Praying the Psalms with Augustine in Advent

The Psalms of David are the Prayer Book and Hymnal of both Jews and Christians alike. Classified in the Jewish understanding as one of the Writings, as distinct from the Law and the Prophets, the Psalms embrace a wide range of poetic forms of expression. The Psalter serves as a way of praying the Scriptures.

Among the many treatises of Augustine, one of the most charming and instructive devotionally is his Enarrations or Expositions on the Book of Psalms. For the English reader, it was only translated in the 19th century as part of the project of recovering the Patristic heritage of the Church, an interest both in England and on the continent. E.B. Pusey, one of the outstanding figures of the Oxford Movement, provided in December of 1857 an advertisement for the translation into English of Augustine’s work on the Psalms. As he remarks,

St. Augustin was so impressed with the sense of the depth of Holy Scripture, that when it seems to him, on the surface, plainest, then he is the more assured of its hidden depth. True to this belief, St. Augustin pressed out word by word of Holy Scripture, and that, always in dependence on the inward teaching of God the Holy Ghost who wrote it, until he had extracted some fullness of meaning from it. More also, perhaps, than any other work of St. Augustin, this commentary abounds in those condensed statements of doctrinal and practical truth which are so instructive, because at once so comprehensive and so accurate.

This doctrinal and practical sensibility about the Psalms means, of course, that they are read in the light of a certain theology of Revelation. They are not read as a mine of historical information and they are not read ‘critically’ as that term has become to be used by the schools of biblical and historical criticism, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are read with a certain insight into the nature of Scriptural Revelation. In Augustine’s case, they are read entirely from a Christian perspective as bearing constant testimony to Jesus as the fulfilling of the Law.

What this means is a necessary emphasis on a multi-layered approach to the reading of the Psalms: allegorical, moral, and mystical. It means a way of reading the Psalms that identifies different voices: the voice of Christ, the voice of the human soul, the voice of the Church. As Augustine remarks on Psalm 139: “Our Lord Jesus Christ speaketh in the Prophets, sometimes in His own Name, sometimes in ours, because He maketh himself one with us.” The Psalms are seen, in other words, through the lenses of the doctrine of the Incarnation and with constant reference to the doctrine of the Trinity and to various aspects of the doctrine of Redemption, particularly, the passion and resurrection of Christ.

The Christian Church inherited the psalms and their use in prayer and praise from the Jewish synagogue but saw in them the figure of Christ as the fulfillment of the Jewish hopes and expectations and sensibilities about the Law, the Torah. As such the use of the Psalms in the early Church is really part and parcel of the development of Christian doctrine.

The task of defining and working out the nature of Christian doctrine was the great achievement of the Patristic Period. Augustine is a seminal figure with respect to that accomplishment. His treatment of the Psalms is a kind of summing up of much of the Patristic development, particularly in its western and Latin expressions.

His Enarrations or Expositions of the Psalms is not an academic exercise. But then again, hardly anything he wrote ever was. Almost everything he wrote was occasional and not principally academic, by which I mean he wrote for particular circumstances and to address contemporary questions. Paradoxically, the only work which was not so written is his Confessions.

The treatment of the Psalms belongs to Augustine’s life and work as a preacher and pastor, to his teaching ministry, as it were. Contained in his reflections on the Psalms is a form of doctrine in devotion. And, as Pusey has suggested, “the condensed statements of doctrinal and practical truth” that his commentary presents is “so instructive, because at once so comprehensive and so accurate,” accurate that is to say within the interpretative framework of creedal doctrine. Almost all of the Enarrations were sermons and they have that sense of immediacy and topicality. In Augustine’s view, they all speak of God and Christ, of Christ and the Soul and of Christ and the Church.

Among the Psalms that are used liturgically in the Church during the season of Advent is Psalm 80. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only Psalm that Augustine explicitly calls a Song of the Advent. “The song here is of the Advent of the Lord and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of His vineyard,” an image of the Church. A few selections from his commentary on this psalm may give you a sense for his voice and for the flavor of his argument about praying the Psalms.

Augustine used, for the most part, the Old Latin version of the Psalter which had been translated from the Septuagint. At the same time, Jerome was translating from the Hebrew as well. Jerome’s translations of the Psalms from the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew would both remain in use in the Latin West. A feature of the version Augustine used were interpretative titles to the Psalms to which Augustine often referred in his exegesis. Psalm 80 in his version is titled: “For the end in behalf of them that shall be changed,” to which Augustine adds, “for the better.” For, as he says, “Christ, the end of the Law, hath come on purpose that He should change men for the better.” This Psalm “confess[es] both Christ and the vineyard; that is, Head and Body, King and people, Shepherd and flock, and the entire mystery of all Scriptures, Christ and the Church.”

Commenting on the first verse, “Thou that feedest Israel, hearken, Thou that conducteth [leadeth] Joseph like sheep,” and “thou that sittest upon the Cherubin,” he remarks on the name Joseph which as he says “signifieth increase” and on the Cherubin as “the seat of the glory of God and is interpreted as the fullness of knowledge.”

There God sitteth in the fullness of knowledge. Though we understand the Cherubin to be the exalted powers and virtues of the heavens: yet, if thou wilt, thou wilt be Cherubin. For if Cherubin is the seat of God, hear what saith the Scripture: “The soul of a just man is the seat of wisdom.” How, thou sayest, shall I be the fullness of knowledge? Who shall fulfill this? Thou hast the means of fulfilling it: “The fullness of the Law is love.” Do not run after many things, and strain thyself. The amplitude of the branches doth terrify thee: hold by the root, and of the greatness of the tree think not. Be there in thee love, and the fullness of knowledge must follow. For what does he not know that knoweth love? Inasmuch as it hath been said, “God is love.”

He speaks about those twin qualities of love and knowledge as belonging to what the Advent of Christ brings to our humanity, namely, the perfection of those divine qualities in us. “O God, convert us,” as Augustine’s psalter puts it. In the Latin, that turning is, of course, conversion, our being turned to God in whom we find the fullness of knowledge and love. As he observes, “For averse we have been from Thee, and except Thou convert us, we shall not be converted.” By God’s turning to us and looking upon us, we shall be turned and made whole. Advent is about our turning to God because God has turned to us in Jesus Christ. Augustine’s commentary shows us something of the dynamic of prayer as doctrine in devotion by way of the stirring of hearts and the enlightening of minds.

Fr. David Curry
Tuesday, December 6th
Commemoration of St. Nicolas
Christ Church, Windsor, NS

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