Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

The Book of Joel’s Psychological Meaning

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Vincent van Gogh, Red Vineyards near Arles (1888)

THE Book of Joel (part of the Minor Prophets section of the Old Testament) must be understood allegorically. At the literal level, it describes how the nation of Israel will be devastated by an invincible invading army. This army is ambiguously defined.  Sometimes it seems like an army or men coming from a hostile, conquering country, and at other times like a plague of locusts or devouring insects.

The ravages of this army are understood in any case as a result of God’s wrath towards an unfaithful Israel.  Yet despite the solemn warnings of destruction, still the Book of Joel optimistic:  if Israel repents, God’s wrath will be reversed, replenishing rains will arrive, and the land will again yield a rich harvest of grains and wine.

No doubt earnest literalists have endeavored to find historical traces of locust plagues in antiquity in order to precisely date the events of Joel.  But all in vain, since the narrative is a psychological allegory.

The invincible destructive army referred to has roughly the same thematic meaning as the Furies in Greek mythology.  These are destructive mental energies and negative thought patterns that occur as an inevitable consequence of immorality and sin.   But we may be spared the suffering and pain these negative energies produce when we repent and return to God.  That is the principle ethical message of the entire Old Testament: we sin, we suffer as a consequence, and hopefully, when we have suffered enough, we repent and return to God.

All this is plainly evident to those who are accustomed to interpreting the Old Testament at a psychological-allegorical level.  The master of this method is Philo of Alexandria.  Although he never mentions Joel, he does make pertinent comments about the Book of Isaiah, which has a similar message.  In both Joel and Isaiah, God uses the symbol of a vineyard to describe his relationship with Israel:  God has planted this vineyard, and wishes for it to produce good wine. In a broad sense, ‘good wine’ can be perhaps be understood as good works generally.  However Philo notes with special interest the intoxicating properties of wine.  Good wine, for him, refers to productive ‘spiritual intoxication’:  spiritual states of consciousness, religious insights, awareness of God’s presence and the like.  When we remain close to God and live in holiness, our mind experiences these spiritual gifts.  But when we fall into sin, the waters of inspiration dry up, our spiritual leaves wither, and we produce bad wine or none at all.

First we will compare relevant passages from Isaiah and Joel, and then read Philo’s comments about the former.

Isaiah 5

[1] Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:

[2] And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

[3] And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.

[4] What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

[5] And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:

[6] And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

[7] For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

[10] The field is wasted, the land mourneth; for the corn is wasted: the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth.

[11] Be ye ashamed, O ye husbandmen; howl, O ye vinedressers, for the wheat and for the barley; because the harvest of the field is perished.

[12] The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languisheth; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, even all the trees of the field, are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.

Joel 1

[1] The word of the LORD that came to Joel the son of Pethuel.

[2] Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land. Hath this been in your days, or even in the days of your fathers?

[3] Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

[4] That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten; and that which the cankerworm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten.

[5] Awake, ye drunkards, and weep; and howl, all ye drinkers of wine, because of the new wine; for it is cut off from your mouth.

[6] For a nation is come up upon my land, strong, and without number, whose teeth are the teeth of a lion, and he hath the cheek teeth of a great lion.

[7] He hath laid my vine waste, and barked my fig tree: he hath made it clean bare, and cast it away; the branches thereof are made white.

Joel 2

[13] And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

[14] Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the LORD your God?

[18] Then will the LORD be jealous for his land, and pity his people.

[19] Yea, the LORD will answer and say unto his people, Behold, I will send you corn, and wine, and oil, and ye shall be satisfied therewith: and I will no more make you a reproach among the heathen:

[28] And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:

Philo, On Dreams

XVIII. (83) Now the wicked man wishes to display his unity of voice and speech through fellowship in unjust deeds rather than in actual words, and therefore begins to build a city and a tower which will serve for the hold of vice, as a citadel for a despot. He exhorts all those who form his company to take their share in the work, but first to prepare the suitable material.

(84) “Come,” he says, “let us make bricks and bake them with fire” [Gen. 11: 3]. The meaning of this is as follows. At present we have all the contents of the soul in inextricable confusion, so that no clear form of any particular kind is discernible.

XXV. (2.169) It would therefore be naturally consistent to consider next that the vine is the symbol of two things: of folly, and of mirth. And each of these two, though it is indicated by many circumstances, we will explain in a few words, to avoid prolixity.

(2.170) When any one leading us along the road, deserted by the passions and by acts of wickedness, the rod, that is, of philosophy, has led right reason to a height, and placed it like a scout upon a watch-tower, [Num 13:18] and has commanded it to look around, and to survey the whole country of virtue, and to see whether it be blessed with a deep soil, and rich, and productive of herbage and of fruit, since deep soil is good to cause the learning which has been sown in it to increase, and to make the doctrines which have been planted in it, and which have grown to trees, to form solid trunks, or whether it be of a contrary character; and also to examine into actions, as one might into cities, and see whether they are strongly fortified, or whether they are defenceless and deprived of all the security which might be afforded by walls around them. Also to inquire into the condition of the inhabitants, whether they are considerable in numbers and in valour, or whether their courage is weak and their numbers scanty, the two causes acting reciprocally on one another.

(2.171) Then because we were not able to bear the weight of the whole trunk of wisdom, we cut off one branch and one bunch of grapes, and carried it with us as a most undeniable proof of our joy, and a burden very easy to be borne, wishing to display at the same time the branch and the fruit of excellence to those who are gifted with acuteness of mental sight, to show them, that is, the strongly-shooting and grapebearing vine.

XXVI. (2.172) They then very fairly compare this vine of which we were only able to take a part, to happiness. And one of the ancient prophets bears his testimony in favour of my view of the matter, who speaking under divine inspiration has said, “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel.” [Isaiah 5:7]

(2.173) Now Israel is the mind inclined to the contemplation of God and of the world; for the name Israel is interpreted, “seeing God,” and the abode of the mind is the whole soul; and this is the most sacred vineyard, bearing as its fruit the divine shoot, virtue:

(2.174) thus thinking well (to eu phronein) is the derivation of the word joy (euphrosyneµ), being a great and brilliant thing so that, says Moses, even God himself does not disdain to exhibit it; and most especially at that time when the human race is departing from its sins, and inclining and bending its steps towards justice, following of its own accord the laws and institutions of nature.

(2.175) “For,” says Moses, “the Lord thy God will return, that he may rejoice in thee for thy good as he rejoiced in thy fathers, if thou wilt hear his voice to keep all his commandments and his ordinances and his judgments which are written in the book of this Law.” [Deu 30:9]

(2.179) Do thou therefore, O mind, having learnt how mighty a thing the anger of God is, and how great a good the joy of God is, do not do anything worthy to excite his anger to thy own destruction, but study only such things as may be the means of your pleasing God.

XXIX. (2.190) So now one kind of vine, which has been assigned as the portion of cheerfulness, and the intoxication which arises from it, namely unmingled goodness of counsel, and the cup-bearer too who drew the wine from the divine goblet, which God himself has filled with virtues up to the lip, has been explained;

(2.191) but the other kind, that of folly, and grief, and drunkenness, is also already depicted in a fashion but in another character, by other expressions which are used in the greater canticle; “for,” says the scripture, “their vine is of the vine of Sodom and their tendrils are of the vine of Gomorrah; their grapes are the grapes of gall; their bunches are full of bitterness itself. Their wine is the madness of dragons and the incurable fury of Asps.” [Deu 32:32]

(2.192) You see here what great effects are produced by the drunkenness of folly: bitterness, an evil disposition, exceeding gall, excessive anger, implacability, a biting and treacherous disposition.

Source: Philo, De somniis (On Dreams), tr. Charles Duke Yonge.


Beyond Stoicism

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THE INTEREST shown in Stoicism in recent years has some definite pluses.  One is that it shows people are finding the Freudian and other reductionist systems of materialist psychology insufficient for finding moral direction, personal satisfaction and happiness.  Another is that it’s helping people to wake up to the beauties of Greek and Roman philosophy.  Consider that before this Stoic revival, the prevailing attitude in university Psychology Departments was that nothing important had been written on human psychology before William James.

Nevertheless, I suspect that once they read and absorb all the excellent things Stoicism has to say about psychology, ethics, and the human condition, many will ultimately find something lacking.  Stoicism excels in technical definitions and minute analysis of cognitive operations.  But, ultimately, it fails to satisfy the deepest yearnings of the heart.

Platonism (which we may here to consider to include Neoplatonism) does more to satisfy these deep yearnings.  Like Stoicism, it emphasizes the acquisition of virtue and the pursuit of dispassion (apatheia and/or ataraxia).  But, unlike Stoicism, Platonism does not see apatheia as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end: once the passions are quieted, the mind, now calm and still, can gain insight into deeper realms of truth.  From dispassion it proceeds to theoria and noesis — the contemplation of Eternal Verities.  From this contemplation the soul begins to learn important truths of its own nature, such as that (1) it is immortal, and (2) its destiny is to find fulfillment by degrees in ‘becoming godlike insofar as possible.’  The Platonist also seeks to ascend to a direct encounter with the Good, the source of all Truth and Beauty – which it cannot help but love.

But from this it is obvious that a still greater degree of personality development may occur:  to make love of the Good – God – the central purpose of ones life.  This is the realm of religion.  Hence, while we have sketched this only in the broadest of strikes, the idea is that a natural progression would be from Stoicism, to Platonism, to religion.

These three correspond fairly well to the traditional stages of ascetico-mysticism, i.e., those of purgation (Stoicism), illumination (Platonism) and union (religion). In each later stage, the benefits of earlier stages are retained and built upon.  Hence the Platonist may still be a Stoic, and the saint still a Stoic and a Platonist.

If we were to select as most important one thing that distinguishes a Christian from a Stoic, it is that the Christian recognizes a personal, loving God. Both the Christian and the Stoic may take as the ethical summum bonum or rule of life the accommodation of personal will to a higher will — to God’s will, for the former, and to Nature (or the Law of Nature) for the latter.  The Stoic, moreover, may also understand Nature to be God — but not a personal God.  Hence, while it may seem that the goals of the two are similar or the same, the way they seek to accomplish this are extremely different.  The Stoic must rely on his or her own will to accomplish the abrogation of personal will!  It is a matter of individual effort only.  Hence, ironically, the struggle to achieve Stoic virtue, holiness, and resignation, because it is directed by the ego, necessarily contributes to egoism.  For the Christian, however, progress in virtue comes from grace — it is the gift of a generous, loving, personal God. The Stoic seeks humiliation of will through pride, the Christian seeks humiliation of will in humility and gentle, childlike trust in God’s loving-kindness. The Stoic seeks to accomplish great psychological feats of asceticism and self-control, the Christian begins by praying for divine help.

St. Alphonsus Liguori: On the Efficacy of Prayer

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Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands (detail)

St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787) wrote many works, but considered none more valuable than his Short Treatise on Prayer.  In the Introduction to the Reader (which he calls “highly important”), he writes: “Were it in my power, I would publish as many copies of this little work, as there are Catholics on earth, and would give to each a copy, that each might be convinced of the absolute necessity of prayer for salvation.”  Below is Chapter 2, On the Efficacy of Prayer.

SO DEAR are our prayers to God, that He has destined His angels to present them to Him as soon as they are offered. ‘The angels,’ says St. Hilary, ‘preside over the prayers of the faithful, and offer them daily to God.’ The prayers of the saints are that sacred smoke of incense which St. John saw ascending before the Lord from the hands of the angels.—Rev. 8. The same apostle, in the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, compares the prayers of the saints to golden vials full of odours, which are exceedingly sweet and acceptable to God. But, to be convinced of the efficacy of prayer before God, it is sufficient to read the numberless promises which He has made in the old as well as in the New Testament, to all who invoke His aid.

‘Call upon Me and I will hear.’—Job.

‘Call upon Me in the day of trouble, I will deliver thee.’—Psalm 49:15.

‘Ask and it shall be given unto you: seek and you shall find: knock and it shall be opened to you.’—Matt. 7:7.

‘how much more will your Father who is in heaven, give good things to them that ask.’—Matt. 7:11.

‘for every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth.’—Luke, 11:10.

‘Whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done for them by my Father.’—Matt. 18:19.

‘All things whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you.’—Mark, 11:24.

‘If you shall ask any thing in my name, that I will do.’—John, 14:14.

‘You shall ask whatsoever you will, and it shall be done to you.’—John, 15:7.

‘Amen, Amen, I say to you; if you ask the Father any thing in my name, He will give it to you.’—John, 16:28.

A thousand similar passages might be cited, which for the sake of brevity, I omit.

God ardently desires our salvation, but for our greater good, He wishes that we should be saved by our victories. While on this earth we must live in continual warfare, and to be saved, we must fight and conquer. ‘No one, ‘ says St. Chrysostom, ‘can be crowned without victory.’—S Chry. Ser. 1 de Mart. We are very weak; our enemies are numerous and exceedingly powerful; how shall we be able to combat and defeat them: Let each one animate his courage, by addressing to himself the words of the apostle, ‘I can do all things in Him who strengthen me.’ We can do all things by prayer, which will procure for us from God strength which we do not possess. Theodoret says that prayer is omnipotent; it is one, but it can do all things: ‘Oratio cum sit una, omnia potest.’ St. Bonaventure teaches, that ‘by prayer, is obtained possession of every good, and deliverance from every evil.’ St. Lawrence Justinian says, by the practice of prayer we can construct an impregnable citadel, in which we shall be securely protected against all the snares and violence of the enemy.—S Lau. Just de Casto. connub. Cap. 22. The powers of hell are strong, but St. Bernard says, prayer is much stronger. ‘Prayer,’ he says, ‘is more powerful than all the devils;’ because by prayer the soul obtains the divine assistance, which is infinitely superior to every created power. It was this that encouraged David in all his fears and dangers. ‘Praising,’ he said, ‘I will call upon the Lord: and I shall be saved from my enemies.’—Psalm 17:4. ‘Prayer,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘is a great armour, a strong defense, a safe harbour, an inexhaustible treasure.’—S Chry. In Psalm 145. Prayer is an armour capable of resisting all the assaults of the devil; it is a defense which preserves us in every danger, a port which saves us in every storm, and a treasure which supplies us with every good.

Knowing the great advantages which we derive from the necessity of prayer, God permits the enemy to assail us, that we may seek the assistance which He offers and promises to us. But the neglect of prayer is as displeasing to God, as the invocation of His name in the time of danger, is acceptable in His sight. As, says, St. Bonaventure, a king considers a general to be unfaithful, who, when besieged by the enemy, does not seek assistance, so God regards as traitors those Christians who, when beset by temptations, do not apply to Him for aid. For He desires to succour them abundantly, and only waits to be asked for support. The willingness of almighty God to grant us the protection we stand in need of, was strikingly evinced in His conduct to the faithless Achaz. He told that king, by the mouth of the prophet Isaias, to ask a sign of the readiness and eagerness of the Lord to come to his assistance. ‘Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God.’—Isaias, 7:11. Trusting in his own strength, and expecting to defeat the enemy without the divine aid, the impious king answered, ‘I will not ask, and I will not tempt the Lord.’—Isaias, 7:12. But to show how much Go is offended by the neglect of those who ask not the graces which He offers, the prophet exclaimed, ‘Hear you therefore, O house of David: is it a small thing for you to be grievous to men, that you are grievous to my God also.’—Isaias, 7:13.

