;
  • the extent to which the days of the Office and/or particular hours have an underlying theme or program to them. 
What impact do these differing dimensions have on us?  Part 2 in this series can be found here.

Propers for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost/21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the 'propers' are not optional, they must be said or sung audibly.  In the Ordinary Form, though they notionally exist, they are generally omitted, drowned out by hymns.   Some are trying to change this however, so from this week I will include the psalms set for both forms of the Mass to assist in your preparation for Sunday Mass.

Propers for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

c11th German

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Ps 138; Rm 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20 (St Peter acknowledges Our Lord and is promised the keys)

Introit: Ps 85:1-4 (Inclina) Incline your ear to me, 0 Lord, and hear me; 0 God, save your servant who trusts in you; have mercy on me, 0 Lord, for unto you do I cry all the day. Gladden the soul of your servant, for unto you, 0 Lord, have I lifted up my soul.

Gradual:  Ps 91:2, 3 (Bonum est): It is good to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing in honour of your name, 0 Most High. To show forth your mercy in the morning, and your fidelity in the night.

Alleluia: Jn 6:64

Offertory: Ps 39: 2, 3, 4 (Expectans expectavi): With expectation I have waited for the Lord, and he has cast his look upon me; he has heard my supplication and he has put a new canticle into my mouth, a song to our God.

Communio: Ps 103:13-15 (De fructu): The earth will be satisfied by the work of your hands, 0 Lord, as you bring forth bread from the land and wine to gladden the heart of man; oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man's heart.

Propers for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:2-11; Luke 18:9-14 (pride of the pharisee vs the humility of the publican)

Introit: Ps. 54: 17, 18, 20, 23, 2

Cum clamárem ad Dóminum, exaudívit vocem meam, ab his qui appropinquant mihi: et humiliávit eos, qui est ante saecula: et manet in ætérnum: jacta cogitátum tuum in Dómino, et ipse te enútriet. Exáudi, Deus, oratiónem meam, et ne despéxeris deprecatiónem meam: intende mihi, et exaudi me.

When I cried to the Lord He heard my voice, from them that draw near to me: and He humbled them, who is before all ages, and remains for ever: cast thy care upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee. Hear, O God, my prayer, and despise not my supplication be attentive to me and hear me.

Gradual: Ps. 16: 8,2

Custódi me, Dómine, ut pupíllam óculi: sub umbra alárum tuárum protégé me. De vulto tuo judícium meum pródeat: óculi tui vídeant æquitátem.

Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of Thine eye: protect me under the shadow of Thy wings. Let my judgment come forth from Thy countenance: let Thine eyes behold the thing that is equitable.

Alleluia: Ps 64:2

Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion: et tibi reddétur votum in Jerúsalem
A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Sion: and a vow shall be paid to Thee in Jerusalem.

Offertory: Ps 24:1-3

Ad te, Dómine, levávi ánimam meam: Deus meus, in te confído, non erubéscam: neque irrédeant me inimíci mei: étenim univérsi qui te exspéctant, non confundéntur.

To Thee, O Lord, have I lifted up my soul: in Thee, O my God, I put my trust, let me not be ashamed: neither let my enemies laugh at me: for none of them that wait on Thee shall, be confounded.

Communio: Ps 50: 51, 21

Acceptábis sacrifícium justítiæ, oblatiónes et holocáusta super altáre tuum, Dómine.

Thou wilt accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and holocausts, upon Thine altar, O Lord.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

St Robert Bellarmine's Commentary on the Psalter/2

Yesterday I posted some material on the life of St Robert Bellarmine.  Today I want to give a few samples of his Commentary on the Psalms, from the translation by the Ven.  John O'Sullivan.

St Robert Bellarmine's Commentary is particularly helpful, I find, because it is firmly grounded in the tradition of the Church up to his time.  He frequently cites St Augustine and other patristic sources, is conscious of both the Vulgate/Septuagint traditions, but also of the Hebrew text variants.  Yet at the same time it has a distinctly more modern and engaging character than some of the medieval expositions.  Above all, St Robert provides a verse by verse exegesis that gets straight down to the juice to be squeezed out of the text for our spiritual advancement.

A contemplative

Though St Robert was a Jesuit, his commentary, though practical in orientation, is deeply contemplative in tone, something that helps make it extremely attractive to readers today.  Consider, for example, this take on the opening verse of Psalm 41 (42), 'As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after thee, O God':

"Love is a fiery affection, and, therefore, cannot be restrained, but breaks forth in words and sighs. To express his love somehow, David compares himself to a thirsty stag, say­ing, "As the hart panteth after the fountains of waters;" a most happy and expressive simile.

The stag is noted for four pecu­liarities. It is a deadly enemy to serpents, and constantly at war with them. When it is pursued by the hunters, it betakes itself to the highest mountains as quickly as possible. By some nat­ural instinct, they singularly carry out the advice of the apostle, "Bear ye each other's burdens;" for, according to St. Augustine, when they move in a body, or swim across a lake, the weaker ones rest their heads on the stronger, and are thus helped along. Finally, when they are tired after a combat with serpents, or a flight to the mountain, or from helping each other along, they seek to refresh themselves by copious droughts of water, from which they cannot be tempted or deterred.

