Saturday, January 16, 2016

Concerning the Psalms.

Excerpts  from the Letter of St. Athanasius to Marcellinus.

   Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are in­spired by God and useful for instruction, as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields special treasure. Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the taber­nacle and the priesthood....  Esdras (the story of Susanna ) [tells] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city .... Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of those of all the rest...
   My old friend made rather a point of this, that the things we find in the Psalms about the Savior are stated in the other books of Scripture too; he stressed the fact that one interpretation is common to them all, and that they have but one voice in the Holy Spirit.
   You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills.... And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the charac­teristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed, in all their great variety, the movements of the human soul.  It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.... In the Psalter ... you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evildoing are plenti­ful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin.
   And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own. ... [How­ever, in] the Psalms it is as though it were one's own words that one reads; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts .... For he who reads [the rest of the Scriptures] is clearly reading not his own words but those of holy men and other people about whom they write; but the marvel with the Psalter is that ... the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own ....
   So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God ­inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.
   There is, however, one word of warning needed. No one must al­low himself to be persuaded, by any arguments whatever, to decorate the Psalms with extraneous matter or make alterations in their order or change the words themselves. They must be sung and chanted in entire simplicity, just as they are written, so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us, yes and even more that the Spirit, who spoke by the saints, recognizing the selfsame words that He inspired, may join us in them too. For as the saints' lives are lovelier than any others, so too their words are better than ever ours can be, and of much more avail, provided only they be uttered from a righteous heart. For with these words they themselves pleased God, and in ut­tering them, as the Apostle says, they subdued kingdoms, they wrought righteousness, they obtained prom­ises, they stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens, women received their dead by resur­rection.
   Let each one, therefore, who recites the Psalms have a sure hope that  through them God will speedily give ear to those who are in need. For if a man be in trouble when he says them, great comfort will he find in them; if he be tempted or persecuted, he will find himself abler  to stand the test and will experience the protection of the Lord, who always defends those who say these words. By them too a man will overthrow the devil and put the fiends to flight. If he has sinned, when he uses them he will repent; if he has not sinned, he will find him­self rejoicing that he is stretching out towards the things that are before and, so wrestling, in the power of the Psalms he will prevail. Never will such a man be shaken from the truth, but those who try to trick and lead him into error he will refute; and it is no human teacher who promises us this, but the Divine Scripture itself. For God commanded Moses to write the great song and to teach the people, and him whom He had appointed leader He bade also to write Deuter­onomy, to have it ever in his hand and to meditate unceasingly upon its words; because these are sufficient in themselves both to call men's minds to virtue and to bring help to any who ponder them sincerely. It is a certain fact that when Joshua, the son of Nun, entered the land of promise and saw the ordered ranks of the heathen and the Amorite kings all drawn up against him, in face of all these swords  and weapons he read Deuteronomy in the ears of all and reminded them of the words of the Law, and then, hav­ing thus armed the people, he over­came the foe. King Josiah also, when the book was found, and had been read through to all, no longer feared his enemies. And at any time when war was threatening Israel, the ark in which the tables of the Law were kept was carried out before the host, and was sufficient help against any array, except when there was among those who bore it or, elsewhere among the people, any prevailing hypocrisy or sin; for faith and an honest state of mind are always necessary if the Law is to be an effectual ally in the fulfillment of man's vows.
   And so you too, Marcellinus, pon­dering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the mean­ing of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-bearing saints who spoke them at the first.

On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius, St Vladimir Press edition.