‘Come to me all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.’—Matt 11:28. My dear children, says the Redeemer, do not lose courage, when assailed by your enemies, and oppressed by the weight of your sins, have recourse to me by prayer, and I will give you strength to resist their attacks, and will repair all your losses. In another place He says by the mouth of Isaias, ‘come and accuse me, saith the Lord: if your sins be as scarlet they shall be made white as snow.’—Isaias, 1:18. O ye children of men, He says, have recourse to me; however burdened your consciences may be, do not cease to supplicate my mercy: if, after having called upon me, I do not give you my grace, and make you white as snow, I shall patiently submit to your reproaches. What is prayer? ‘Prayer,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘is an anchor to those who are tossed by the tempest, it is the treasure of the poor, the remedy of sickness, and the safeguard of health.’—S. Chry. Hom. 31. Ad. Pop. An. In the time of storm, prayer is a secure anchor; in poverty, an inexhaustible treasure of riches; in infirmity, a most efficacious remedy; and in health, an infallible preservative. What is the effect of prayer? ‘It appeases God,’ says St. Laurence Justinian, ‘it obtains what is asked, it subdues adversaries, it changes men.’—S. Laur. Just. de Perf. cap. 12. Prayer pacifies the anger of God, who immediately pardons all who humbly ask forgiveness; it obtains every grace which is sought; it overcomes all the forces of the enemy; and changes men, by giving light to the blind, strength to the weak, and sanctity to sinners. If any one stand in need of light, let him ask from God, and it will be given to him. As soon as I had recourse to God, says Solomon, He granted me wisdom. ‘I called on the Lord, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me.’—Wisd. 7:7. If any one is weak, let him ask for strength, and it will be given to him. As soon as I opened my mouth to pray, says holy David, I obtained succour from God. ‘I opened my mouth and panted.’—Ps. 118:131. And how, except by prayer, which procured strength to overcome torments and death, were the holy martyrs enabled to withstand the persecutions of tyrants.

‘Whoever,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘practices prayer, fears not death, leaves the earth, enters heaven, and lives with God.’—S. Chrys. Ser. 43. He sins not; and divested of every earthly affection, he begins to dwell in heaven, and to enjoy the conversation of God. Why then should such a one be disturbed by vain apprehensions that his name may not be written in the book of life; that God may not give him efficacious graces, or the gift of final perseverance. ‘Be not,’ says St. Paul, ‘solicitous about any thing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your petitions be known unto God.’—Phil. 4:6. Do not allow yourselves to be agitated by groundless fears: banish all uneasiness and solicitude, which only lessen confidence, and increase tepidity and sloth, in the work of salvation. Pray always, make your prayers acceptable to God, thank Him continually for His promises to grant to your prayers efficacious graces, perseverance, salvation, and whatsoever may be necessary for you. The Lord has placed us in battle array to contend with powerful enemies; but He is faithful to His promises, and will not permit their attacks to surpass our strength. ‘And God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able.’—1 Cor 10:13. He is faithful, and instantly affords succour to all who call upon Him. The learned Cardinal Gotti asserts, that ‘when in our temptations we fly to the divine protection, God is bound to grant strength, by which we can and will actually resist; for we can do all things in Him who strengthens us by grace, provided we ask it with humility.’—Gotti. Theol. Tom. 2. de grat. tract. 6. q. 2 § 3. n. 30. Being able to procure by humble prayer the divine aid, which will enable us to do all things, we are inexcusable if we yield to temptation. It is our own fault if we be vanquished: our defeats are the result of the neglect of prayer. By prayer we might repel all the attacks of the enemy. ‘By Prayer,’ says St. Augustine, ‘all evils are put to flight.’—S. Aug. Ser. de Orat.

St. Bernadine of Sienna says, that prayer is a most faithful ambassador, well known to the King of heaven, accustomed to enter His chamber, and by its importunity to incline His pious will to grant every assistance to us miserable sinners, who groan amidst combats, and under the weight of our miseries in this valley of tears.—S. Ber. Serm. In Dom. 3. Isaias assures us, that as soon as the Lord hears our prayers, He is moved to compassion; that He does not allow our sorrows to continue long, but instantly grants what we ask from Him. ‘Weeping thou shalt not weep; He will surely have pity on thee: at the voice of thy cry, as soon as He shall hear, He will answer thee.’—Isa. 30:19. The Lord complains of His people by the Prophet Jeremiah, saying, ‘Am I become a wilderness to Israel, or a lateward springing land? Why then have my people said, we are revolted, and we will come to thee no more?’—Jer. 2:31. Why, says the Lord, do you say you will have recourse to me no more? Is my mercy a barren land, which can produce no fruits of grace in your behalf? Or a soil which gives its fruit too late? Such is the tender and affecting language in which our loving Lord represents His immediate and unceasing attention to our supplications, and in which He sharply rebukes the tepidity of those who, through diffidence of being heard, abandon prayer.

To be permitted once in the month to present our petitions before the throne of God, would be a great favour. Earthly monarchs seldom give audience to their subjects; but God is ready at all times to listen to the petitions of His servants. St. Chrysostom says, that ‘God is always prepared to hear our prayers, and that a petition presented to Him, and accompanied with the necessary conditions, never fails to attain its object.’ In another place he says, that what we ask is obtained before the conclusion of our prayers.—S. Chry. Hom. 52. in Matt. This is confirmed by God’s own promise: ‘As they are yet speaking I will answer.’—Isaias, 65:24. The Lord, says David, is near to all who pray to Him, and ready to console, to favour, and save them. The Lord is night to all them that call on Him, to all that call upon Him in truth. He will do the will of them that fear Him, and He will hear their prayer and save them.’—Ps. 144:19. It was in the privilege of constant access to the Lord, that Moses gloried. ‘Neither,’ said he, ‘is there any other nation so great, that hath God so nigh them, as our God is present to all our petitions.’—Deut. 4:7. The gods of the gentiles being miserable and impotent creatures, disregarded the prayers of their votaries; but the God of Israel being omnipotent, is not inattentive to our cries, but is nigh to us, and ready to grant all the graces ask from Him. ‘In what day soever says the Psalmist, ‘I shall call upon thee, behold I know thou art my God.’—Ps. 55:11. As if he said, Lord, in this I know you are to me a God of goodness and of mercy, that whensoever I have recourse to you, I shall obtain immediate relief.

We indeed are poor, but by prayer our wants may be speedily supplied. If we are poor, God is rich, and liberal beyond measure, to all who invoke His assistance. ‘He is rich,’ says St. Paul, ‘to all who call upon Him.’—Rom. 10:12. Since, then, our petitions are presented to a God of infinite power, and of infinite riches, let us ask not for trifles, but for valuable and important favours. ‘You ask from the omnipotent,’ says St. Augustine, ‘ask for something grand and magnificent.’ He that asks the king for a trifle, casts an imputation on his power and generosity, and dishonors his majesty. But we honour God, we adore His mercy and liberality, when, notwithstanding our misery and our unworthiness to receive any favour from Him, we ask His graces with confidence in His goodness, and in the fidelity of His promises to grant whatever is sought in the name of Jesus Christ. ‘You shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you.’—John 15:7. St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzis says, that God feels honored and consoled, and even grateful, when we ask His graces; because, by praying to Him we afford Him an opportunity of pouring out His benefits, and manifesting His bounty, which prompts Him to bestow His favours on all. We may be persuaded that He always grants more than we ask. ‘But if any one,’ says St. James, ‘want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraided not.’—St. James 1:5. St. James speaks in this manner to denote, that God does not, like man, dispense His favours with a parsimonious hand. Human riches being finite, are diminished by every contribution to the poor; and therefore men, however opulent, compassionate, and liberal, are always sparing of their alms, and seldom grant the full prayer of their petitioners. But the treasures of God being infinite, the more He bestows, the more He still has to give; and therefore He distributes His graces with a liberal hand, always granting more than is sought. ‘For thou, O Lord are sweet and mild, and plenteous to all that call upon thee.’—Ps. 85:5. You, O my God, said holy David, are sweet and liberal beyond measure to all who invoke you; the superabundant mercies which you pour down upon your servants, far exceed their demands.

Being assured, then, that prayer opens all the treasures of heaven, we should be careful, to pray with unbounded confidence. ‘Let us attend to this,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘and we shall open heaven to ourselves.’ Prayer is a treasure from which each derives advantages in proportion to the frequency and fervour of his supplications. St. Bonaventure says that a Christian, as often as he has recourse to God by fervent prayer, obtains graces which are more valuable than the entire world.—S. Bon. In Luc. 18. There are some fervent souls who devote a great deal of time to reading and meditation, but attend very little to prayer. Spiritual reading and meditation are certainly very profitable; but St. Augustine says that prayer is much more beneficial to the soul. Spiritual reading and meditation teach us our obligations, but prayer obtains grace to fulfill them. ‘Prayer’ says St. Augustine, ‘is better than reading; by reading we learn what we ought to do, by prayer we receive what we ask.’—S. Aug. in Ps. 75. To know our duties and not perform them, only renders us more guilty before God. Though our spiritual lectures and meditations should be very long and frequent, we shall never discharge our duties, unless we ask God’s assistance to fulfill them.

Hence, observes St. Isidore, the devil is never so vigorous in his efforts to suggest to our minds worldly thought, as when we are employed in seeking God’s grace by holy prayer. And why?, because the enemy sees that it is by prayer we procure the choicest gifts of heaven. The principal advantage of meditation is, that it stimulates us to ask of God the graces necessary for perseverance and for eternal salvation. Hence, the chief reason of the moral necessity of mental prayer to preserve the life of grace is, that he who is not reminded by meditation of his obligation to pray for the helps necessary for perseverance and eternal life, will never remember it: unless he meditates he will never think of the necessity of seeking assistance from above, and therefore will never ask it. But he that meditates every day, perceives his own wants; he sees the dangers by which he is encompassed, and the absolute necessity of prayer to save his soul. The lights received in meditation teach him to pray, and by prayer he will obtain grace, which will ensure his perseverance and salvation. Father Segneri said that in the beginning of his mental prayer, which was long and frequent, he was accustomed to direct his efforts more to the excitation of pious affections than to humble petition; but being convinced in the course of his reflections, of the necessity and immense advantages of prayer, he then generally devoted the remainder of his meditation to fervent supplication of God’s mercy.

‘I will cry like a young swallow,’ (Is. 38:14) said the devout king Ezechias. As the young swallow is continually crying to its mother for help and food, so should our prayers and tears, if we desire to preserve the life of grace, be constantly poured forth to God for protection against the death of sin, and for assistance to advance in His holy love. Father Rodriguez relates that the ancient Fathers, the first spiritual masters, having consulted together, came to the conclusion that the best and most indispensable means of salvation consisted in the frequent repetition of the short prayer of holy David. ‘Incline unto my aid, O God.’ With them Cassian [Conferences 10.10] agrees; he says that whoever desires to be saved, should be continually occupied in reciting the following prayer: Assist me, O my God; assist me, O my God. [Ps. 70.1] We ought to begin the day by reciting that prayer the instant we awake; we should repeat it, in all our necessities, in all our occupations spiritual as well as temporal, and especially when we are molested by any passion or temptation. St. Bonaventure says that sometimes grace is more readily obtained by one short prayer than by many good works.—S. Bon. de Prof. rel. lib. 2. c. 68. ‘Sometimes’, he says, ‘a person very easily procures by a short prayer what he would scarcely obtain by pious works.’ St. Ambrose declares that he who asks receives whilst he is praying, because to pray and to receive are one and the same! S. Am. 84. ad. Demet. Hence, St. Chrysostom asserts that ‘nothing is more powerful than a man who prays,’ because he partakes of the power of God. St. Bernard teaches that to arrive at perfection, prayer and meditation are necessary; by meditation we see our wants, and through prayer we receive what is necessary for us. ‘Let us,’ he says, ‘ascend by meditation and prayer; the former points out what is wanted, and the latter obtains it.’—S. Ber. ser. 1. de S. Andrea.

In a word, to be saved without prayer, is, as we have seen, most difficult, and in God’s ordinary providence, impossible. But prayer renders salvation most easy and secure. To be saved, it is not necessary, like the martyrs, to expose our lives for the faith; nor, like the holy anchorets, to retire into the desert, and live on wild herbs. No; it is sufficient to send forth our cries frequently to heaven, saying, Assist me, O Lord; O my God, assist me and have mercy on me: and what more easy than continually to invoke the Lord? St. Laurence Justinian exhorts us to make an effort to pray at least at the beginning of all our actions. ‘We should,’ he says, ‘endeavour to pour forth our prayer in the beginning at least of every work.’ Cassian says, that the ancient Fathers recommended, in a particular manner, the practice of having recourse to God by short but frequent prayers. ‘Let no person,’ says St. Bernard, ‘make little of his prayer, since God sets a high value on it; He will give what we ask, or what He knows will be more useful to us.’—S. Ber. Serm. 5. de Quad. If we do not pray, we shall certainly be without excuse; for the grace of prayer is given to all; it is in our power to pray whenever we wish. ‘With me,’ says David, ‘is prayer to the God of my life; I will say to God, thou art my support.’—Ps. 41:9-10. This point is fully discussed in the second part of this work, in which it is clearly demonstrated, that God bestows on all the grace of prayer, to enable them by pious supplications to obtain abundant aid to observe the divine law, and to persevere unto death in God’s service. For the present, I will only say, that if we be not saved, it will be our own fault: we shall be lost, only because we shall not have prayed.

Source: St. Alphonsus Liguori. A Short Treatise on Prayer (Chapter 2); tr. A Catholic Clergyman.


St. Alphonsus Liguori. A Short Treatise on Prayer (On The Great Means of Prayer). Tr. A Catholic Clergyman. Dublin, 1834.

St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection. In: Complete Works of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, The Ascetical Works, Volume 3, ed. Eugene Grimm, New York, 1886 (repr. 1927).  Audiobook version.

Written by John Uebersax

May 19, 2022 at 2:40 am

Comenius’ Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart

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Jan Amos Comenius, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 

JOHAN AMOS COMENIUS (Jan Amos Komensky; 1592–1670) is a great Czech benefactor of humanity.  Considered one of the founders of modern education, he was also a bishop and devotional writer.  His work The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart is a masterpiece of spiritual writing. It takes the form of an allegory, with the soul as a pilgrim wandering through the world (it is the inspiration for Bunyan’s later work, Pilgrim’s Progress.).  Along the way it witnesses every conceivable kind of human folly, pretension, injustice and misery.  Thoroughly disillusioned with the world and its vanities, the soul everntually looks within, finding the “paradise of the heart” and Christ, the soul’s teacher, guide and companion. Contemplation and prayer leading to holiness, and a complete subordination of ones ego to God’s will, is the only solution to the labyrinth of the world.

Comenius wrote this during the Thirty Years’ War, one of the bloodiest in European history, and after his wife and two children died of plague. The following excerpt comes from Part 2.


The First Conversion is the Work of God.

1. Now, when I cease speaking, and am still shaking with fear, I hear above me a mysterious voice that said “Return!” And I lift my head to see who was calling; but I see nothing, not even my guide Searchall; for he, too, had now forsaken me.

2. And lo! now a voice again resounded “Return!” Then knowing not how to turn back, nor whither to go out of this darkness, I began to sorrow, when lo! the voice again called: “Return whence thou camest to the house of the heart, and then close the doors behind thee.”

The Second Conversion requires our own Endeavours also.

