Monday, October 31, 2011

Commentaries on the psalms - Cassiodorus/2

c8th Durham Cassiodorus manuscript
Last week I provided some background information on St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus.  Today I want to look at the Psalm Commentaries he wrote themselves.

Cassiodorus' Commentary on the Psalms is available in an English translation by P G Walsh, in three volumes of the Ancient Christian Writers series published by Paulist Press, 1990-1. 

Are they worth buying?  Well it depends...

Cassiodorus' commentaries on the psalms, written in the 540s to early 550s, are important for a number of reasons.  First, aside from Augustine's Enarrations, they are one of very few complete commentaries on the psalms written in Latin surviving from the patristic era.  Secondly, they were highly influential throughout the medieval period.  Thirdly, notwithstanding some modest protestations to the contrary, they appear to contain a high degree of originality, making some important pedagogical contributions.  For above all, his commentary is intended to teach: and not just theology and spirituality. 

A theological, spiritual and grammar textbook

Cassiodorus, like many patristic commentators, saw the psalms as the necessary starting point for Scriptural study: one should learn the psalms first, he suggests, and only then move on to the New Testament, for they serve as preparation for it.  For this reason, his interpretations almost invariably focus on the spiritual, or allegorical meaning of the psalm rather than the literal-historical. 

But Cassiodorus was also a key mover in the project that aimed to substitute Christian literature and theory for pagan as the foundation of formal education.  Accordingly, his commentaries are also a textbook on poetry and grammar.

Structure of the commentaries

He provides a general introduction to the psalms, including an introduction to the main categories he assigns each psalm to.  The individual commentaries too, are highly structured: for each psalm he provides an introduction on the title or type of psalm; something on the structure of the psalm 'the division of the psalm'; a verse by verse exposition; and then a section on 'conclusions that be drawn from the psalm', applying the message to contemporary circumstances, particularly to counter current heresies.

Cassiodorus' commentaries draw heavily on the Latin Fathers in particular, particularly St Augustine and St Hilary.  But they go beyond these. 

Much of Cassiodorus' material will seem extremely strained to the modern eye - such as his numerological explanations of particular psalm numbers, and some of this allegorical expositions.  Much of it comes across as heavy-handed didacticism. 

The commentary is not, in my view, in the same 'essential to have' category as that of St Robert Bellarmine.  Nor is it up there with the great commentaries such as those of St Augustine and St John Chrysostom. 

But there are gems embedded in it that make it well-worth wading through for anyone really committed to immersing themselves in the psalms in the same way that medieval monks did. 

Particularly helpful, in my view, are some of his summations of the groupings of psalms.  His is the first text, for example, to list out what became accepted as the Seven Penitential Psalms.

The Gradual Psalms

His summary comments on the Gradual Psalms (Ps 119-133) provide a good example of his style of overview commentary. 

In his overall introduction to the psalms, he describes them as "the psalms of the steps, which lead our minds through chaste and humble satisfaction of the Lord Saviour."

And he summarises the message of them, in the conclusion to Psalm 133, goes as follows:

It is pleasant to recount how these steps have led all the way to the heavenly Jerusalem. 

On the first step [Ps 119] he denotes loathing of the world, after which there is haste to attain zeal for all the virtues.

Secondly, the strength of divine protection is explained, and it is demonstrated that nothing can withstand it.

Thirdly, the great joy of dwelling with pure mind in the Lord's Church is stated.

Fourth [Ps 122], he teaches us that we must continually presume on the Lord's help whatever the constraints surrounding us, until He takes pity and hears us.

Fifth, he warns us that when we are freed from dangers, we must not attach any credit to ourselves, but attribute it all to the power of the Lord.

In the sixth, the trust of the most faithful Christian is compared to immovable mountains.

In the seventh [Ps 125], we are told how abundant is the harvest reaped by those who sow in tears.

In the eighth, it is said that nothing remains of what any individual has performed by his own will; only the things built by the sponsorship of the Lord are most firmly established.

In the ninth, it is proclaimed that we become blessed through fear of the Lord, and that all profitable things are granted us.

In the tenth [Ps 128], he inculcates in committed persons the patience which he commands through the words of the Church.

In the eleventh [Ps 129], as penitent he cries from the depths to the Lord, asking that the great power of the Godhead be experienced by the deliverance of mankind.

In the twelfth [Ps 130], the strength of meekness and humility is revealed; in the thirteenth [Ps 131], the promise of the holy incarnation and the truth of the words spoken are demonstrated.

In the fourteenth [Ps 132], spiritual unity is proclaimed to the brethren, and to them the Lord's benediction and eternal life are shown to accrue.

In the fifteenth [Ps 133], there is awakened in the course of the Lord's praises that perfect charity than which nothing greater can be expressed, and nothing more splendid discovered. As the apostle attests: God is love. So let us continually meditate on the hidden nature of this great miracle, so that by ever setting our gaze on such things, we may avoid the deadly errors of the world.

The number of these psalms contains this further mystery: when the five bodily senses, by which human frailty incurs all sin, are overcome by the power of the Trinity, this leads us to the fifteenth height of the psalms of the steps; thus the body's weakness is eliminated, and eternal rewards are bestowed on those who conquer it.

Further reading

For those interested in learning more about Cassiodorus, there is a surprising amount of material on him available on the web, including in particular James J. O'Donnell, Cassiodorus, University of California Press, 1979; "Postprint" 1995 (the website also includes a very useful bibliography.  There a number of recent journal articles available through JSTOR if you have access to that.  P G Walsh's (the translator) introduction to the Psalm Commentary in the English edition is also very helpful in placing the work in the context of the authro's aims and the times.

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