|The Bamberg Apocalypse, The River of LIfe, c. 1000|
This week I'm going to provide a detailed series on Psalm 1 in the context of the Benedictine Office.
Background on Psalm 1
I have previously provided a more general introduction to it, which you can find here: Introduction to Psalm 1.
I've also provided some short summaries of the psalm by the Fathers, Theologians and a few modern commentators.
Many of the Fathers wrote extended introductions to the psalms in the context of Psalm 1, and easily the greatest of these, in my view, is that by St Basil the Great. Worth reading also are the comments of St Augustine. But I have to admit my favourite is not strictly a commentary on it, but a story of its power, viz the conversion story of Fr Mutius from the History of the Monks in Egypt.
Psalm is an introduction to and foundation for the whole of the book of Psalms
Psalm 1 is one of the most important in the psalter. St Basil the Great for example commented that the foundations and structures around things have to proportionate to their purpose, hence the psalms, so important to the spiritual life, also required a great starting point to inspire us to action:
When architects raise up immensely high structures, they put under them foundations proportionate to the height; and when shipbuilders are constructing a merchantman that carries 10,000 measures, they fix the ship's keel to correspond with the weight of the wares it is capable of carrying. Even in the generation of living animals, since the heart is the first organ formed by nature, it receives a structure from nature proportionate to the animal destined to be brought into existence.
Therefore, since the body is built around in proportion to its own beginnings, the differences in the sizes of animals are produced. Like the foundation in a house, the keel in a ship, and the heart in the body of an animal, this brief introduction seems to me to possess that same force in regard to the whole structure of the psalms.
When David intended to propose in the course of his speech to the combatants of true religion many painful tasks involving unmeasured sweats and toils, he showed first the happy end, that in the hope of the blessings reserved for us we might endure without grief the sufferings of this life.
In the same way, too, the expectation of suitable lodging for them lightens the toil for travelers on a rough and difficult road, and the desire for wares makes mendicants dare the sea, while the promise of the crop steals away the drudgery from the labors of the farmers. Therefore, the common Director of our lives, the great Teacher, the Spirit of truth, wisely and cleverly set forth the rewards, in order that, rising above the present labors, we might press on in spirit to the enjoyment of eternal blessings.The most abiding image in it though, is that of the second half of the psalm: a tree standing evergreen beside the river. Most of the Fathers saw this as a reference to the image described in Revelation 22:1-5:
He shewed me, too, a river, whose waters give life; it flows, clear as crystal, from the throne of God, from the throne of the Lamb. On either side of the river, mid-way along the city street, grows the tree that gives life, bearing its fruit twelvefold, one yield for each month. And the leaves of this tree bring health to all the nations. No longer can there be any profanation in that city; God’s throne (which is the Lamb’s throne) will be there, with his servants to worship him, and to see his face, his name written on their foreheads. There will be no more night, no more need of light from lamp or sun; the Lord God will shed his light on them, and they will reign for ever and ever.St Jerome, for example, interprets the throne as referring to the Incarnation of Christ; the river as the graces flowing from him through baptism; the banks of the river as the Old and New Testaments, and Christ as the tree, standing on both sides of the river, its wood the wood of the cross. The fruits of the tree then, are salvation and eternal life, as Theodoret of Cyrus explains:
You see, every practice in life looks toward its goal: athletics looks towards olive wreaths, martial arts towards victories and spoils, medicine certainly towards good health and cure of disease, commerce towards amassing wealth and abundance of riches. Likewise the practice of virtue has as its fruit and goal the beatitude from God….
In the light of the importance of this psalm, it is surprising that in the Benedictine Office, Psalm 1 is placed not on Sunday at Matins, at the beginning of the Office each week, as in virtually every other traditional form of the Office, but rather Monday at Prime. Why is that?
Part of it, I suspect, is that St Benedict, like many of the Fathers, loved number symbolism.
First, Psalm 1, the Fathers mostly agreed, is above all a description of the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ. Accordingly, St Benedict places it on the second day of the week (feria II), just as he places the chapter on the abbot, who he explicitly says stands in the place of Christ in the monastery, in chapter two of his Rule.
Secondly, Prime in the Benedictine Office is above all about the triumph of Christ the King (as has long been recognised through the chapter Immortal and eternal king... and versicle 'Arise Christ, and save us' assigned to it), the alpha and omega.
The psalm is labelled one, to he places it at the first hour. He also gives it 22 psalms each day, the same number as the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and the first of which each Sunday is a stanza of Psalm 118 in which each line begins with the Hebrew letter aleph. That all seems to me to suggest the symbolism of Christ first and last (aleph and tau; alpha and omega).
It is worth noting too, that Psalm 1 echoes many of the themes of those stanzas of Psalm 118 said on Sunday (with the other two psalms of Monday picking up most of the remainder). Indeed, while Psalm 1 starts with the singular 'blessed the man', Psalm 118's plural blessed can be interpreted as the progression that occurs over the symbolic week, from the Incarnation of the single blessed man, Christ, to Christ leading the many into heaven.
A important reason though may be the association of day II of creation with both the coming of Christ and baptism. Genesis 1, you will recall, describes the second day of creation as dividing heaven from the earth:
And God said: Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters: and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made a firmament, and divided the waters that were under the firmament, from those that were above the firmament, and it was so. And God called the firmament, Heaven; and the evening and morning were the second day.The Incarnation is associated with this, because Christ bridges the divide, and draws us after him into heaven through baptism. St Ambrose's Hexameron, for example, points to the division of the Red Sea (referred to Psalm 113 at Vespers on Monday) as linked to the division of the heavens and the earth on day two of creation.
Certainly, St Benedict's Office is full of both Incarnation and baptismal allusions on Monday, not least in Psalm 1, as St Augustine has pointed out in relation to the verse: and he shall be like a tree planted hard by the running streams of waters:
that is either Very Wisdom, which vouchsafed to assume man's nature for our salvation; that as man He might be the tree planted hard by the running streams of waters; for in this sense can that too be taken which is said in another Psalm, the river of God is full of water.The importance of Prime and Psalm 1
In the modern Roman Office, and many Benedictine monasteries today, Prime has been abolished altogether. And in the new psalm schemas the themes of Psalm 1 are not given much prominence: Psalm 1 itself only appears in the Office of Readings once, to start week one (of four).
In the Benedictine Office, though, the hour includes several very key psalms indeed, including Psalm 1.focuses on several key themes reflected in the Rule, arguably the essential foundations of how we should live as good Christians.
In the traditional form of the Benedictine Office though, it is one of the four hours with psalms that change for each day of the week.
Prime is very important in the structure of the Benedictine Office!
Beátus vir, qui non ábiit in consílio impiórum, et in via peccatórum non stetit, * et in cáthedra pestiléntiæ non sedit
Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence:
2 Sed in lege Dómini volúntas ejus, * et in lege ejus meditábitur die ac nocte.
But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night.
3 Et erit tamquam lignum, quod plantátum est secus decúrsus aquárum, * quod fructum suum dabit in témpore suo:
And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season.
4 Et fólium ejus non défluet: * et ómnia quæcúmque fáciet, prosperabúntur.
And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper.
5 Non sic ímpii, non sic: * sed tamquam pulvis, quem prójicit ventus a fácie terræ.
Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind drives from the face of the earth.
6 Ideo non resúrgent ímpii in judício: * neque peccatóres in concílio justórum.
Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just.
7 Quóniam novit Dóminus viam justórum: * et iter impiórum períbit.
For the Lord knows the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.
You can the first set of notes on the verses here