3. This counsel I obeyed as well as I could, and it was well with me that I thus obeyed God, who had counselled me; but this was yet a gift from Him. Then collecting my thoughts as best I could, I closed my eyes, ears, mouth, nostrils, and abandoned all contact with external things. Then I entered into the innermost of my heart, and behold! everything therein was darkness. But when, with blinking eyes, I gaze a little around me, I behold a weak light that penetrated through the crevices; and I see above me, in the vaulting of this my little chamber, what appeared to me a large, round, glassy window; but it had been so much soiled and bedaubed that scarce any light came through it.

Description of Corrupt Nature.

4. Then, looking around me by means of this dim, scant light, I see on the walls certain small pictures of, as it seemed, sometime pretty work; but the colours had faded, and some portions of the pictures had been hewn off, or broken off. Approaching them more closely, I see on them inscriptions such as Prudence, Meekness, Justice, Chastity, Temperance, and so forth. Then in the middle of the chamber I see divers broken and damaged ladders, and pincers and ropes, that had been damaged and scattered about; item, large ​wings with plucked plumes; lastly, clock-works with broken or bent cylinders, dents, and little columns; and all this was scattered about at random, here and there.

Corrupt Nature cannot be mended by Worldly Wisdom.

5. And I wondered what was the purpose of these implements, how and by whom they had been injured, and how they could be repaired. Now thinking of this and considering it, I could devise naught; but hope arose in me that He who by His call had led me to this chamber, whoever He might be, would again address me, and further instruct me. For that of which I had here seen but the beginning pleased me well, both because my little chamber had not the evil smell of the other places, through which I had passed in the world, and also because I found not here rustle and rush, noise and crash, unrest and reeling to and fro, tussling and violence (things of which the world is full). Here everything was quiet.


Our Illumination cometh from on High.

1. I now devise of this with myself, and wait what will further befall. And behold, a clear light appeared on high, and raising my eyes towards it, I see the window above me full of brightness, and from out of that brightness there appeared One, in aspect, indeed, similar to a man, but in His splendour truly God. His countenance shone exceedingly, yet could human eyes gaze at it, for it caused not terror; rather had it a loveliness such as I had never seen in the world. He then—kindness itself, friendliness itself—addressed me in these most sweet words:

Wherein the Source of all Light and all Joy lieth.

2. “Welcome, welcome, my son and dear brother.” And having said these words, He embraced me, and kissed me kindly. There came forth from Him a most delightful odour, and I was seized by such unspeakable delight that tears flowed from my eyes, and I knew not how to ​respond to so unexpected a greeting. Only sighing deeply, I gazed at Him with meek eyes. Then He, seeing me overwhelmed with joy, spoke thus further to me: “Where, then, has thou been, my son? why hast thou tarried so long? by what path hast thou come? what hast thou sought in the world? Joy! where could thou seek it but in God; and where couldst thou seek God, but in His own temple; and what is the temple of the living God, but the living temple that He Himself has fashioned—thine own heart? I saw, my son, that thou wentest astray, but I would see it no longer. I have brought thee to thy own self. I have led thee into thyself. For here have I chosen my palace and my dwelling. If thou wishest here to dwell with me, thou wilt find here, what thou hast vainly sought on earth, rest, comfort, glory, and abundance of all things. This I promise thee, my son, that thou wilt not be deceived here as thou wert there in the world.”

The Pilgrim gives himself over entirely to Jesus.

3. Hearing such speech, and understanding that He who spake was my Redeemer, Jesus Christ, of whom I had indeed heard somewhat in the world, but superficially only, I folded my hands, and then stretched them out, not, as in the world, with fear and doubt, but with full happiness and complete faith; then I said: “I am here, my Lord Jesus; take me to Thee. Thine I wish to be, and to remain for ever. Speak to Thy servant, and ​permit me to hear Thee; tell me what Thou desirest, and grant that I find pleasure in it; lay on me what burden Thou thinkest fit, and grant that I may bear it; employ me for whatever purpose Thou desirest, and grant me that I may not be found wanting; order me to act according to Thy will, and grant me grace to do so. Let me be nothing, that Thou mayest be everything.”


God’s Wisdom directs even our Errors.

1. “I accept this from thee, my son,” quoth He. “Hold to this, become, call thyself, and remain mine own. Mine, indeed, thou wert and art from all eternity, but thou knewest it not. I have long prepared for thee that happiness to which I will now lead thee; but thou didst not understand this. I have led thee to thyself through strange paths and by roundabout ways; this thou knewest not, nor what I, the ruler of all my chosen ones, intended; neither didst thou perceive by what means I worked on thee. But I was everywhere with thee, and therefore somewhat guided thee through these crooked paths, that I might at last bring thee yet closer to me. Naught could the world, naught thy guides, naught Solomon teach thee. They could by no means enrich thee, content thee, satisfy the desires of thy heart, for they had not that which thou didst seek. But I will teach thee everything, enrich thee, content thee.”

All Worldly Striving should be transferred to God.

2. “This only I demand of thee, that whatever thou hast seen in the world, and whatever struggles thou hast witnessed among men, thou shouldst transfer it to me, and lay the burden of it on me. This, as long as thou livest, shall be thy work and thy task; of that which men seek there in the world, but find not—to wit, peace and joy—I will give thee abundance.”

The Pilgrim joins Christ only, his Eternal Spouse.

3. “Thou hast seen in the estate of the married people how those who find pleasure in one another leave everything, that they may belong to each other. Do thus thou also, leave everything, even thyself; give thyself up fully to me, and thou wilt be mine, and it will be well. As long as thou dost not this, thou wilt, I assure thee, obtain no solace for thy soul. For in the world everything changeth; everything beside me for which thy mind and thy desire will strive, will, in one way or another, cause thee toil and discontent; at last it will forsake thee, and the joy that thou hadst found in it will turn to woe. Therefore I faithfully counsel thee, my son, forsake everything and cling to me; be mine, and I thine. Let us shut ourselves up together here in this shrine, and thou wilt feel truer joy than can be found in carnal wedlock. Strive, then, to love ​me alone; to have me as thy one counsellor, leader, friend, companion, and comrade in all things. And whenever thou speakest to me, say, ‘I only and thou, oh, my Lord!’ Thou needest not heed any third one. Cling but to me, gaze at me, converse sweetly with me, embrace me, kiss me; expect also all things from me.

Christ should be considered our only Gain.

4. “Thou hast seen in other conditions how the men who seek gain busy themselves with endless labours, what artifices they employ, what perils they risk. Thou must now consider all this striving as vanity, knowing that one thing alone is necessary, the grace of God. Therefore, limiting thyself to the one calling which I have entrusted to thee, conduct thy labours faithfully, conscientiously, quietly, entrusting to me the end and aim of all things. [. . .]

In Christ alone there is Abundance of all.

11. “Thou hast seen also what the men in that castle of feigned fortune seek, and in what they glory: riches, pleasure, fame. Heed thou none of these things. They give not peace but disquietude, and they are but the path that leadeth to sorrow. Wherefore shouldst thou value a multitude of goods; why desire it? Life requires but little, and it is my business to provide for those who serve me. Strive, therefore, to collect inward treasures, illumination and piety, and I will grant thee everything else. Heaven and earth will belong to thee by inheritance; be thou certain of this. Neither will such things vex thee and oppress thee as do the things of the world; rather will they give thee unspeakable joy.

The Pilgrim’s most dear Companions.

12. “The worldly ones gladly seek companionship; but thou must absent thyself from noisy striving, and learn to love solitude. Companionship is but an aid to sin, or to senseless fooling, idleness, or waste of time. Yet wilt thou not be alone; ​fear not, even if thou art alone. I am with thee, and the multitude of my angels; with us wilt thou be able to imparl [confer]. Yet if at times thou desirest visible companionship also, seek out those who are of the same spirit. Thus will your companionship be a joint devotion to God.

True Delights.

13. “These others find their pleasure in plentiful banquets, eating, drinking, laughter. But it shall be thy pleasure, when necessary, to hunger, thirst, cry, suffer blows, and so forth, for my sake and with me. Yet if I grant thee pleasurable things, thou mayest also rejoice (but not because of these things, rather because of me, and for my sake).

True Glory.

14. “Thou hast seen how these others strive for glory and honours; but thou must not heed the reports of men. Whether men speak well or evil of thee, it imports not, if but I am satisfied with thee. If thou but knowest that thou pleasest me, curry not favour with men; their good will is fickle, imperfect, perverse; they often love that which is worthy of hate, and hate that which is worthy of love. Nor is it possible to please all; striving to please one, thou disgusteth others. By not considering all these, and by heeding me only, thou wilt fare best. If we both then agree together, the voice of man can neither take anything from you ​nor from me, nor grant anything. Strive not to know many, my son. Let thy glory be to be humble, that the world may, if possible, know nothing of thee; this is best and safest. My angels, indeed, will know of thee, speak of thee, seek to serve thee; announce, if necessary, thy works to heaven and earth. Be then certain of this. But truly when the time of the amendment of all things comes, all ye who have submitted yourselves to me shalt be led to unspeakable glory before the angels and the whole world. Compared to this glory, all worldly glory is but a shadow.

This is the Summit of all.

15. “Therefore, my son, I will say briefly: If thou hast goods, learning, beauty, wit, favour among the people, and everything that in the world is called prosperity, be not too proud; if thou hast not these things, heed it not; forsaking all these things, whether they be with thee or with others, find thy inward employment with me. And then having freed thyself from all created beings, denied also and renounced thy own self, thou wilt find me, and in me the fulness of peace; this I promise thee.”

To give yourself up wholly to Christ is the most blessed thing.

16. And I said: “Lord, my God, I understand that Thou alone art everything. He who hath Thee can easily lack the whole world, for in Thee ​alone he hath more than he can desire. I erred—I now understand it—when I wandered through the world seeking solace in created things. But from this hour I will delight in naught but in Thee. To thee I now already give myself up wholly. Deign, then, to strengthen me, that I may not abandon Thee in favour of created things, nor again commit the follies of which the world is full. May Thy grace preserve me! I put my full trust in it.”


While I speak thus, it appears to me as if there were a strange light around me. The small pictures that I had previously seen partly effaced and broken, I now beheld intact, clear, and beautiful; for thus did they now appear to move before mine eyes. The scattered and broken wheels also were joined together, and out of them was formed a noble instrument similar to a clock, which showed the course of the world, and God’s wondrous guidance. The ladders also had been repaired and placed against the windows, through which the heavenly light penetrated, so that—as I understood—one could look outward. The wings, also, that I had seen with plucked plumes had received a new large plumage, and He who was speaking to me—our Lord—took them and fastened them on to me, and said: “My son, I dwell in two spots, in heaven in my glory, and on earth in the hearts of the humble. And I desire that henceforth thou also shouldst have two dwelling-places, one here at home, where I have promised to be with thee; the other with me in heaven. That thou mayest raise thyself ​thither, I give thee these wings (which are the desire of eternal happines and prayer). If thou dost will it, thou shalt be able to fly upward unto me, and thou shalt have delight in me, and I in thee.”


Louthan, Howard; Sterk, Andrea (trs.). Johann Amos Comenius: The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. Paulist Press, 1998.

Lützow, Franz (tr.). Johann Amos Comenius: The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. Dutton, 1901.


Jean Gerson’s Mountain of Contemplation

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Illumination, Master of Cardinal of Bourbon,  Livre de la contemplation,  MS FR 1847, KBR

THE PURPOSE of this post is to describe and recommend a short devotional work, the Mountain of Contemplation (Montaigne de contemplation; 1400) by the French theologian and contemplative, Jean Gerson (1363–1429).  This work is not well known, but very valuable and well worth consideration as an addition to ones reading list.

Jean Gerson is best known as a theologian, educational reformer (a Chancellor of the University of Paris) and Church reformer (e.g., instrumental in resolving the multiple claims to the papacy during the Great Schism). The last earned him the enmity of powerful French political officials, and for a while he was forced into exile.  Gerson was far from a stuffy Canon Law authority and intellectual. He championed the development of spirituality amongst the laity and denounced the intellectual pretensions of academics.

This authentic pietistic interest is reflected in the Mountain of Contemplation, which he wrote as a guide to contemplative life for two of his sisters. Unlike most of his works, written in Latin, this was composed in vernacular French.  It has a warm unpretentious style, full of common sense advice, and abounds in practical analogies taken from ordinary life.

The work takes the form of 45 short sections, numbered and titled, followed by an appendix with 11 rules of conduct. I will try within my limited ability to supply a short summary below.  However I can’t do justice to this helpful and charming work and would rather encourage people to read the whole thing — which, as I say, is not very long.

The guiding image Gerson uses is that of ascending a mountain. Three stages of the ascent are identified, which he calls (1) humble penitence, (2) silence and solitude, and (3) strong perseverance.  This simple three-fold division is very useful because it allows him considerable flexibility in discussing each stage.

The following is a short paraphrase/summary.


Contemplative life has both degrees and parts. The parts involve affect, on the one hand, and knowledge on the other.  The way of knowledge seeks rational understanding and explanations of the nature of God and his works. This is useful because (1) it can find new truths, (2) it can make truths explicit and teachable; (3) it permits refutation of false or heretical beliefs.  Nevertheless, the way of affect is higher still, and reaches a wisdom greater than knowledge.  An analogy can be drawn with honey:  it’s one thing to analyze the physical properties of honey, and quite another to taste and savor the goodness of its flavor. Affective contemplation, then, is like tasting God.  It supplies ‘savory wisdom’ by means of direct experience (§§ 1−5).

The contemplative life is open to ordinary people as well as theologians. The main requirements are deep-rooted faith and belief in God and in His power, wisdom, goodness and plan for our redemption. The end of contemplative life is love of God.  In order to attain this, the contemplative will want to give up all unnecessary other pursuits and occupations (§§ 6−10).

Opposing our love of God is our love of the world, and the latter must be removed if we are to make spiritual progress.  The adverse effects of love of the world are illustrated by several analogies, including a bird that is snared, one encaged, mortar that clings to the feet of the soul and prevents ascent, a chain or leash, an evil queen who founds a city of confusion, and the clamorous household of a mad woman (§ 11).

Love of the world is very hard — much more than most people realize — to give up. Therefore God assists us in many ways, both by means of gifts and by adversity. Gifts may include direct inspirations and inner motions of the soul, angelic assistance, and other people who supply good teaching and instruction. Forms of instructive adversity may include illness, poverty and war. Blessings we may provide for ourselves include reading about the lives of saints, consciously dedicating ourselves to good, and meditating on salvation.  Every day it is within our power to provide such an experience (§§ 12−15).

At this point he states the three stages of the journey: humble penitence, secrecy of place and silence, and strong perseverance.  Humble penitence seeks to mortify worldly love.  Gerson does not dwell on this topic, leaving its details more or less implicit, but he does mention such traditional penitential practices for chastising the flesh as fasting, lack of sleep, abstinence, tears, and manual labor.  The last leads to a discussion of the active versus contemplative life.  One should not seek the latter without some experience in the former.  The active life involves difficulties and adversities, the overcoming of which will aid us. Like Jacob, we must first marry Leah (active life) before winning as our bride Rachel (contemplative life). Regardless, we will always need to manifest both the qualities of Martha (active life) and Mary (contemplative life), but in different relative degrees.

Love of God is the aim of contemplative life. Humble penitence helps to produce a healthy contempt for worldly and strong yearning for heavenly things. Consider the example of people obsessed with earthly loves (e.g., for money, fame or carnality). We should love God with this much single-minded devotion, and consider every worldly thing in comparison like a dream, a fable, a nonentity (§§ 16−20).

