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Meditation on Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd

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PSALM 23, the Good Shepherd, is the best known and most beloved psalm, an enduring source of inspiration and consolation.  We should investigate its allegorical meanings with special care.

The psalm is a spiritual meditation on ones relationship with God and on the gifts God bestows.  As its themes are of universal interest, it is suitable for people of any religious denomination, not only Christians and Jews.

The purposes of psalm are to ingrain in faithful souls a firm conviction of God’s unremitting providence and to help one, in all things, to seek God’s guidance at all times, rather than to follow ones own fallible will and pursue ones egoistic thoughts. That is the leading project of the Old and New Testament — a renovation of mind and will — and is most directly expressed in Matthew 6:33: But seek ye first the reign of God and his righteousness.  The word translated as reign or kingdom (βασιλείαν, basileia) can be interpreted here to mean reigning or shepherding — that is, a condition, not a place — of ones mind and soul.

1. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Like a shepherd, God constantly and faithfully guides our thoughts and affections, protects us, and takes care of our needs.

Many important Old Testament figures — including Abel, Joseph, Moses and David — were shepherds. These righteous and holy persons serve as exemplars for us in shepherding our thoughts away from vanities and towards goodness and integrity.  God, though, is the supreme shepherd.  While we ourselves are expected to direct our own thoughts in a holy way as we are able, ultimately we depend on the divine Good Shepherd to direct and transform our interior life.

A shepherd is stronger and wiser than his sheep.  He looks after them, protects them, oversees all that is necessary for their welfare and flourishing.  As God, who is infinitely wise and good is our shepherd, he will anticipate and supply all our needs, inner and outer.

In understanding God as the Good Shepherd we are freed from the burden of having to direct our own life, and the myriad errors that is bound to produce. Therefore we should be confident, not fear about the future, not think unduly to prepare for our own needs, and develop the habit of expecting and discerning the presence and meaning of God’s guidances.

2. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

The image of green pastures suggests three things: repose, beauty and nourishment.  All of these apply to the pastures to which God leads ones soul. Repose, because arrival at green pastures means a potentially difficult and demanding journey to them is completed; beauty, because these pastures are themselves delightful to behold;  nourishment, because food of the best kind is supplied for the soul.

Once we have ceased the vain, grasping, ego thoughts of self-will and humbly turn to God, we may receive the spiritual gifts he is eager and ready to supply. These include noble thoughts, desires and insights that nourish and build our soul. We are nourished when our mind’s eye is opened to receive spiritual insights and inspirations, and to recognize the deeper meanings of Scripture and of external experiences. Besides nourishing us, the mere act of eating such food is delightful.

In the Bible, water images such as wells and fountains are often used to mean springs rising from the depths of ones soul that bring deep forms of knowledge, including self-knowledge. The verse refers not simply to waters, but still waters. Still water has two attributes, both of which apply here. In a well or deep pool, stillness allows one to see clearly beneath the surface. Still water also produces accurate and beautiful reflections. When our mind is stilled, so that we arrive at the condition the ancient Greeks called  ataraxia (ἀταραξία), meaning undisturbedness, we may discern the subtle thoughts that come from the depths of our soul with greater skill and also perform self-reflection with greater skill.

3. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Our soul dies in varying degrees when it goes astray to dwell on worldly concerns, anxieties, thoughts of the future, ambitions, worries and the like. Much of the time our mind is either in acute distress, or else in a state of confusion, unrest, distraction, idleness or undirected attention, flitting from one thought to another.

All such conditions produce a degradation in the clarity, depth and integrity of consciousness.

To the extent our consciousness is not clear and constant, but instead chaotic and disturbed, it may legitimately said we are not fully alive.

In one sense, then, the restoration referred to here is that of the mind from it’s fallen and fragmented condition.  It is of great significance that we have a Good Shepherd on whom we can continually rely to restore us. This is an ongoing process. We must prepared to be restored 100 times a day, or as many times as our mind goes astray.

Restoration here has a second sense as well. In the Septuagint version, the Greek word for “restoreth” is epestrepsen (ἐπέστρεψεν), from the verb epistréphō (ἐπιστρέφω), which means to return, convert, or turn back.  This is same term the Neoplatonist Plotinus uses in the Enneads to describe the return of ones soul to God after it has fallen into worldly-mindedness.  So the restoring of which the psalmist speaks includes how God graciously calls the soul back to the path of return.  That act of choosing to seek God again is itself a restoration. While this is our choice, it is also inspired by God, a grace.  This sense of restoration is much better for us than a mere feeling of tranquility or refreshment.

