Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Treasure Chest of Ancient Wisdom

Praying the Psalms with the Early Christians
Ancient Songs for Modern Hearts
All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the apostle says (see 2 Timothy 3:16); but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields special treasure. ... 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.
St. Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus
The Book of Psalms has been the prayer book and hymnal of God's people for three thousand years. Christians came to see the psalms as the prayers of Christ, to Christ, and about Christ. Mike Aquilina and Chris Bailey remind us of this. They also have a plan to help us replace the latest meaningless jingle running around our brains with the psalms.

Thirty-four psalms have been chosen as examples to help us learn how to pray, learn, and understand these ancient prayers anew as Christ's voice speaking to us. As always with these two authors, who I admit are among my favorites, the writing speaks simply and directly to our lives, our faith, and to giving us a tool to improve our relationship with God. They are masters at helping us see how the Church Fathers' wisdom still applies to our modern lives. Combining the Fathers with the psalms is a master stroke toward helping us better understand and use these timeless prayers daily.

My one quibble with this book is that I do not agree that there isn't room to include all the psalms. I tend to believe this is a restriction that was set by the publisher. This book is either the good beginning point for a series of books or a brief volume that should have been larger to contain all the psalms. Yes, it shows us how to begin to examine the psalms better. No, it doesn't suffice for our needs as very few people are going to take the trouble to see how Church Fathers have commented on psalms not included for our use. However, that said, this is an excellent resource and you shouldn't let the lack of all the psalms stop you from getting it.

I am going to begin using this as a morning devotional and as a starting point to begin fulfilling a long-held goal to try to memorize parts of my favorite psalms. I'd describe more about the book but think that you will get the flavor better from seeing how they treat a psalm. Here is an excerpt of this highly recommended book. Enjoy!
Psalm 131

David reminds us that humility—even in a king—is the proper attitude before God.

[For this psalm we use Challoner’s revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible, because St. Hilary’s exposition depends on a slightly different translation from the one found in the Revised Standard Version.]

A gradual canticle of David.
Lord, my heart is not exalted:
nor are my eyes lofty.
Neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonderful things above me.
If I was not humbly minded, but exalted my soul:
As a child that is weaned is toward his mother,
so reward in my soul.

Let Israel hope in the Lord,
from henceforth now and for ever.

Words to Remember
Lord, my heart is not exalted:
nor are my eyes lofty.

“Strike a Middle Course”
From this short psalm, St. Hilary of Poitiers, a bishop who came from a noble and wealthy family, spins a lesson in humility. Humility by itself is not enough: though we are humble, we must dare to let our souls reach up to what is most exalted.

“O Lord, my heart is not exalted, neither have my eyes been lifted up.”

This psalm, a short one, teaches us the lesson of humility and meekness. . . . Of course we are bound to bear in mind in how great need our faith stands of humility when we hear the prophet thus speaking of it as equivalent to the performance of the highest works: “O Lord, my heart is not exalted.” For a troubled heart is the noblest sacrifice in the eyes of God. The heart, therefore, must not be lifted up by prosperity, but humbly kept within the bounds of meekness through the fear of God.

“Neither have my eyes been lifted up.” The strict sense of the Greek here conveys a different meaning: “have not been lifted up” from one object to look on another. Yet the eyes must be lifted up in obedience to the prophet’s words: “Lift up your eyes and see who has displayed all these things” (see Isaiah 40:26). And the Lord says in the gospel, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white unto harvest” (see John 4:35). The eyes, then, are to be lifted up: not, however, to transfer their gaze elsewhere, but to remain fixed once for all upon that to which they have been raised.

Then follows: “Neither have I walked amid great things, nor amid wonderful things that are above me.” It is most dangerous to walk amid mean things and not to linger amid wonderful things. God’s utterances are great; he himself is wonderful in the highest: how then can the psalmist pride himself as on a good work for not walking amid great and wonderful things?

It is the addition of the words “that are above me” that shows that the walking is not amid those things which men commonly regard as great and wonderful. For David, prophet and king as he was, once was humble and despised and unworthy to sit at his father’s table; but he found favor with God, he was anointed to be king, he was inspired to prophesy. His kingdom did not make him haughty; he was not moved by hatreds: he loved those that persecuted him, he paid honor to his dead enemies, he spared his incestuous and murderous children. In his capacity of sovereign, he was despised; in that of father he was wounded; in that of prophet he was afflicted; yet he did not call for vengeance as a prophet might, nor exact punishment as a father, nor requite insults as a sovereign. And so he did not walk amid things great and wonderful which were above him.

Let us see what comes next: “If I was not humbly minded but have lifted up my soul.”

What inconsistency on the prophet’s part! He does not lift up his heart: he does lift up his soul. He does not walk amid things great and wonderful that are above him, yet his thoughts are not mean. He is exalted in mind and cast down in heart. He is humble in his own affairs, but he is not humble in his thought.

For his thought reaches to heaven; his soul is lifted up on high. But his heart, out of which proceed, according to the gospel, evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and railings (see Matthew 15:19), is humble, pressed down beneath the gentle yoke of meekness.

We must strike a middle course, then, between humility and exaltation, so that we may be humble in heart but lifted up in soul and thought.

Then he goes on: “Like a weaned child upon his mother’s breast, so will you reward my soul.”

We are told that when Isaac was weaned, Abraham made a feast because, now that he was weaned, he was on the verge of boyhood and was passing beyond milk food. The apostle feeds all that are imperfect in the faith and still babes in the things of God with the milk of knowledge. Thus, to cease to need milk marks the greatest possible advance. Abraham proclaimed by a joyful feast that his son had come to stronger meat, and the apostle refuses bread to the carnal minded and those that are babes in Christ.

And so the prophet prays that God, because he has not lifted up his heart, nor walked amid things great and wonderful that are above him, because he has not been humble minded but did lift up his soul, may reward his soul, lying like a weaned child upon his mother: that is to say, that he may be deemed worthy of the reward of the perfect, heavenly, and living bread, on the grounds that by reason of his works already recorded, he has now passed beyond the stage of milk.

But he does not demand this living bread from heaven for himself alone; he encourages all mankind to hope for it by saying, “Let Israel hope in the Lord, from henceforth and forevermore.” He sets no temporal limit to our hope; he bids our faithful expectation stretch out into infinity. We are to hope forever and ever, winning the hope of future life through the hope of our present life which we have in Christ Jesus our Lord, who is blessed forever and ever. Amen.

—St. Hilary of Poitiers, Homilies on the Psalms

Questions to Think About
  1. Am I ever tempted to look down on anyone else? How would the truth of who I am before God help me to overcome this temptation?

  2. How can I better remember to focus my attention on heaven rather than on earthly glories?

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