The second level of contemplative ascent consists of stillness and privacy by which means one returns to oneself.  This retreat into a secret place or silence can be understood both in a physical and mental sense. In the exterior sense, one may seek privacy in a secluded place — woods, forest, desert, fields, hidden parts of churches, or merely a hidden part of ones own domicile.  For this preferences differ, and one cannot give a general rule. Bodily posture, including kneeling, sitting and lying down, may contribute to clarity of thought (§§ 21−25).

Three specious criticisms are commonly raised against lay people who follow a contemplative life.  These are (1) that such a person does good only for herself and not others, (2) she wants to know too much and reaches too high; and (3) in the end it only leads to disappointment, madness and melancholy.  These objections are easily refuted (§§ 26−29).

As he prepares to consider the highest stage, he discusses generally the nature and fruits of contemplation. He reaffirms the necessity of grace for spiritual progress. In contemplation the soul experiences elevation, unity and simplicity. To reach this condition involves a combination of powerful and holy meditation, and burning love.  The soul suspends other operations, wholly concentrated and absorbed, oblivious to all else, like painters, or as in a famous story about Archimedes.

Here follows a short summary of Richard of St. Victor’s multidimensional taxonomy of contemplative experience as given in his work, The Mystical Ark.  There Richard describes six levels, three modes, and three qualities of contemplation.

Of the levels, two are in the imagination, two in the reason (ratio), and two in the intelligence (intellectus). The three modes of experience are enlargement (dilatatio mentis), ascent (sublevatio mentis) and cutting off (alienatio mentis) of conscious awareness.  The three qualities of contemplative experience are a sense of wonder, of deep devotion, and of spiritual enjoyment or comfort. Gerson refers readers to Richard for more details (§§ 30−32).

We now proceed to consider the third level of strong perseverance, the summer to which the preceding levels are like winter and spring, respectively, or the noon to which they are like night and morning. Here the soul is consumed in its quest for union with the divine. Nothing remains for this person but to serve and love God, to think and to speak of Him. The soul has taken root again in the good earth and bears fruit. Chastisements are seen as signs of God’s love, good and necessary (§ 33).

Common obstacles and hindrances that occur at this point are discussed. Several are suggested by the analogy to climbing a physical mountain: some people give up the climb too easily, stopping and descending as soon as they meet with difficulty. Others climb to impatiently, trying to master the summit without beginning at the base and the middle.  The base is the humble consideration of one’s sins and faults. Still others carry too weighty a burden in the form of worldly occupation and the great amount of thought one puts into it. Others believe that they already are at the summit when they are not. Many neglect to always hold their right hand out to the One who must pull them up from above. Our guide is God’s grace.

Other common hindrances include mortifying ones body too much, reading too much (in reading one should seek devotion more than acquisition of knowledge), and frequently jumping from one path to another, instead of staying on a single course (§§ 34−36).

There is diversity in the methods employed and experiences in this phase, as illustrated in the lives of such saints as Saint Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Jerome and St. Bernard (§§ 37−38).

Another example (probably from his own experience) is of a man who, upon experiencing spiritual dryness, resolved to sit at the foot of a tree for several hours each day, praying to and imploring the intercession of angels and many saints, one by one.  While difficult at first, before long the practice became easier, and eventually he could enter a contemplative state with less effort (§ 39).

Continuing with the same theme, he relates an idea of William of Auxerre (c.1145–1231): that we should follow the example of paupers, pilgrims, prisoners or alms seekers — and earnestly and humbly plead for help from God, angels and saints. No books will serve one so well as strong perseverance.  Other helpful methods include remembrance of ones own death, and the great spiritual needs of friends who must likewise face death.  Let us have pity and mercy on ourselves and others (§§ 40−42).

By way of summary, a helpful analogy is proposed.  Imagine a sea filled with all kinds of people sailing hither and thither on various ships, mostly ending in wrecks.  On the shore a person watches, detached, from a very high rock. The rock has three levels, which correspond to faith, hope and charity.  This is the rock of contemplation, and the three theological virtues correspond to the aforementioned levels of penitence, withdrawal, and strong perseverance.  Those who endure may reach no end of beautiful acts of contemplation.  One may know and sense God ineffably, as in grasping a sweetness, a fullness, a taste, a melody (§§ 43−44).

Contemplation is something vast and abundant, with countless forms of experience. In the end we may say that God’s grace can be especially present to the soul in three ways:

1. By justification, which cannot be felt but which makes the soul pleasing to God.

2. By consolations and spiritual joys, such as:

a. A feeling of melting into some sweetness;

b. A wondrous certitude, wherein one is greatly displeased with oneself and takes ones sole pleasure in God;

c. A sense of expansion of the heart or intelligence that finds God to be so excellent and infinitely majestic, all on Earth seems as nothing except as it reveals God’s presence;

d. A spiritual, sober intoxication causing one to praise God and see everything as full of God’s glory and praise (Ps 19:1; Ps 96:11−12; Ps 150:6) .

3. Ecstatic union such as St. Paul experienced (2 Cor 12:2−4), concerning which Gerson considers himself not worthy to discuss (§§ 45).


As a practical work I enjoyed Mountain of Contemplation very much.  It whets my appetite to read his more technical On Mystical Theology, as well as another vernacular piece, On Spiritual Begging (Mendicité spirituelle).

I’d also like to learn more about his proposed reforms to theological education.  Gerson maintained that universities’ over-emphasis on rationalism and book-learning contribute to pride and elitism in the academic ranks. Clerical education, he believed, also needs to cultivate piety, humility and personal holiness.  Clearly there are parallels here with modern universities.

I also found the work helpful in supplying perspective on the historical relationship between affective and rational forms of Christian mysticism. In St. Augustine these two strands are inseparable and mutually reinforcing. Augustine was a Platonist, and Platonism is rational mysticism par excellence. For the Platonist, Intellect is no hindrance to affect. Rather, the more we develop our Intellect, the more we can understand God’s works in the world, giving greater cause to love and praise Him.  Moreover, the more we experience the greatness of human Intellect and its seemingly unlimited capacity, the more cause we have for gratitude to, awe of, and love for God.

Then why did affective and rational mysticism become separated?  Did it simply happen when the works of Pseudo-Dionysius — for whom affective and apophatic mysticism dominate — reached the West?  But in that case, why were Richard of St. Victor and St. Bonaventure able to maintain a fully integral mysticism, combining affective and rational components, in the 13th century?  These two influential writers successfully blended the Augustinian and Dionysian traditions.

Gerson may supply us with a clue: that as the universities grew to dominate theology, integral spirituality — one combining affect and intellect — gave way to a dry, radical rationalism.  In seeming to emphasize affect, Gerson is not so much dismissing the intellectual component of mysticism (indeed, he plainly has a high opinion of Richard of St. Victor and St. Bonaventure), as much as countering the radical rationalism of the universities.  At the same time Gerson is trying to democratize contemplation and mystical theology by stressing that it is available to all, not just the educated elite, and even to illiterate people. These considerations may have caused him to overstate the case for affectivity in Mountain of Contemplation.

Regardless, it does appear that about this time the paths of affective and rational mysticism, which had already begun to diverge, now did so more starkly and permanently.  After this we see a flourishing of affective mysticism (the trend continues today in the form of  ‘centering prayer’), yet few good examples of a rational or fully integral approach (possible exceptions might be Cambridge Platonism, Neothomism and American Transcendentalism).

However today the average education is much higher than it was in the Middle Ages.  It therefore makes less sense to argue that a large section of the population cannot understand or profit from the intellectual component of Christian mysticism, and can only operate at the level of  ‘simple faith.’  Therefore an integral mysticism that combines affective and intellectual parts (while still allowing for the ultimate primacy of the former — something on which all Christian mystics agree) is arguably more broadly appropriate.

We might question his comments about using fasts, vigils and other physical ascetical practices to develop humble penitence. These seem not only antiquated, but unnecessary and counterproductive. Is it not enough to look honestly within ones own breast to bring one to abject penitence? To, like Socrates, see a multitudinous beast lurking within (Plato, Republic 8)? Will not any honest person say with St. Paul, O wretched man that I am! (Rom 7: 24a) and arrive at deep humility? A sober appraisal of the world’s pomp and vanity reveals clearly enough the necessity of looking to God alone. Beyond these it’s unclear what physical mortification of the flesh accomplishes, except to tax strength and produce its own kind of pride. Gerson does, however, explicitly warm against excess here.


Glorieux, Palémon (ed.). Jean Gerson, Oeuvres Complètes. 10 vols. (Paris, 1960–1973); volume 7.

Combes, André. Ioannis Carlerii de Gerson de Mystica Theologia (Lugano, Switzerland: Thesaurus Mundi, 1958).

Combes, André. Théologie Mystique de Gerson: Profil de son évolution. Paris, 1963−1964.

McGuire, Brian Patrick (tr.). Jean Gerson: Early Works. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1998; Mountain of Contemplation, pp. 75−127.

McGuire, Brian Patrick (ed.). A Companion to Jean Gerson. Brill, 2006.

Severin, Renée M. Teaching Contemplation: The Role of Humility and Dialogue in Jean Gerson’s Mystical Works. Mystics Quarterly 32.1/2 (2006): 1−34.

Zinn, Grover A. (tr.). Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs, The Mystical Ark and Book Three of The Trinity. Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1979.

Art:  Master of the Cardinal de Bourbon.  Illuminations, Le secret parlement de l’homme contemplatif à son âme = Livre de la mendicité spirituelle; Livre de la contemplation; [Ars moriendi]. 1475? Bibliotheque Nationale de Belgique (KBR) MS FR 1847.

Philo’s Use of the Book of Psalms

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Papyrus Fragment: LXX Psalm 88:4-8 (P.Duk.inv. 740), Duke University

AN EARLIER post suggested that Philo’s psychological method for interpreting the Pentateuch could be applied equally well to the Book of Psalms. Philo’s exegetical writings focus almost exclusively on the Pentateuch, citing each of its five books hundreds of times, and Genesis and Exodus more than the others.  By comparison, he cites Psalms only about 25 times — although this is his next most common Old Testament source outside of the Pentateuch. A list of his references to verses from Psalms is appended to this article.

By examining how Philo himself uses Psalms, we can check our earlier hypothesis: when Philo cites verses from Psalms, does he find in them meanings consistent with his interpretations of Genesis, Exodus, and the other Pentateuch books?  The answer is yes, and three representative examples are shown here.

1. Psalm 23:1. The LORD is my shepherd (Agricultura 50−54, Mutatione 105−120)

In his exegetical works, Philo twice refers to perhaps the most famous verse of Psalms, The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Ps 23;1; herein we shall use the King James Version translation and numbering).  These occur in On Agriculture (De Agricultura) 49−54 and On The Change of Names (De Mutatione Nominum) 103−120.

In the former, he begins by explicitly stating that we may interpret the verse psychologically.  God is the good shepherd, and different parts of the soul (psyche) are what need shepherding.  Reliance on God’s guidance puts all parts of the soul under a common leader, so that they may operate harmoniously and effectively.  Otherwise it is compelled to heed many different leaders with conflicting aims.

The Universe itself, Philo tells us, relies on God as its shepherd.  The guiding influence comes not from God directly, but through the agency of his firstborn Son, the Logos, who governs all as though a great King.  If this is true of the entire Universe, then each soul should likewise utter the same cry, “The LORD is my shepherd.” As long as ones soul follows the guidance of the King, it is not only harmonized within itself but aligned with the universal plan of God’s goodness.  By Providence all things will work to good for the soul and all needs are supplied — such that it may then add with confidence, “and nothing shall I want.”

Philo’s second mention of Psalm 23:1 — longer, and more complex psychologically — occurs in On the Change of Names (De mutatione) 103−120. The context — as the title of the book implies — concerns a change of names: Moses’ father-in-law is called in Exodus both Jethro and Raguel or Rauel. We first learn that he is a priest of the Midianites. By Philo’s etymology, ‘Midian’ refers to judgment.  (Philo’s etymologies are often notoriously idiosyncratic, but this association seems reasonable, as “Midian” does suggest an association with the proto-Indo-European roots *medyo– [‘middle’] and *me– [measure].)

Jethro first sends his seven daughters to water his sheep at a communal well.  At the well they are harassed by wicked shepherds. Moses arrives on the scene and opposes these other shepherds.  Jethro’s daughters then water their flock.  Jethro is pleased to see them return sooner than usual and wonders why.  When they explain what happened, he invites Moses into the clan, where he becomes the head shepherd.  At this point, Philo tells us, Jethro’s name becomes Raguel, which means “the shepherding of God,” because now the daughters have “discarded their kinship with vanity” and have “resolved to become a part of the holy herd which is led by God’s Word.” This leads Philo to mention Psalm 23:1.

As for the psychological meaning, the seven daughters, Philo tells us, symbolize seven elemental powers (dunameis) of the soul: the five senses (aisthesis), the “reproductive power” (gyne) and “voice” (phone) (Mutatione 111). As the meanings of the last two powers aren’t fully clear, let’s consider here the five ordinary senses. These are sent by Jethro, the governing or father part of the mind in its worldly orientation (104), to water their sheep. There they fill the “troughs of the soul” — perhaps what we would call the sensorium, or, alternatively, centralized conscious experience (111). However this is opposed by the wicked shepherds, who symbolize disordered passions, “comrades of envy and malice” (112).

Moses, a teacher/leader/prophet mental disposition or sub-ego (see earlier post for discussion of these terms), discerns the nature of these opposing forces and prevails over them. In this way he functions symbolically as did Phineas (108), who, when an Israelite man slept with a Midianite woman, slew them both (Numbers 25:1–9) with a lance or sword that symbolizes discernment (cf. Philo, Allegorical Interpretation 3.242).  The sense/daughters may then water their sheep and return to their mind/father who is now in a reformed condition and guided by God. Similarly, when passions dominate our mind — when we cling to them, as it were — sensation becomes impure and corrupted. The mind is now distracted, consciousness is divided, and sensation partial, fragmentary and unclear. When Moses overcomes the bad shepherds, sensation is restored to purity and the mind to its natural integrity.

We can find a modern parallel in Abraham Maslow’s (1971) distinction between what he called D-mode (Deficiency) and B-mode (Being) cognition. Whereas D-mode sensation regards objects as means to egoistic goals, Being cognition enjoys sensations purely and for their own sake, as ends in themselves. It corresponds to the unitive state described by Christian and other religious mystics. One is in the world but not of it (118).

When the daughters return to their father with alacrity they explain that this is not due to themselves, but through the agency of the Moses, an Egyptian.  Moses is an incredibly important archetypal figure in Philo’s writings.  He is not only a leader/prophet, but a Hebrew raised as a prince of Egypt (that is, both a ‘seer of God,’ yet also with an interest in the world of sense):

For the senses are on the border-line between the intelligible realm and the sensible, and all that we can hope is that they should desire both realms and not be led by the latter only. To suppose that they will ever give their affections to the things of mind only would be the height of folly, and therefore they give both titles. By the word ‘man’ [Ex. 2:20] they point out the world which reason alone discerns, by ‘Egyptian’ they represent the world of sense. (Mutatione 118; tr. Colson & Whitaker)

Perceptual experience in the properly oriented mental condition (Raguel) is more light and subtle, and at the same time more vital, detailed and nuanced.  One may, say, savor a single sip of wine instead of gulping down an entire cup whilst already imagining a second one. This mode of perception does not weigh down consciousness or disrupt or distract higher cognitive powers.  In this more peaceful frame of mind, one may also receive subtle thoughts and impulses that originate from ones higher nature. (120)  One is able to recognize, profit from and enjoy the multitude of providential gifts God supplies (116).