A recurring and important theme in Psalms is God’s Name. A great discovery we make following the road of sincere repentance is what it means to call upon God’s Name. By God’s Name here we mean his reputation. We are absolutely certain of one thing: God, the all-loving Creator of the universe, wishes to save sinners, and to rescue the lost from the dreadful suffering which accompanies alienation from his grace.

We cannot even comprehend a God who lacks this merciful and loving quality. It is essential both to the definition of a Supreme Being, and to our instinctive, unalterable sense of moral rightness.

Since God, then, wishes to save sinners, it must follow that he values his reputation, for his reputation is of incalculable value in attracting sinners back to the way of righteousness. If God were to do anything that calls into question his reputation as fair, just and saving, it would oppose the very salvific interest which is part of God’s defining essence.  People would not seek him, and would not be saved.  A supremely benevolent, just, loving and powerful God would not permit this.

Hence, when pleading for God to raise us from our fallen condition, with its unhappiness, suffering, and painful alienation, we say with the psalmist, Let my fate not put to shame those who trust in you (Ps. 69:6).  We are certain that as long as we do not actively oppose God’s plan of salvation for us, he will faithfully act.

But if we invoke God’s Name here — if we say to God, “Save me, answer my desperate pleas for your Name’s sake! — this requires something from us as well. For we would be absurd and hypocritical to suppose that God would preserve his reputation were he to rescue us when we are insincere and undeserving.  God will not be made a fool.  Were he to save an insincere repentant, that would harm his reputation as much, if not more, than were he to ignore sincere pleas.  If we invoke God’s Name, then, we must search our conscience, and know we are sincerely trying to reform.  We must not plead with our lips but remain reprobate in our heart.

4. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

We may understand the valley here as referring to this life, in which all is passing away, and where what things appear to be real are mere shadows of reality. We have no fear, because it is also a mere illusion to believe God is not immediately and actively concerned with our welfare.

Note carefully the shift here, whereby before God was referred to in the third person (“he”), and now in the second person (“thou”). We are now addressing God himself, and communing with him. More than a prayer, then, the psalm becomes an actual experience of drawing closer to God.

God’s staff pulls us out of the thorns of temptations and back to the right path. When necessary, God’s rod rebukes us; for that we should not feel resentful, but grateful: its presence is proof of God’s active interest and loving care.

5. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

God prepares a banquet of spiritual goods.  Enemies here — as throughout Psalms — means the inner enemies within our soul. Compared to the exalted nature of these goods, the presence of enemies is no concern.  Nothing is more suitable for dispelling the power of enemies than that one such receive, even in their presence, such wonderful gifts.

Anointing the head with oil is a universal symbol for the opening of the eye of the mind that sees spiritual things and receives divine illuminations.  Speaking of this verse, St. Ambrose tells us, “At this banquet there is the oil of sanctification, poured richly over the head of the just. This oil strengthens the inner senses. It does away with the oil of the sinner that fattens the head.” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms 35.19).

The cup is filled with spiritual wine, referring to a divine stimulation of holy emotions.  The usual English translation loses the explicit sense of inebriation implied.  The Septuagint Greek retains this, saying, τὸ ποτήριόν σου μεθύσκον ὡς κράτιστον, which means, your cup gladdens like the best wine, or your cup bestows the most exalted form of inebriation.  Our spiritual yearnings are fulfilled in their entirety.

6. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The psalm closes on a strong note of optimism, hope and confidence — these words being so clear that no interpretation is needed.  We emerge from our meditation renewed and strengthened.

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Philo on Heavenly Inspirations

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Manna, Maciejowski Bible (13th C.)

PHILO here, in one of his most famous passages, gives us insight into the personal experiential basis of his exegesis of the patriarchs.  First he presents Abraham as the type of man who directs his mind away from thoughts associated with worldly and carnal concerns (Egypt) to the “father’s land” of Wisdom from which heavenly inspirations flow.  This orientation gives birth to a new disposition of mind, Isaac — whom, Philo elsewhere explains, symbolizes spiritual Joy. He then describes the nature of his own experiences, noting with regret intervening periods of aridity. (FIRST DRAFT)

(28) … Nay, thou must change thine abode and betake thee to thy father’s land, the land of the Word that is holy and in some sense father of those who submit to training: and that land is Wisdom, abode most choice of virtue-loving souls.