Such is a most per­fect idea of the true lover of God. He has to wage a continued war against the serpents of his evil desires. When he is nigh overcome by temptation, or by persecutions, he flies away to the mount of contemplation, bears his neighbor's infirmities with the greatest patience, and, above all, thirsts ardently for God, from whom he will not be held back by any earthly hap­piness or trouble. Such was David, though a soldier; so was Paul, Peter, and the other apostles and martyrs; such were all who felt they were, while here below, in exile, and, through good and evil days, never lost sight of that country, the supreme object of their wishes."

A God who guides us individually

St Robert advocates an active role for the laity, most especially the cultivation of a deeply personal relationship with God through the sacraments, reading of Scripture, prayer and good works.  In his commentary on Psalm 94, said daily at Matins in the older forms of the Roman and Benedictine Offices, for example, he discusses the sources of guidance God provides for each of us individually in relation to the verse, 'If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts'.  He points to the conventional injunction to obey the commandments:

"...the Prophet exhorts God's people to praise God, not only by word of mouth, but also by their works. Now, the most agreeable sacrifice we can offer to God is the observance of his commandments, according to 1 Kings 15, "Doth the Lord desire holocausts and victims, and not rather that the voice of the Lord should be obeyed?"

But he points to other important sources of guidance as well:

"The word "if" seems to mean that God does not speak to us every moment, but that he advises in fitting time and place, either through his teachers, or through the reading of the Scriptures, or in some other mode to make his will known to us."

A counter to clericalism

One of the more notable features of the work is that throughout the text, the saint offers careful correctives to the excesses of clericalist authoritarianism.  In his remarks on the verse in the same psalm 'we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture', for example, on the one hand he stresses the importance of the pastors of the Church, but on the other he is conscious of the only too contemporary problem of false and unworthy priests, and stresses that God guides us each individually as well:

"...the Lord not only made us, but he governs us by a special providence, as a shepherd would the flock that belonged to himself....are not sheep devoid of reason, that need to be driven with a staff; and they are called the sheep of his hand, either because he made them, or because he guides them with his hand; for though God's people have shepherds and teachers to feed and to direct them, still he has a peculiar care for them, and does not let them suffer from the negligence or the ignorance, or even the malice of the pastors. Whence we infer that God's people should put great confidence in God, their supreme Pastor, and have recourse to him, through prayer, when they fall in with an unworthy pastor, for God himself says, "I will feed my sheep," Ezech. 34."

I hope this little taster will encourage you to acquire and read more of this great work.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Commentaries on the Psalms: St Robert Bellarmine

Continuing my series on commentaries on the psalms, if you can only afford to buy one, the commentary by St Robert Bellarmine SJ is the one I would recommend. 

The best commentary on the market?

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.

Although a good English translation is out of copyright, it isn't as far as I know, available online. 

So today, a little about St Robert Bellarmine, courtesy of a General Audience by Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year; tomorrow a taster extract of his work.

The life and work of St Robert

From a General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI, 23 February 2011:

"Born on 4 October 1542 in Montepulciano near Siena, he was the nephew, on his mother’s side, of Pope Marcellus II. He had an excellent formation in the humanities before entering the Society of Jesus on 20 September 1560. His philosophy and theology studies, at the Roman College in Padua and at Louvain, focused on St Thomas and the Fathers of the Church. They were crucial to his theological orientation.

He was ordained a priest on 25 March 1570 and for a few years was professor of theology at Louvain. Later, summoned to Rome to teach at the Roman College, he was entrusted with the chair of apologetics. In the decade in which he held it (1576-1586), he compiled a course of lessons which subsequently formed the Controversiae [Controversies], a work whose clarity, rich content and mainly historical tone earned it instant renown.

The Council of Trent had just ended and in the face of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church was impelled to reinforce and confirm her identity. Bellarmine’s action fitted into this context. From 1588 to 1594 he was first spiritual director of the Jesuit students at the Roman College — among whom he met and gave direction to St Aloysius Gonzaga — then religious superior.

Pope Clement VIII appointed Fr Bellarmine Papal Theologian, consultor to the Holy Office and rector of the College of Confessors at St Peter’s. His short catechism, Dottrina cristiana [Christian doctrine] dates back to the two-year period 1597–1598. It was one of his most popular works.

Pope Clement VIII created him a cardinal on 3 March 1599 and on 18 March 1602 he was appointed Archbishop of Capua. He received episcopal ordination on 21 April that same year. In the three years in which he was a diocesan bishop, he distinguished himself by his zeal as a preacher in his cathedral, by his weekly visits to parishes, by three Diocesan Synods and by a Provincial Council which he founded.

After taking part in the Conclaves that elected Pope Leo XI and Pope Paul V, he was called to Rome again, where he became a member of the Congregations of the Holy Office, of the Index, for Rites, for Bishops and for the Propagation of the Faith. He also had diplomatic responsibilities in the Republic of Venice and in England, to defend the rights of the Apostolic See.