2. Psalm 46:4. There is a river (Somniis 2.246− 2.300)

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

Our second example is Philo’s use of Psalms 46:4, There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High (KJV; LXX Ps. 45).  He discuses this verse in On Dreams (De somniis) 2.246−254. The context is his analysis of Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat and seven gaunt cattle (Gen. 4), which Joseph interpreted.  In the dream, Pharaoh is standing by a river (And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. Gen.41:1; KJV). Philo uses the opportunity to discuss the symbolic significance of rivers, contrasting two meanings, both allegorically understood to relate to the human soul and both being connected (though differently) with logos.

The first type of river is the constant flow of words or logoi of God, by which He providentially orders and directs all Creation, including the human soul.  This is a very Stoic notion.  For Philo, this activity is collectively directed by the Logos — understood as the Son or Chief Angel of God.  This direction is manifest as discrete units, words or logoi.  As they affect the human soul, Philo likens these to an irrigating river of Wisdom. In this discussion he alludes to the four rivers of Eden, a subject that figured prominently in his earlier work, Allegorical Interpretation 1.19.63−89.  As we are told there, this separates into four rivers, corresponding to the four cardinal virtues, watering the Garden of Eden, which symbolizes the human mind filled with holy, virtuous and divine thoughts.

In contrast, a soul in the fallen condition is subject to a different kind of river: a flow or confused torrent of disruptive, distracting thoughts (logismoi).  Philo sees an allegorical reference to this other river in Exodus 7:15 Behold, he is going forth to the river, and thou shalt stand in the way to meet him, on the bank of the River.  This refers to that more famous Pharaoh with whom Moses contended in Exodus.  There are, ten, figuratively speaking, two rivers, and a principal ethical and spiritual task of ours is to choose the better one.  This is done by following Moses’ instruction to the Israelites, “Be still and hear” (σιώπα και άκουε; Deut. 27:9).  This Philo understands to mean a state of pious humility and trust, leading to a quietude of mind and an ability to perceive God’s guidance.

Note also Philo’s likening the soul of the righteous person to a city of God. He is certainly aware of Plato’s city-soul analogy in the Republic, and makes frequent use of it in his works.

3. Psalm 31:18. Let lying lips be silenced (Confusione 21−40)

Let the lying lips be put to silence; which speak grievous things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.

Philo mentions this verse in On the Confusion of Tongues (De Confusione).  This work of Philo, which interprets the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, bears an especially strong connection with Psalms.  The tower’s builders were punished by God by having their languages confused, which, understood psychologically, is the same as being scattered.  Punishment of the wicked by scattering is mentioned in at least 10 different psalms.

Philo begins the discussion in On Confusion by noting that, while there are many evils in life capable of producing a painful and harmful upheaval of the psyche (wherein, among other things, it is easy prey to vice) the worst threat comes from evils produced from within the soul itself.  He then reviews the familiar Platonic tripartite model of the psyche, with its appetitive, irascible and rational elements.  Each of these is susceptible to its own mischiefs — both as it relates to itself and as it relates to the other elements.  A breakdown of the rational element is the most dangerous, however, as this inevitably affects the integrity of the others.  Philo likens the situation to a ship, where the steersman (rational nature), passengers (appetitive nature), and crew (irascible nature — the equivalent of Plato’s guardian class in the Republic) all cooperate in folly, leading to certain disaster.  The mutiny may begin with the appetitive and irascible passions, which then seek to corrupt captain and steersman to effect their nefarious aims (cf. Plato’s ship analogy in Rep. 6.487–6.491a).  Similarly, if physicians themselves become sick, it is much harder to control an epidemic.

Philo sees scriptural references to this negative alliance amongst mental powers in the story of the deluge, where the “cataracts” (plural) were opened, corresponding to a flooding torrent of multiple passions simultaneously. He also alludes to the confederation of heathen kings — enemies of Abraham — who met at the salt ravine (Gen. 14:3). And also the mob in Sodom who surrounded Lot’s house and threatened his guests (Gen. 19:4), allegorically understood as disordered passions “conspiring against the divine and holy Thoughts, who are often called angels” (Conf. 27f).

It is against such harmful thoughts that a distinctive leader/prophet mental disposition symbolized by Moses must stand to oppose.  An analogy is drawn to Moses meeting Pharaoh at the edge (which, in Philo’s vernacular, is also called the “lips”) of a river (Ex. 7:15).  Lips is an apt term, because the river is the flow of thoughts — which here are understood as mental speech or inner voices.

Moses stands by the river because he is stable, exemplifying the virtue of faith.  The speech of the passions consists in part of sophistries which seek to justify or rationalize vicious behavior.  These are reduced to silence by Moses, who demolishes them with clear reasoning.  However in this work Moses cannot rely solely on his own power.  Ultimately to defeat the sophistries of vice he needs the assistance of God. Therefore we must beseech God’s help, as in the psalmist’s words in this verse.

This is a particularly good example where Philo musters many verses from the Old Testament to support his argument.  The allegorical meanings he gives these verses are not arbitrary or implausible.  Rather, they rely on a consistent ethical and psychological model that combines Platonic psychology, Stoic ethics and Jewish piety before a personal God.


These examples demonstrate that Philo used the same hermeneutical approach to interpreting Psalms that he used for Genesis, Exodus, and the other books of the Pentateuch.

As noted in the previous article (Uebersax 2021), his model is consistent and representative of the perennial ascetical-mystical philosophy, Platonist/Stoic ethics, and certain modern theories of personality psychology. This is not a conclusion of mere academic interest.  Rather, it has practical value in that it means we may ourselves continue and extend Philo’s exegetical work:  we may apply the principles Philo demonstrates in his masterful interpretations of Genesis and Exodus, with no modification, to understand the Book of Psalms.

We should also note that Philo did not merely see Psalms as a text to be critically interpreted.  As a devout, practicing Jew of Alexandria, he would have prayed and sang psalms regularly.  Therefore his critical analysis would have been supported by an experiential understanding.  We should always bear in mind that Philo was not only a philosopher, but a self-avowed mystic.  He tells us, for example, that he has many times:

suddenly become full, the ideas falling in a shower from above and being sown invisibly, so that under the influence of the Divine possession I have been filled with corybantic frenzy and been unconscious of anything, place, persons present, myself, words spoken, lines written. For I obtained language, ideas, an enjoyment of light, keenest vision, pellucid distinctness of objects, such as might be received through the eyes as the result of clearest shewing. (Migratione 35)

Similarly, in Special Laws 3:1−6 he describes gaining spiritual wings and being “wafted by the breezes of knowledge.”

It must be emphasized that we are not discussing Philo as a sterile exercise in academics.  It is assumed, rather, that the ability to experience transcendent states of conscious is something real and vitally important for us as human beings.  Scriptures like the Book of Psalms are a repository of the spiritual wisdom of our ancestor, from which we may draw.  Philo gives us an example to make use of this wisdom: by an integrated approach that involves scientific analysis, intuition, and personal practice.


Colson F. H.; Whitaker, G. H.; Marcus Ralph (eds.). The Works of Philo. 12 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1929−1953.

Maslow, Abraham H. The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Arkana, 1993 (first published Viking, 1971).

Uebersax, John. On the psychological and sapiential meaning of the Book of Psalms. Christian Platonism website. 12 Dec 2021.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible.  Camino Real, 2012.

Appendix. Philo’s Quotations From Psalms

Psa 23:1
[1] The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Agricultura 50−54
Mutatione 115

Psa 27:1
[1] The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Somniis 1.75

Psa 31:18
[18] Let the lying lips be put to silence; which speak grievous things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.
Confusione 39

Psa 37:4
[4] Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
Plantatione 39
Somniis 2.242

Psa 42:3
[3] My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God?
Migratione 157

Psa 46:4
[4] There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
Somniis 2.246−254

Psa 62:11
[11] God hath spoken once; twice have I heard this; that power belongeth unto God.
Quod Deus 82

Psa 65:9
[9] Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: thou preparest them corn, when thou hast so provided for it.
Somniis 2.245
See Psa 46:4 above.

Psa 75:8
[8] For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them.
Quod Deus 77−82

Psa 78:49
[49] He cast upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them.
Gigantibus 16f

Psa 80:5
[5] Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure.
Migratione 157
See Psa 42:3 above.

Psa 80:6
[6] Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves.
Confusione 52−54
Psa 84:10
[10] For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.
Quis heres 290

Psa 87:3
[3] Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah.
Confusione 108
See Psa 46:4 above.

Psa 91:11−12
[11] For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
[12] They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Quod Deus 182

Psa 94:9
[9] He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? he that formed the eye, shall he not see?
Plantatione 29

Psa 101:1
[1] I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing.
Quod Deus 74−76

Psa 115:5−8
[5] They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
[6] They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
[7] They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
[8] They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
Decalogo 74

Psa 115:8
[8] They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
Specialibus legibus 2.255

Psa 115:17
[17] The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.
Fuga 59

Psalm 45. The Mystical Marriage

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Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Megara

PSALM 45 (Ps. 44 LXX) is another hidden gem.  The Book of Psalms is a magnificent work — even by itself one of the greatest treatises on spiritual life we possess.  The weakening of spiritual life in the West today is proportional to the loss in fervor with which people study and pray Psalms, which in previous centuries was a mainstay of Christian spiritual life. It’s not enough to read or hear isolated verses of Psalms during masses and liturgies.  A thorough, attentive, and repeated reading of the whole work is needed. Only then may one recognize it as an organic unity with an express aim. That aim is to help effect a transformation of soul.  Psalms not only give us a conceptual framework for understanding that process of transformation, but, insofar as we pray individual psalms (or perhaps sing them) devoutly and meditate on their meanings, it becomes a means of effecting that transformation.

The subject is a marriage involving the soul. The resemblance to the Song of Songs is evident and striking. It would be interesting to know which was written earlier: does the first epitomize the second, or the second expand the first?

To begin there is one verse of introduction, a masterpiece of economy and eloquence, and immediately rivets our attention on what is to follow:

[1] My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer.

There is no doubt — on this virtually all commentators agree — but that this psalm does not describe any historical event, but its meaning is found in symbolism and allegorical interpretation. There are two principal figures in the psalm: the King, and the Bride.

The King

[2] Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.
[3] Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty.
[4] And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things.
[5] Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; whereby the people fall under thee.
[6] Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.
[7] Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.
[8] All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.

The King here is almost universally understood to signify Christ.  However, it’s also possible to understand the figure as symbolic of an Inner Christ within the soul.  These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, but to supply a satisfactory discussion of the relationship of Christ to the Inner Christ (however valuable that might be) is beyond the present scope. We may observe, though, that such a parallel is implied by the important Christian doctrine of theosis (becoming like God).  Most unfortunate it is that this doctrine receives so little attention today outside the Orthodox Churches. We come to see, know and love God only to the degree that we become like Him. Our spiritual life is one of gradual coming to be like God, as we proceed from glory to glory. (2 Cor.3:18)

Of what, then, does the beauty of the King consist? We are told that He has the qualities of truth, meekness and righteousness. As we read and reflect on the psalm, we rediscover a great truth of our own soul: that we find this figure of supreme righteousness innately and irresistibly attractive. We cannot help but love deeply and intensely these divine virtues, because these also constitute the deepest nature of our own soul. We love in others what we treasure — sometimes without realizing it — in ourselves.  Reading these verses and calling to our imagination a vision of this King, we are confronted with a great truth of our own soul: we love Righteousness and Moral Beauty — and  far more so than anything related to the material world.  This realization jolts us into a proper remembrance of our true nature.

Yet the King is not only great in moral beauty, but also awesome and sublime in a sense that is, we might say, terrifying.  The very perfection of truth and righteousness which we admire in the King makes falsehood and wickedness perfectly unacceptable to Him.  Hence He is also portrayed as taking an aggressive stance against evil. This creates a psychological paradox for us — one that, in a sense, is the same paradox inherent in that potent expression, fear of the LORD. The same pure King of Righteousness, whose beauty we find so irresistibly attractive, is also a source in like degree of great apprehensiveness.  For we do not believe we are pure and holy.  Even the best of us harbors a deep awareness of our carnal nature and selfish tendencies. As we are drawn toward the beautiful King, we recoil, as though feeling as St. Peter did when he said, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. (Luke 5:8)

Therefore, while Christ, loving and patient, continually beckons us forward, saying, “Fear not!  Come into your Father’s house, to the place that has been prepared for you,” we are divided.  We wish both to proceed and to draw back, lest, coming into the presence of the Father, our sinful side will be seen and incur rejection and wrath.

This is an elemental conflict which must be resolved within the psyche of the devoted reader.  The harder task, perhaps, is not so much the elimination of all sin, but to accept that God loves us completely despite our sins.  This is a matter of great import.  For insofar as guilt and shame dominates our mind, we will seek to by our own efforts to conquer sin — the polar opposite of what we need.  But if we focus our attention on God’s generosity, understanding and love, we will see that it is by grace we are saved. So far from human understanding is this great truth!

The Bride

[9] Kings’ daughters were among thy honourable women: upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir.
[10] Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house;
[11] So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him.
[12] And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall intreat thy favour.[13] The king’s daughter is all glorious within: her clothing is of wrought gold.
[14] She shall be brought unto the king in raiment of needlework: the virgins her companions that follow her shall be brought unto thee.
[15] With gladness and rejoicing shall they be brought: they shall enter into the king’s palace.
[16] Instead of thy fathers shall be thy children, whom thou mayest make princes in all the earth.
[17] I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations: therefore shall the people praise thee for ever and ever.

The bride here has traditionally been given three alternative meanings:  (1) the Church, (2) the soul, and (3) the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Examples of all three interpretations can be found throughout ancient and medieval commentaries on the Song of Songs. The meanings overlap and are interact, so we need not worry overmuch about making an exact distinction among them. The Church, after all, is a collection of individual souls, and what applies to one, generally applies to the other. Similarly, the Blessed Virgin is frequently taken as a kind of ideal for the individual soul.  This not withstanding, our focus of attention here is on the bride as an individual soul.

Why is the soul symbolized as a female figure, as it would seem to transcend distinctions of gender. Apparently what is symbolized is not the entire soul, but that part of it that is connected with such things as feeling, sensation, emotion and desiring.  This affective soul (anima) would be the counterpart of another part of our soul, the intellective (animus).  In that case, we might possibly interpret the King as a symbol of the animus, to which the anima soul is being united in some new and fundamentally improved way.  Such an inner marriage has many archetypal counterparts in mythology (e.g., Martinus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury and Apuleius’ Marriage of Eros and Psyche), and some alchemical literature. A Jungian would see this as a representation of a conjiunctio or marriage of the conscious and unconscious psyche.

It is not correct for Christians to summarily and completely dismiss secular psychological or esoteric writers merely because they depart from orthodox Christianity. Even if they are merely half-right, we must pay attention to the half that is right.  Just as St. Augustine in On Christian Doctrine reminds us to read Scripture charitably, so as to not miss important meanings, so the principle of charity applies to reading secular works and writings from other spiritual traditions.

That said, the orthodox Christian (or, for that matter Jewish) and the Jungian view produce two complementary psychological interpretations of the marriage. The former sees the mystical marriage as an ascent of human consciousness to God.  The latter sees it as an integration of psychic functions that produce an intensification and revitalization of waking consciousness in and of this world — that is, attainment of what Abraham Maslow called  Being-experience. Elsewhere I have suggested that Plato’s philosophy, as shown particularly in his myths, can be understood as helping to attain both: mystical ascent and Being-experience. These two meanings are not mutually exclusive, and there is much in the Gospel to suggest it is as much concerned with the latter as the former. The telos of Christian ethics must be complete and integral if it is to be satisfying and compelling.

