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.

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