In his last years he composed various books on spirituality in which he concentrated the results of his annual spiritual exercises. Christian people today still draw great edification from reading them. He died in Rome on 17 September 1621. Pope Pius XI beatified him in 1923, canonized him in 1930 and proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church in 1931.

St Robert Bellarmine carried out an important role in the Church of the last decades of the 16th century and the first of decades of 17th. His Controversiae were a reference point, still valid, for Catholic ecclesiology on questions concerning Revelation, the nature of the Church, the sacraments and theological anthropology. In them the institutional aspect of the Church is emphasized because of the errors that were then circulating on these issues.

Nevertheless, Bellarmine also explained the invisible aspects of the Church as the Mystical Body and illustrated them with the analogy of body and soul, to the point that he described the relationship between the Church’s inner riches and the external aspects that enable her to be perceived. In this monumental work that endeavours to organize the theological controversies of that time, he avoids any polemical and aggressive approach in speaking of the ideas of the Reformation. Instead, using the arguments of reason and the Tradition of the Church, he illustrates the Catholic doctrine clearly and effectively.

Yet his inheritance consists in the way in which he conceived of his work. Indeed, the burdensome offices of governance did not prevent him from striving daily for holiness, faithful to the demands of his own state as a religious, priest and bishop. From this fidelity came his commitment to preaching assiduously. Since as a priest and bishop he was first and foremost a pastor of souls, he felt it was his duty to preach diligently. He gave hundreds of sermones — homilies — in Flanders, Rome, Naples and Capua, during liturgical celebrations.

Equally prolific were his expositiones and his explanationes to the parish priests, women religious and students of the Roman College on Sacred Scripture and especially on St Paul’s Letters.

His preaching and his catechesis have that same character of essentiality which he had learned from his Ignatian education, entirely directed to concentrating the soul’s energies on the Lord Jesus intensely known, loved and imitated. In the writings of this man of governance one is clearly aware, despite the reserve behind which he conceals his sentiments, of the primacy he gives to Christ’s teaching.

St Bellarmine thus offers a model of prayer, the soul of every activity: a prayer that listens to the word of God, that is satisfied in contemplating his grandeur, that does not withdraw into self but is pleased to abandon itself to God.

A hallmark of Bellarmine’s spirituality is his vivid personal perception of God’s immense goodness. This is why our Saint truly felt he wasa beloved son of God. It was a source of great joy to him to pause in recollection, with serenity and simplicity, in prayer and in contemplation of God.

In his book De ascensione mentis in Deum — Elevation of the mind to God — composed in accordance with the plan of the Itinerarium [Journey of the mind into God] of St Bonaventure, he exclaims: “O soul, your example is God, infinite beauty, light without shadow, splendour that exceeds that of the moon and the sun. He raised his eyes to God in whom is found the archetypes of all things, and of whom, as from a source of infinite fertility, derives this almost infinite variety of things. For this reason you must conclude: whoever finds God finds everything, whoever loses God loses everything”.

In this text an echo of the famous contemplatio ad amorem obtineundum — contemplation in order to obtain love — of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola can be heard. Bellarmine, who lived in the lavish and often unhealthy society of the end of late 16th and early 17th centuries, drew from this contemplation practical applications and applied them to the situation of the Church of his time with a lively pastoral inspiration.

In his book De arte bene moriendi — the art of dying a good death — for example, he points out as a reliable norm for a good life and also for a good death regular and serious meditation that should account to God for one’s actions and one’s way of life, and seek not to accumulate riches on this earth but rather to live simply and charitably in such a way as to lay up treasure in Heaven.

In his book De gemitu columbae — the lament of the dove — in which the dove represents the Church, is a forceful appeal to all the clergy and faithful to undertake a personal and concrete reform of their own life in accordance with the teachings of Scripture and of the saints, among whom he mentions in particular St Gregory Nazianzus, St John Crysostom, St Jerome and St Augustine, as well as the great founders of religious orders, such as St Benedict, St Dominic and St Francis.

Bellarmine teaches with great clarity and with the example of his own life that there can be no true reform of the Church unless there is first our own personal reform and the conversion of our own heart.

Bellarmine found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius recommendations for communicating the profound beauty of the mysteries of faith, even to the simplest of people. He wrote: “If you have wisdom, may you understand that you have been created for the glory of God and for your eternal salvation. This is your goal, this is the centre of your soul, this the treasure of your heart. Therefore consider as truly good for you what leads you to your goal, and truly evil what causes you to miss it. The wise person must not seek felicitous or adverse events, wealth or poverty, health or sickness, honours or offences, life or death. They are good and desirable only if they contribute to the glory of God and to your eternal happiness, they are evil and to be avoided if they hinder it” (De ascensione mentis in Deum, grad. 1).

These are obviously not words that have gone out of fashion but words on which we should meditate at length today, to direct our journey on this earth. They remind us that the aim of our life is the Lord, God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ, in whom he continues to call us and to promise us communion with him. They remind us of the importance of trusting in the Lord, of expending ourselves in a life faithful to the Gospel, of accepting and illuminating every circumstance and every action of our life with faith and with prayer, ever reaching for union with him."