To return to the psalm, the Queen has female attendants, which may symbolize particular powers or faculties of the soul.  For example, they could mean the senses, or perhaps higher-level creative powers such as are symbolized in Greek myth by the Muses. Her garment of finest gold and its fine embroidery suggest a radiant and beautiful assortment of virtues.

The bride is told to leave her father’s land.  Many commentators plausibly suggest that this refers to the soul leaving its natural homeland of attachment to sensory and worldly goods, and fixing its affection on spiritual things.  (See excerpt from St. Ambrose below.)

In verse 11 we see that it is precisely because the soul rejects the worldly and turns to heavenly things that the King finds her beautiful.  This is a key point, and a magnificent one. It addresses and solves the aforementioned paradox.  Despite our fears and misgivings about being acceptable to God, we here are taught that we already possess, at least in potential, something that God treasures dearly.  Our soul becomes not just good, but supremely beautiful — possessing the very kind of moral beauty that the King prizes — by making the moral choice to turn from flesh to spirit.  We need not recoil from God due to an our awareness of sinfulness, for God has endowed us with a nature He finds supremely beautiful.  We must constantly redirect our attention to that fact.

Attending the wedding as a guest is another female figure, the Queen of Tyre. Tyre is a Philistine (i.e., heathen) city — so this figure may indicate some ruling power or sub-personality (for clarification of these terms see my previous post on Philonic interpretation) concerned with worldly things.  Significantly, this woman bears a gift.  What that gift is we are not told, and it is up to us to learn experientially.  It might involve the ability to enjoy sensory goods and pleasures to a far greater degree than we could before.  That is, if we are attached to the senses, we cannot really enjoy their offerings, because we are divided: we are simultaneous aware of defection, of giving our allegiance to the wrong place, which degrades the integrity of consciousness and diminishes enjoyment.  But if our allegiance remains in heaven, then we my touch the world of sense delicately, savoring it as we would the delicate scent of a rose, rather than dulling our senses with cheap perfume.

Princely offspring of the bride are also promised. Perhaps these would be intellectual activities, projects, and works initiated by the redeemed, reformed and divinized mind.


These are some possible interpretations.  They are only tentative, approximate and suggestive — hints, hopefully to that fuller understanding attainable only by devout reading and meditation.

As said before, there is an important performative dimension to interpreting the psalms.  Understanding comes more from praying than analyzing them.  This is true generally of biblical exegesis, and perhaps especially the Wisdom Books. There is a self-referential or circular quality:  by spiritual mindedness we understand the deeper meanings, and a main purpose of the Bible is to help us gain spiritual mindedness.  Norris puts this well:

“[Gregory of Nyssa] says not only that the Song in some fashion narrates an exemplary soul’s progress in knowledge and love of God but also that readers of the Song may themselves, through their comprehension of it, be brought along as actual participants in the same progress. The text of the Song has a kind of symbolic or sacramental character, then, in that to understand it fully is to be involved with the reality it speaks of.” (p. xlv).

Similarly, Origen, in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, interprets the words behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes (Song 1.15) to mean that the eyes of the exegete are illumined by the Holy Spirit and enabled to see spiritual meanings of Scripture. (Origen Comm. Cant. 3.1)

Thus it is not the purpose here or in other articles to replace the effort of each reader with formulaic interpretations.

Let us, then, simply close with a passage from St. Ambrose’s commentary on the Song (found in his work On Isaac, or the Soul) I encountered in preparing this article which seems very relevant:

(8.78) Let us then take up these wings, since like flames they aim for the higher regions. Let each man divest his soul of her baser coverings and approve her when she is cleansed of the mire just as he would approve gold cleansed by fire. For the soul is cleansed just like the finest gold. Moreover the beauty of the soul, her pure virtue and attractiveness, is her truer knowledge of the things that are above, so that she sees the good on which all things depend, but which itself depends on none. There she lives and receives her understanding. For that supreme good is the fountain of life; love and longing for it are enkindled in us, and it is our desire to approach and be joined to it, for it is desirable to him who does not see it and is present to him who sees it, and therefore he disregards all other things and takes pleasure and delight in this one only. …

Let us flee therefore to our real, true fatherland [cf. Plotinus, Enneads 1.6.5]. There is our fatherland and there is our Father, by whom we have been created, where there is the city of Jerusalem, which is the mother of all men. (8.79) … Let us flee with the spirit and the eyes and feet that are within. Let us accustom our eyes to see what is bright and clear, to look upon the face of continence and of moderation, and upon all the virtues, in which there is nothing scabrous, nothing obscure or involved. And let each one look upon himself and his own conscience; let him cleanse that inner eye, so that it may contain no dirt. For what is seen ought not to be at variance with him who sees, because God has wished that we be conformed to the image of His Son. … This is the eye that looks upon the true and great beauty. Only the strong and healthy eye can see the sun; only the good soul can see the good. Therefore let him become good who wishes to see the Lord and the nature of the good.


Astell, Ann W. The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 1990.

McHugh, Michael P. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Isaac, or the Soul (De Isaac vel anima). In: Michael P. McHugh (ed.), Saint Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works, Fathers of the Church 65, CUA Press, 1972 (repr. 2010); pp. 9−65.

Lawson, R. P. (tr.). Origen: The Song of Songs Commentary and Homilies. Ancient Christian Writers 26. Newman Press, 1957.

Norris Jr., Richard A. (tr.). Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs. Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.

On the Psychological and Sapiential Meaning of the Book of Psalms

with 2 comments

Illuminated manuscript, 14th century. King David. Oxford Bodleian Library,

Preface: A Word for the Wise

THE BOOK OF PSALMS is a great treasure, a source of immense consolation and inspiration and one of the greatest religious scriptures humanity possesses.  Few people make a sufficient effort to penetrate the depth of its meanings.  My aim here is not to attempt to explain all the  meanings — psychological and spiritual — of Psalms. Rather I would be content if this short work motivates a few people to read Psalms more attentively and devoutly.  Therefore the more brief the exposition, the better.  Only a word to the wise — those who already hunger and thirst for inner righteousness — is sufficient.  A more elaborate treatment would not benefit such readers, for ultimately they must learn by their own work and engagement with the work.  Neither would it persuade those others not already motivated and ready to commence such study.  A brief treatment, moreover, duly acknowledges the limitations of my own powers.

Those who have read anything I’ve written will probably know that my orientation is in line with Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.  On the other hand, I also have the perspective of a (1) contemporary psychologist with (2) a strong appreciation of ancient philosophy.  I mention these things only to reassure prospective readers they need not fear being exposed to ‘heretical’, vague esoteric, or merely idiosyncratic notions on the one hand, or dogmatic Christian moralizing, on the other.  Everything presented here is given in the spirit of plausible conjecture — possibilities which readers may experimentally confirm or disconfirm based on their own experience.

The discussion here has three sections.  First, an introduction, including a list of guiding premises, will be presented. Second, the key themes of Psalms will be identified. Third, these themes will be explained in comments on particular psalms and verses.  To try to explain every line in every psalm would be a mistake, I believe.  The point is to equip each reader with sufficient skills to productively make their own interpretations: in learning from Scripture, the seeking and the finding often coincide.

If the writing below seems in places more like an outline than polished prose, that is by design.  Reading a single psalm is more valuable than any commentary, and there is no reason to delay readers from this pursuit by unnecessary prolixity here.  It is not expected that everything said here is correct.  It is only hoped that some parts are.



Our main premises are as follows: (1) the Book of Psalms is a unified work that carries deep meanings of both a spiritual and psychological nature; (2) it can be understood as conveying in a concise and comprehensive form what has been called the perennial philosophy, and (3) as a means to unlock psychological and sapiential meanings of Psalms we may do well to follow the exegetical methods of the Jewish Platonist philosopher, Philo of Alexandria.  Although Philo mentioned Psalms infrequently (Note 1), he produced many commentaries on the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus, and there is scarcely any theme in Psalms that is not also found in these earlier books.  As we shall see, the system of Philo is well supported by modern psychology, including Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology, ego/sub-ego theory, and contemporary Stoic cognitive psychology.  However we emphasize that our interest here is not Philo, but the Book of Psalms. In a sense, Philo serves mainly as a particularly clear and eminent example of the tradition of Greek (or Alexandrian) allegorical interpretation of the sapiential meanings of myth and scripture.

The Perennial Philosophy

Psalms is one of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament.  This designation acknowledges a common purpose with the other Wisdom Books, including Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Canticle and Job. The subject is a transformation of consciousness, moral renewal, and the attainment of ‘wisdom.’ By wisdom here we mean neither abstract metaphysical truths nor practical wisdom (phronesis), but rather moral truths of the human soul, ones that may be directly experienced.  Wisdom in this sense might be understood as a distinct state (or set of related states) of consciousness.

Psalms expresses in a very complete and useful form what has been termed the perennial philosophy.  The perennial philosophy is a system of principles and practices, at the intersection of religion, philosophy, and moral psychology, that supply a blueprint for self-realization.  As human nature is basically constant throughout history and across cultures, and as the obstacles to self-realization are similarly constant, we should expect that similar means of removing psychological obstacles and for achieving self-realization develop across time and place.

The term perennial philosophy has an long history.  It goes at least as far back as the Renaissance (e.g., Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola). Later proponents include such figures as Agostino Steuco, Leibniz and, more recently, Aldous Huxley (1947).  As we understand it here, the perennial philosophy is roughly synonymous with ascetico-mysticism.  In the ascetical or negative aspect, this entails a moderation of passions (thus harmonizing them), elimination of moral error (wrong judgment and bad action), and control of thoughts.  This produces a mental condition of undisturbedness (ataraxia) and dispassion (apatheia) — or, more accurately, properly measured or ordered passions (metropatheai).

In the mystical or positive aspect, mental calmness and harmony allow one to be more attentive to subtle, transcendental and spiritual thoughts, judgments and impulses. The fruits of this include correct reasoning, spiritual senses, holiness and divinization (becoming godlike).  At the same time, a purification and moral re-alignment of the psyche allows one to experience material existence with greater vitality, meaning and purpose; one may experience the world as transfigured.

In discussing the perennial philosophy, some mistakenly place undue emphasis on the attainment of a momentous and ultimate mystical experience of Cosmic Consciousness.  However, especially since this is an experience enjoyed only by very few, the more relevant goal is to (1) be divine while (2) living in the world. That is, to experience oneself and the world — however briefly, for it can never be a permanent state in this life — as an incarnate divine being.  In addition, psychological salvation in this life, meanwhile, prepares us for a better afterlife.

A useful framework for understanding the perennial philosophy is the traditional three-fold distinction between stages of (1) purification, (2) illumination and (3) unification (Underhill, 1927).  The last itself has three components: unification within ourselves, with God, and with the world (including other human beings.)  These, it should be added, are not fixed stages that one finishes completely before moving to the next.  Rather one moves between them constantly throughout ones life.

The greatest obstacles to self-realization are (1) our ego, and (2) our immature, selfish emotional and acquisitive tendencies.  Our journey — a natural developmental process, biologically, psychologically, and spiritually — is one from what is traditionally called carnal (or worldly) mindedness (an orientation towards acquisition of material and sensory goods) to spiritual mindedness and transcendence (orientation towards spiritual and eternal goods, and, ultimately to God).  This is not only a traditional religious and philosophical concept, but is also present in modern psychological theories of moral development (e.g., Kohlberg).  It is a natural progression from infantile narcissism to a transcendent personality structure.

Self-realization is incompatible with the myriad forms of psychological dysfunction and disordering of thought we experience on a daily basis.  Therefore the purification or ascetical component of the perennial philosophy should be of interest to secular psychologists as well as those with religious sensibilities.

Part of the telos or desired end state of the perennial philosophy is a life in harmony with Nature (understood in the broadest sense to include both physical and metaphysical realities).  This condition is more or less synonymous as a life in accord with Truth, the Way, the TAO, Torah, etc.

To live in this way, one must remain constantly receptive to higher inspirations and guidances. This, I propose, is the true meaning of what the Bible calls following or heeding God’s guidances, judgments, directions, commands, etc.  By this view, we should seek not so much to be ‘obedient’ to God’s commandments in the sense of following fixed, written dictates; but rather to remain constantly and spontaneously attentive and receptive to subtle higher promptings  The former is, as St. Paul explains in his letter to the Romans, the ‘law which killeth’; the latter is the way of the Spirit which giveth life.

The concept of a core perennial philosophy still allows for variation in its expression as well as its gradual refinement and evolution over time. The Bible is a good complement to Platonism, because it better emphasizes the central importance of ones loving relationship with a personal God, and a God who actively reaches out by grace and Providence to assist with our psychological and spiritual salvation.

Here our main concern is in those parts of the perennial philosophy that may concern both secular psychologists and ‘religionists.’  The perennial philosophy is concerned with the attainment of immortality or a propitious afterlife, as well as with flourishing in this one.  We by no means disregard the former concern, but propose that in order to achieve it, then the former — a good, wise and virtuous present life — is a necessary stepping stone.  Therefore by focusing here on how Psalms relates to the more psychological component of the perennial philosophy, it is hoped to be relevant to the greatest number of readers.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo (c. 25 BC − c. 50 AD) was a prominent member of the Jewish community of Alexandria and a Platonist philosopher.  He wrote numerous books explaining the Old Testament — chiefly the five books of the Pentateuch.  Though he wrote with different purposes for several audiences, his best known works today contain a detailed allegorical interpretation of Genesis and Exodus.  These apply the philosophical principles of Platonic, Stoic and Pythagorean philosophy to the stories in these Old Testament Books.  Philo’s brilliant allegorical interpretations remain unsurpassed. His work was largely ignored by later Jewish exegetes, who gravitated instead towards the style of Midrash.  However Christian Platonists, including Clement of Alexandria and Origen, adopted his method.  Later Christians strongly influenced by Philonic interpretation include Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor (in Eastern Christianity) and Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo in the Latin tradition. In the Middle Ages, allegorical interpretation based largely on methods pioneered by Philo became a fixture in the Latin and Byzantine traditions of Bible exegesis.  Ironically, then, Philo, a Jewish Platonist, might well be considered the father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible.

Reasons we may expect success by taking Philo as a guide to the psychological and sapiential meaning of Psalms, include the following:

  • Philo wrote two millennia ago. While modern society is more advanced technologically, the most valuable religious and philosophical ideas we possess originate from antiquity.  If the ancients were sophisticated enough to write the Iliad, Odyssey and the Old Testament, we should be similarly respectful of the skill and depth of insight of ancient allegorical commentators like Philo.
  • Moreover, Philo, writing in the rich, varied, and cosmopolitan milieu of Alexandria, was able to draw from the best of several more ancient traditions, including not only Judaism, but many Greek philosophers, as well as potentially from elements of Egyptian religion.
  • Philo was heir to the Stoic method of interpreting Greek myths as philosophical allegories. Heraclitus the Allegorist — whose Homeric Allegories (Russell & Konstan, 2005) is especially noteworthy in this regard — wrote a little after Philo’s time, and applies methods that had been in development for some time.  The Greek-influenced Roman poet, Virgil, writing around the time of Philo’s birth, not only incorporated philosophical themes into his mythic epic, the Aeneid, but quite possibly did this consciously and intentionally.  Philo was, arguably, personally not too far removed from the Jewish Wisdom tradition of the Bible, himself having once been considered the author of the Wisdom of Solomon.  Thus with Philo we arguably have the tradition interpreting itself.

Philonic Interpretation

A brief explanation of Philo’s system of interpretation and its connections with modern personality theory is found in Uebersax (2012).  The main features relevant to our present task may be summarized as follows:

1. Personification

Philo’s main tool for allegorical interpretation is personification: each person in the Old Testament is understood to correspond to some structure or operation of the psyche.  A generic term for these psychological correspondents is mental dispositions, but this word is not very informative. We may understand these psychological correspondents in a more technical sense as what modern writers have called subpersonalities (e.g., Rowan, 1999) or sub- or part-egos (Sorokin, 1956; cf. Uebersax 2014).  According to this view, human personality can be understood as a configuration of interacting, smaller components: in an important sense, our mind operates somewhat not as a single self, but as a community of sub-selves.  At a biological level, each sub-self can be understood as a complex, with both cognitive and emotional aspects.

Subegos or subpersonalities are evidently very numerous (for example, we have, in theory, a separate one associated with every social role, personal interest, ambition, attachment, and biological instinct).  In addition, we tend to create in the psyche internalized versions of other people — actual people we’ve known, and even historical and fictional ones.  So, as unsettling as the notion may seem at first, we have within our minds countless numbers of sub-egos of various levels of complexity.

It is not necessary, however, to reify or take too literally this theory. Our present discussion applies if we merely allow that our minds operate “something like this” — that is, as if we were congeries of competing subpersonalities. [Note 2]

2. Hierarchical organization

These sub-egos or subpersonalities are of different orders of complexity.  For example, we may have individual sub-egos associated with particular foods we like to eat, and also one for the eating and enjoyment of food in general. In Philo’s system, Old Testament references to tribes and rulers correspond to smaller sub-egos and higher-level, ruling ones, respectively.

3. Internal conflict

Having so many components of the psyche, each with its individual interests and aims, naturally sets the stage for inner conflict.  For Philo, of primary concern is the conflict between, on the one hand, our virtuous and holy parts, and, on the other, our vicious and impious ones.  Here Philo reflects not only his Jewish roots, but his grounding in Platonic, Pythagorean and Stoic philosophy, which all have a somewhat dualistic model of human nature.  In keeping with the Platonic and Pythagorean view, our virtuous nature is concerned with eternal things, and our lower nature focused on material and world things.

For Philo, this fundamental conflict in human nature is represented repeatedly by contrasting pairs of figures:  Cain vs. Abel, Jacob vs. Esau, Joseph vs. his brothers, Moses vs. Pharaoh, the Israelites vs. their enemies, etc.

Similarly, in Greek myths this fundamental inner war (psychomachia) is symbolized by, for example, the conflicts of the Olympians vs. the Titans, and, in the Iliad, the Greeks vs. the Trojans. The same symbolic trope is expressed in a very elaborate and psychologically complex form in the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata (see Uebersax, 2021).

We should note that, although in an actual war the goal may be to completely destroy an enemy, that seems less feasible in the case of internal ‘war.’  Even though they may seem to oppose virtuous tendencies, worldly concerns are part of us, and they tend to have some foundation in instinct and biology.  Hence a more productive goal may be to seek harmonization or subordination of our lower nature to the higher.  In effect, rather than raze the heathen cities of our soul, we may wish to make them client states.

A simple way to sum up the preceding is this:  that within each person’s psyche there are inner correspondents to all the main figures of the Old Testament.  We have an inner Adam and Eve, and inner Cain and Abel, an inner Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, inner Israelites and Egyptians, etc.  But the Bible is doing more than reminding us that these inner characteristics exist.  It uses this figurative language to explain how we can achieve a more happy, harmonious and productive inner organization.

4. Ethics

Philo adheres closely to the virtue ethics that run consistently — whether implicitly as in Hesiod’s myths, or explicitly as in Platonism and Stoicism — throughout Greek philosophy. According to this view, the common or unredeemed condition of the human mind is fallen.  We see this view graphically expressed as Plato’s cave (Republic 7.514a–521d).  The fallen condition affects both the intelligence and the will.  Until we are redeemed, our minds are habitually sunk in folly, delusion and chronic negative thinking, and we are unhappy, unproductive and unfulfilled.

In the three books of his Allegorical Interpretation, Philo uses the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden to supply an insightful and detailed analysis of the cognitive psychology of the fall of the psyche.

While this fallen state is our usual condition, it is not our natural one: we are intended and designed for a better and higher psychological life — to which it is the task of true philosophy and religion to restore us.  For Philo, the process of return and redemption basically follows the already mentioned three stages of ascetico-mysticism: moral purification (ascesis), illumination and union (Underhill, 1928).

The ethical summum bonum for Philo is union with God.  This means becoming like God (being holy, virtuous and wise; cf. Plato, Theateus 176a−b), gaining in some sense a vision or knowledge of God, and, finally, having a personal loving relationship with God.

Again, various events and figures in the Old Testament, for Philo, are associated with each of these stages.  For example, Jacob is a symbol for the practicer of ascesis.

5. Spirituality

Ultimately Philo sees the ideal human life as spiritually oriented. This involves the moderation of appetites and passions, the practice of prayer and contemplation, the development of spiritual senses, and an influx of spiritual inspirations, insights and guidances.

In modern (e.g., Jungian) psychology this has various counterparts, including the integration of conscious and unconscious mental operation, the ‘sacred marriage’ of ego and Self, the harmonious cooperation of the brain hemispheres (McGilchrist, 2009), and Being-cognition (Maslow, 1971).

St. Paul — a contemporary of Philo, and, like him, familiar with the prevailing currents of Stoic ethics, as well as steeped in the psychology of the Old Testament — summed up our condition as a tension between carnal mindedness (concern with worldly things) and spiritual mindedness (a personality organized by spiritual concerns). He also uses the terms ‘old man’ and ‘new man’ to refer to these conflicting dimensions of our personality. This is what St. Paul means when he says the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other (Gal. 5:17).  The redeemed psychological condition then, for both St. Paul and Philo, can be understood as the return to spiritual mindedness.  To jump ahead a little historically, the movements of psychological fall and salvation correspond, in the system of Neoplatonism’s founder, Plotinus, to what he calls the descent and ascent of the soul (Uebersax, 2014).

Jungian Psychology

Besides its connection with subpersonality theory, Philo’s system finds counterparts in the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung (in fact, Jung admits borrowing the term ‘archetype’ from Philo). While they are by no means identical, Philo’s and Jung’s systems agree on these points:

  • Scripture and myth serve the purpose of communicating universal psychological truths;
  • Their chief aims include the amelioration of mental dysfunction and attaining of self-realization; and
  • The characters of myths and scripture are images of archetypes, that is, representations of universal structures and processes of the human psyche. Philo does not, though, as do some neo-Jungians, see archetypes as existing autonomously as somewhat like living metaphysical entities; for example, Abraham in Genesis is an archetypal symbol, but not an ‘Archetype’ with independent existence.

In consequence, both Philo and Jungian writers like Jung himself and Campbell (1949) understand exegesis of myth and scripture as in large part a deciphering of the universal psychological meanings of the figures and stories therein.

The Jungian psychiatrist, Edward Edinger, wrote several books applying archetypal exegesis to the Bible. His works are interesting and worth reading, but must be approached cautiously, as they are often no more than half-true. To his credit Edinger writes well and draws into discussion an interesting array of works from numerous disciplines — for example, Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews and Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the negative side he bears an undisguised and militant antipathy towards organized religion, especially Christianity.  He implies that traditional Christianity is obsolete and will be replaced by a new system based on Jungian psychology!  As a result, his interpretations frequently miss the mark.  His prejudice filters out any conclusion that might present traditional religion in any but an unflattering light

These cautions notwithstanding, Jungian psychology supplies a vocabulary and conceptual scheme very helpful for understanding Philo’s system — and the psychological meaning of Psalms — in modern terms. It also supplies an alternative perspective — something valuable, if not indispensable in any scientific-minded investigation to help prevent the close-minded dogmatism to which the human ego is always vulnerable.

Related Literature

As noted, Philo does not cite Psalms often, but the handful of examples in his works suffice to show that he did not hesitate to apply the same exegetical methods there that he used for interpreting Genesis and Exodus.  Evagrius of Ponticus — strongly influenced by Origen (who himself used Philo’s exegetical methods) authored Scholia on Psalms (Dysinger, 2005), but these unfortunately has not been fully translated into English.  Pseudo-Procopius of Gaza (an anonymous author, possibly Byzantine) wrote a Commentary on Proverbs (Gohl, 2019) that adheres closely to the Platonic/Philonic psychology.

St. Augustine learned Bible interpretation from St. Ambrose — who himself was well acquainted withe Philo’s works, producing Latin paraphrases of several of them.  Therefore we are not surprised to find in Augustine’s Annotations on Psalms many examples of Philo-like interpretation.  However these are mixed with several other levels of interpretation.

A modern compilation of patristic interpretations of Psalms can be found in Blaising and Hardin (2014) and Wesselschmidt (2007; cf. Neale & Littledale, 1869−1874). Spurgeon’s Treasury of David contains many choice excerpts on the inner meaning of Psalms by writers from 16th through the 19th centuries.

Themes of Psalms

The 150 psalms all express a relatively small set of interacting and interpenetrating psychological themes.  These are expressed in the voice of the psalmist, but as it is we who pray the psalms, they must be understood as applying to ourselves:

  • Lamentation. We lament being persecuted, oppressed, threatened or held captive by powerful opponents.
  • Penitence. We acknowledge and experience regret for past wrongdoings, and for our own weakness and propensity for sin.
  • Trust. We trust, hope, and have confidence in salvation from God.
  • Thanks. We thank God for deliverance,.
  • Praise. We praise God for His goodness, glory and countless blessings.
  • Contemplation and ascent. We express a desire to ascend to a more contemplative and spiritual condition of mind.
  • God’s Name. Frequent reference is made to God’s name.  Here God’s name seems to be understood in the sense of reputation.  Confidence is expressed that God will want to redeem us that much more, because in doing so his reputation is enhanced, leading other people to seek salvation.
  • Suffering servant. Many verses refer to a suffering servant: a virtuous character who endures hardship and makes sacrifices to aid the process of salvation.  Conventionally this has been taken as a prophecy of the life and death of Jesus.  That interpretation may have had some value as an apologetic device in the early years of Church history.  However that meaning has little practical value today.  As we believe Psalms has enduring relevance, it seems reasonable to prefer a psychological meaning.  Hence the suffering servant would, to put the matter in the broadest of terms, be some aspect of the psyche which willingly undergoes suffering as part of the process of psychological and moral salvation.

These are not independent themes, but interact in a complex way as saga of our salvation.  It seems fairly clear that a kind of cyclicity is involved, such that there is a process of fall into sin and mental disorder, and return.  This cycle repeats itself in ones life — perhaps on a daily basis.  There is something like a holographic quality to Psalms, such that each psalm helps illumine the meaning of the others.

Finally, we may briefly note the range of characters in Psalms.  There is, first, the psalmist.  Sometimes this is explicitly identified as David, and sometimes someone else.  It seems uncertain — if not plainly unlikely — that any of the psalms were written by a historical King David.  Besides speaking to himself, the psalmist addresses several other parties, including God (the LORD) and his persecutors (a term used more or less synonymously with ‘heathen’).  A figure that often appears is the “Son.”  Again, it does us little practical good to equate this reflexively with an allusion to Jesus Christ.  From a psychological standpoint, rather, the Son might be understood as a new component of the psyche which develops to facilitate the inner process of salvation.  In short, we might think of this as an ‘inner Christ,’ or Christ consciousness.  Finally, references are made to a judge who condemns and punishes the wicked.  Once again the most productive course is to try to associate this figure with some inner psychic mechanism.

Let this suffice, then, as an introduction.  Everything said here must be regarded as tentative.  Nothing is stated dogmatically, and everything said here is really just an example of what might be true — an initial approximation.  To arrive at true meanings is something that requires dedicated and repeated reading, prayer and inspiration. In the end, perhaps these things cannot be communicated by words to others.  It is hoped merely that this short introduction will convince readers that there is a valuable psychological message in Psalms, and help motivate people to seek it.

Because so much depends on personal effort, the last thing that would be appropriate, I believe, is an exhaustive line-by-line commentary on Psalms.  It’s much better to illustrate how the reader may apply the interpretive rules implicit in the above to arrive at personally relevant meanings.  Accordingly, I will simply perform a commentary on a few representative psalms — which should be sufficient to demonstrate the ‘Philonic’ method of interpretation.


From here the plan is to apply the principles above to the Book of Psalms.  To begin, we will initially consider Psalms 1 and 2.  More material will then be added over time.

To avoid repetition, symbols and meanings once discussed in an earlier psalm will not be repeated when the appear in later ones.  Therefore it will not be necessary to treat every verse, or every psalm.

Psalm 23 (the Good Shepherd) and Psalm 119 (the Great Psalm) have previously been considered (Psalm 23, Psalm 119).

Text and numbering of the psalms follows the King James Version (KJV).

Psalm 1

The first psalm has traditionally been seen as a preface to the entire book, summarizing and touching on all it’s main themes.  (Fuller discussions of Psalm 1 along the present lines can be found here and here.)

[1] Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

  • BlessedMakarios.  At the beginning we see that the aim is the condition of blessedness.  This can be understood here as the telos or ethical summum bonum of human life.
  • Next follows three principal obstacles to blessedness, which can be interpreted as corresponding to characteristic problems associated with the three Platonic divisions of the psyche.
  • Counsel of the ungodly.  The rational part of our mind is subjected to impious counsels — that is, thoughts that originate from purely material and worldly concerns.
  • Way of sinners.  Mental temptations associated with aberrations of the desiring/appetitive part of the psyche.
  • Seat of the scornful.  The scornful (also translated as scoffers) represent cynical, overly critical and hostile thoughts that originate in the ambitious or spirited part of the mind.

[2] But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

  • DelightHedone: what the will seeks, what is in a broad sense pleasurable.
  • Law of the Lord.  Not written commandments, but a more subtle concept: remaining in a state of continuing communion with God, attentive and responding to God’s mental guidances, inspirations, directions, etc.
  • Meditate.  Directing ones mind to, making the effort to focus attention on.
  • Day and night.  Day may be understood as times of mental clarity.  Nights, as in ‘dark nights of the soul,’ where the clear and tangible signs of God’s activity in ones life are not present; one must then exert effort to persevere in the Way.

[3] And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

  • Rivers of water.  Streams of spiritual nutrition, flowing from the unconscious — but ultimately from God.
  • Fruit.  Spiritual fruits of insight, wisdom, virtue.  Also acts of charity, including socially relevant creative activity.
  • Prosper.  We cannot prosper when we are not focused on God and God’s ways, because in that case (1) we are divided against ourselves, (2) were we to prosper in this condition, it would fuel pride and draw us away from God; and (3) it glorifies God and inspires other people if we prosper through inner righteousness.

[4] The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

  • Ungodly.  Ourselves, when our thoughts and actions are directed by worldly concerns.
  • Chaff, wind.  This trope, which includes the notion of scattering, is most interesting, and evidently important as it is found throughout Psalms, as well as elsewhere in the Bible. Here it may mean that when we are in a worldly condition of mind, our thoughts are inevitably scattered.  Scattering of thoughts may be a kind of punishment, as in the confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story.

[5] Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

  • Judgment.  Not a historical Last Judgment, but some existential, ultimate inner cognitive judgment.  This may allude to an ultimate arbiter and judge of our thoughts within the psyche.  We will return to this topic in the next psalm.
  • Congregation of the righteous.  Following our hermeneutic rules, this would suggest some kind of assembly or congregation of virtuous elements of the psyche. The word suggests a large number, rather than a small band.  This is a lofty topic about which we simply know virtually nothing, nor has it been the subject of much rational speculation.  Compare this, however, with what vast choirs of angels may symbolize at the psychological level (cf. Pseudo-Dionysius).

[6] For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

  • Shall perish.  Our ungodly thoughts, the fruits of our worldly dispositions, have no permanence.  They are ultimately unreal (in a Platonic sense); and, as we have said above, conflict with other worldly thoughts.  Only thoughts that originate in or comport with our spiritual nature are harmonious, within and without.  That which is internally inconsistent and incongruous with Nature will be short-lived.

Psalm 2

The second psalm is, again, sometimes understood as a preface, as it introduces basic themes that are repeatedly addressed later.

Whereas the first psalm excites our hopes, the second presents difficulties now to be faced.

[1] Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

  • Heathen rage.  The heathen are worldly dispositions or subpersonalities, those concerned with achievement of ambitions and satisfaction of appetites.  Rage, rebellion, agitation and disquietude may accompany the frustration of the aims of these elements.
  • imagine a vain thing.  This suggests a connection between the activity of our frustrated carnal nature and deluded thinking.  This view is not implausible or without precedent.  In Plato’s cave, prisoners’ thinking is imaginary and deluded, as they consider mere shadows on the wall.  The chains that prevent them from turning away from delusion are their attachments to unmoderated passions. Recall the paradox of Socrates: are we ignorant because we are unvirtuous, or unvirtuous because we are ignorant?
  • We should not necessarily assume, however, that passions automatically become unruly when frustrated.  Rather, it would seem we are designed to seek inner harmony, and it is in the interests of all sub-egos to cooperate with this.  It could be, then, that some outside or additional element — a free-floating urge to disharmony — exists.  And, if so, we may find this and its remedy described in Psalms and elsewhere in myth and scripture.

[2] The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
[3] Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

  • kings of the earth. As already mentioned, certain higher-order carnal dispositions exist that somehow control and organize others.  Insight into the psychological meaning of ‘kings of the earth’ can be found in Philo’s writings, as he addresses theme as it occurs throughout Genesis and Exodus.  Pharaoh is the most important example of such a king of the earth.
  • take counsel together.  Implying some capacity of these sub-egos to communicate and form confederations.  This confederation potential of sub-egos has been noted by both Rowan (1990) and Lester (2012).
  • his anointed. See below.

[4] He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

  • He that sitteth in the heavens.  This could refer either to God, or a Higher Self.  Perhaps one can say that both are meant.  Importantly, from the perspective of the ego, this almost doesn’t matter.  The ego knows only there is something above it — some benevolent, saving power to which it must turn.
  • Further, assuming God and a Higher Self are separate entities, it is possible that the latter mediates the relationship of the ego to God.  In humbling itself before a Higher Self, then, the ego is also humbling itself before God.

[5] Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

  • Commentators on Psalms have long found a stumbling block in the frequent references to a wrathful God, whom the psalmist asks to bring about the destruction of enemies.  Taken literally this is diametrically opposed to the sound Gospel principle of loving and forgiving ones enemies.  Our strong-psychological reading of Psalms removes this difficulty.  The enemies are inner enemies.  The right use of anger and wrath is to empower the overcoming of ones own vice. Wrath is misused when directed against other human beings.

[6] Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
[7] I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.

  • set my king; my Son. In Psalms we must note the clear distinction between God (the LORD) and the Son.  The latter we propose is a new ruling, kingly and priestly sub-personality that develops, ordained by God with the express purpose of leading a spiritualization and moral reformation of the entire personality.  We might see it as a Christ principle, a keystone of a new edifice of the personality which is being constructed in the process of psychological salvation.

[8] Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
[9] Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

  • heathen for thine inheritance. The LORD will assist the new, king/priest sub-ego to gain authority over the personality.
  • rod of iron.  This personality element has the power to control heathen subpersonalities.
  • dash them in pieces. The Son is also an inner judge and, avenger.  He is able to scatter the thoughts of heathen sub-egos, rendering them ineffectual.
  • This presents us with an important question.  If thoughts are (as so often is the case) scattered and confused, is this (1) a sign of oppression by frustrated heathen sub-egos, or (2) the result of punitive actions of a righteous inner judge upon rebellious inner heathens?  Could it even be both are the same thing, viewed from the perspectives of different sub-egos? Perhaps this will become more clear as we continue this exercise of interpretation.  Regardless, scattering and confusion of thoughts is eliminated when the personality is harmonized by holiness; gratitude, humility, trust, hope and the condition of giving God thanks and praise.

[10] Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
[11] Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
[12] Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

  • Kiss the Son. The kings of the earth may be reconciled to the overall project of harmonization, integration, holiness and ascension (a topic we have not yet addressed).  Therefore the goal is not to destroy, but convert them.


1. Philo quotes Psalms about two-dozen times, often supplying a psychological interpretation consistent with his exegesis of Genesis and Exodus.

2. A monitoring of ones thoughts for five minutes suffices to show how many mental characters, roles and orientations we regularly assume and how rapidly these change.


Asrani, U. A. The psychology of mysticism. In: John White (ed.), The highest state of consciousness 2nd ed., White Crow, 2012. (Article originally appeared in Main Currents in Modern Thought, 25, 1969, 68–73.)

Blaising, Craig A.;  Hardin, Carmen S. (eds.). Psalms 1−50. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, 1949.

Colson F. H.; Whitaker, G. H.; Marcus Ralph (eds.). The Works of Philo. 12 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1929−1953.

Dysinger, Luke.  Evagrius Ponticus: Scholia on Psalms.  Web article. 2005.

Edinger, Edward F. The Sacred Psyche: A Psychological Approach to the Psalms. Inner City Books, 2004

Gohl, Justin M. Pseudo-Procopius of Gaza, Commentary on Proverbs 1-9 (Ἑρμηνεία εἰς τὰς Παροιμίας). 2019.

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. London: Chatto & Windus, 1947.

Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition. Berkeley: University of California, 1986.

Lester, David. A multiple self theory of the mind. Comprehensive Psychology, 2012, 1, 5.

Maslow, Abraham H. The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Arkana, 1993 (first published Viking, 1971).

McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale, 2009.

Neale, John Mason; Littledale, Richard Frederick. A Commentary on the Psalms. 2nd ed. 4 vols. London: Masters, 1869−1874.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Russell, Donald Andrew; Konstan, David. Heraclitus: Homeric Problems. Atlanta, 2005.

Spurgeon, Charles Haddon. The Treasury of David. 7 vols. London: 1881−1885.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible.  Camino Real, 2012.

Uebersax, John.  The monomyth of fall and salvation. Christian Platonism (website). 2014.

Uebersax, John. The soul’s great battle of Kurukshetra. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology (website). 2021.

Uebersax, John. Pitirim Sorokin’s personality theory. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology (website). 2015.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. 12th ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1930.

Wesselschmidt, Quentin F. (ed.). Psalms 51−150. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Intervarsity Press, 2007.



Thomas Chalmers: On Loving God for His Moral Goodness

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Rev. Thomas Chalmers, by John Watson Gordon (National Galleries)

THOMAS CHALMERS (1780–1847) was an astronomer, preacher, economist, humanitarian and moral philosopher — part of the Scottish Enlightenment (along with such figures as David Hume and Adam Smith). An example of his sophisticated moral thought is his sermon, The Affection of Moral Esteem Towards God.  Its  main premise is that, both to be happy in this life and to prepare ourselves for Eternity, we must learn to love God not for gifts bestowed, but for the sake of God’s inherent loveliness, beauty and goodness.

Parts of the essay are bit marred (in my opinion) by Chalmers’ allusions to a God who, as part of his perfect justice and holiness, must punish sinners and enemies of religion.  This is a problem often found in Calvinist sermons — something perhaps to address in a later post.  But putting that aside, the sermon is making a valuable point.

And here let it be most readily and most abundantly conceded, that we are not perfect and complete in the whole of God’s will, till the love of moral esteem be in us, as well as the love of gratitude — till that principle, of which by nature we are utterly destitute, he made to arise in our hearts, and to have there a thorough establishment and operation — till we love God, not merely on account of His love to our persons, but on account of the glory and the residing excellence which meet the eye of the spiritual beholder upon His own character. We are not preparing for heaven — we shall be utterly incapable of sharing in the noblest of its enjoyments — we shall not feel ourselves surrounded by an element of congeniality in paradise — there will be no happiness for us, even in the neighbourhood of the throne of God, and with the moral lustre of the Godhead made visible to our eyes, if we are strangers to the emotion of loving God for Himself.

As a practical problem, then, we want and must learn to love God for His innate goodness.  And in particular, here, Chalmers is concerned with our loving God for His moral beauty.

These days it may sound odd to suggest that we have an innate tendency to love moral beauty.  This wouldn’t have seemed so strange to ancient writers like Cicero, though, who took the reality of this love as a given.  Our attraction to moral beauty is at the basis of much of Cicero’s social philosophy.

But, whereas Cicero had many illustrious human examples of moral virtue he could look to, today we seem less fortunate.  Where are the modern counterparts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Demosthenes, not to mention great heroes, military leaders and statesman like Scipio Africanus!

If we had shining examples of moral heroism in modern society, then we would realize how naturally and greatly we love moral virtue.  And then it would a relatively easy step to love the perfect moral goodness of God — who is the source of these earthly instances of moral virtue.

Fortunately, even if there are few people today we can admire in this way, there is no shortage of historical exemplars we may find to inspire and enlighten us.  As an example, let me share with you one such example I find particularly inspiring.

It seems that when the great English essayist, Joseph Addison, was on his deathbed, he summoned a younger poet with whom he’d had some dealings decades earlier.  Addison told him that early in that person’s career, he (Addison) had the opportunity to assist him, but — in part from jealousy — failed to do so.  Having confessed this, he now asked the man for forgiveness.  This story to me is incredible.  Addison is on his deathbed — yet his concern is to make amends for a relatively minor wrong to another.  It wasn’t to clear his own conscience, but rather to help that other person by winning their forgiveness. On another occasion (I hope I remember the details correctly), Addison is said to have clasped his son’s hand and said, calmly and benevolently, “See here how a good Christian man faces death.”

These have always struck me as a singularly pure and beautiful moral actions.  They amaze me — and makes me love Addison for his moral virtue.  Had I never heard of them, I might never have loved moral virtue so much.  And without that love, I would not be able to love God as the source of such beauty.

Consider how God worked on my behalf.  Had Addison never been born, had he never done these things, had they not been recorded and had I (like the vast majority of even well-educated people) never heard of them, I would be less equipped to love God!  So how grateful I should be for this.  And how much more grateful that God has designed me to find joy in the moral beauty of others!

Chalmers concludes his essay with general advice we would do well to heed:

Nevertheless, the chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever. This is the real destination of every individual who is redeemed from among men. This should be the main object of all his prayers, and all his preparations. It is this which fits him for the company of heaven; and unless there be a growing taste for God in the glories of His excellency  —  for God in the beauties of His holiness  —  there is no ripening, and no perfecting, for the mansions of immortality. Though you have to combat, then, with the sluggishness of sense, and with the real aversion of nature to every spiritual exercise, you must attempt, and strenuously cultivate, the habit of communion with God.



Written by John Uebersax

December 9, 2021 at 10:58 pm

Celestial Ascent in Philo of Alexandria

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Andromeda Galaxy. (If Andromeda were brighter as viewed from Earth, it would appear as large as the full moon!)

THE WRITINGS of ancient philosophers contain main beautiful and inspiring passages concerning the contemplation of the splendors of the starry vault.  Famous examples include Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 1.25.62−28.70 and On the Nature of the Gods (De natura deorum) 2.15.40−17.44. These all address the sense of awe, wonder and aesthetic pleasure that the night sky invokes. Some authors also use contemplation of the heavens as a kind of rational demonstration of the existence, power, wisdom and beneficence of a Supreme Author.  Others go still further, making stargazing a spiritual exercise: a means of experiencing — and perhaps developing — the divinity and immortality of the soul.  One of the finest passages of this variety is found Philo of Alexandria’s commentary on the first book of Genesis (On the Creation of the World; De opficio mundi).  The entire section occupies section 18.55−23.71, but the most important part is shown below:

[55] It was with a view to that original intellectual light, which I have mentioned as belonging to the order of the incorporeal world, that He created the heavenly bodies of which our senses are aware. These are images divine and exceeding fair, which He established in heaven as in the purest temple belonging to corporeal being. […]

[69] … for after the pattern of a single Mind, even the Mind of the Universe as an archetype, the mind in each of those who successively came into being was moulded. It is in a fashion a god to him who carries and enshrines it as an object of reverence ; for the human mind evidently occupies a position in men precisely answering to that which the great Ruler occupies in all the world. It is invisible while itself seeing all things, and while comprehending the substances of others, it is as to its own substance unperceived; and while it opens by arts and sciences roads branching in many directions, all of them great highways, it comes through land and sea investigating what either element contains.

Again, when on soaring wing it has contemplated the atmosphere and all its phases, it is borne yet higher to the ether and the circuit of heaven, and is whirled round with the dances of planets and fixed stars, in accordance with the laws of perfect music, following that love of wisdom [έρωτι σοφίας] which guides its steps.

And so, carrying its gaze beyond the confines of all substance discernible by sense, it comes to a point at which it reaches out after the intelligible world, and on descrying in that world sights of surpassing loveliness, even the patterns and the originals of the things of sense which it saw here, it is seized by a sober intoxication, like those filled with Corybantic frenzy [ενθουσιά], and is inspired, possessed by a longing far other than theirs and a nobler desire. Wafted by this to the topmost arch of the things perceptible ίό mind, it seems to be on its way to the Great King Himself; but, amid its longing to see Him, pure and untempered rays of concentrated light stream forth like a torrent, so that by its gleams the eye of the understanding is dazzled [Runia: “overwhelmed by the brightness”]. (trans. Colson & Whittaker, pp. 41, 43, 55, 57; italics added)

As David Runia observes in his excellent commentary, Philo alludes to two of Plato’s discussions of contemplative ascent: Diotima’s ladder of love in Symposium 210e −212a and the Chariot Myth in Phaedrus 247c-e. Note that Philo connects the Symposium ascent with contemplation of heavenly bodies — in contrast to the more or less usual modern reading of Diotima’s speech as proceeding from love of beautiful human bodies to higher things.

Also to appreciate is how Philo implies this contemplation is not, at least at the end, something accomplished by force of will: at some point the mind is drawn or pulled upward involuntarily. At the end, the mind is ‘dazzled’ — connoting elements of both kataphatic (that is, illuminative) and apophatic (that is, beyond comprehension) mysticism.

Philo’s and other such passages are beautiful and inspiring — yet even the most magnificent words pale by comparison to the genuine spectacle of the night sky!

p.s.  Other examples from Philo:

And links to two long passages in Cicero:



Colson, F. H; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). On the Creation of the World. (De opificio mundi).  In: Philo: With and English Translation. Ten volumes and two supplementary volumes. Vol. 1.  Loeb Classical Library.  Harvard University Press, 1929.

Runia, David T. (tr.).  Philo: On the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Yonge, Charles Duke (tr.). On the Creation. In: The Works of Philo. Hedrickson Publishers, 1995. (Orig. edition 1854).