(29) In this country there awaiteth thee the nature which is its own pupil, its own teacher, that needs not to be fed on milk as children are fed, that has been stayed by a Divine oracle from going down into Egypt (Gen. 26:2) and from meeting with the ensnaring pleasures of the flesh. That nature is entitled Isaac.

(30) When thou hast entered upon his inheritance, thou canst not but lay aside thy toil; for the perpetual abundance of good things ever ready to the hand gives freedom from toil. And the fountain from which the good things are poured forth is the companionship of the bountiful God. He shews this to be so when to set His seal upon the flow of His kindnesses, He says “I will be with thee.”

VII. (31) What  fair thing, then, could fail when there was present God the Perfecter, with gifts of grace, His virgin daughters, whom the Father that begat them rears up uncorrupted and undefiled? Then are all forms of studying, toiling, practising at rest; and without come forth all things in one outburst charged with benefit for all.

(32) And the harvest of spontaneous good things is called “Release,” [άφεσις; aphesis] inasmuch as the Mind [νους; nous] is released from the working out of its own projects, and is, we may say, emancipated from self-chosen tasks, by reason of the abundance of the rain and ceaseless shower of blessings.

(33) And these are of a most marvellous nature and passing fair. For the offspring of the soul’s own travail are for the most part poor abortions, things untimely born; but those which God waters with the snows of heaven come to the birth perfect, complete and peerless.

(34) I feel no shame in recording my own  experience, a thing I know from its having happened to me a thousand times. On some occasions, after making up my mind to follow the usual course of writing on philosophical tenets, and knowing definitely the substance of what I was to set down, I have found my understanding (διάνοιαν; dianoia) incapable of giving birth to a single idea, and have given it up without accomplishing anything, reviling my understanding for its self-conceit, and filled with amazement at the might of Him that is to Whom is due the opening and closing of the soul-wombs.

(35) On other  occasions, I have approached my work empty and 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.

Source: Philo, On the Migration of Abraham 6.28−7.35 (tr. Colson & Whitaker, pp. 149−153)

Psychological Interpretation of Psalm 1

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The religious life, explained in detail throughout the Bible, is summarized in a single, short passage, namely Psalm 1. Further, the essential message is conveyed in just the first two or three verses. Noting this and studying the psalm will therefore greatly assist ones spiritual progress, in a very direct way, and with comparatively little effort…. click here for the rest.

Written by John Uebersax

July 28, 2009 at 6:00 am

St Athanasius on Psalm 1

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From an Easter letter by Saint Athanasius, bishop

The Paschal sacrament brings together in unity of faith those who are far away

Brethren, how fine a thing it is to move from festival to festival, from prayer to prayer, from holy day to holy day. The time is now at hand when we enter on a new beginning: the proclamation of the blessed Passover, in which the Lord was sacrificed. We feed as on the food of life, we constantly refresh our souls with his precious blood, as from a fountain. Yet we are always thirsting, burning to be satisfied. But he himself is present for those who thirst and in his goodness invites them to the feast day. Our Saviour repeats his words: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.

He quenched the thirst not only of those who came to him then. Whenever anyone seeks him he is freely admitted to the presence of the Saviour. The grace of the feast is not restricted to one occasion. Its rays of glory never set. It is always at hand to enlighten the mind of those who desire it. Its power is always there for those whose minds have been enlightened and who meditate day and night on the holy Scriptures, like the one who is called blessed in the holy psalm: Blessed is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or stood where sinners stand, or sat in the seat of the scornful, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.

via Universalis: Office of Readings.

Written by John Uebersax

March 27, 2009 at 7:12 am

St. Augustine – Christ is the way to the light

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Reading From a treatise on John by Saint Augustine, bishop

Christ is the way to the light, the truth and the life

The Lord tells us: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. In these few words he gives a command and makes a promise. Let us do what he commands so that we may not blush to covet what he promises and to hear him say on the day of judgement: “I laid down certain conditions for obtaining my promises. Have you fulfilled them?” If you say: “What did you command, Lord our God?” he will tell you: “I commanded you to follow me. You asked for advice on how to enter into life. What life, if not the life about which it is written: With you is the fountain of life?

Let us do now what he commands. Let us follow in the footsteps of the Lord. Let us throw off the chains that prevent us from following him. Who can throw off these shackles without the aid of the one addressed in these words: You have broken my chains? Another psalm says of him: The Lord frees those in chains, the Lord raises up the downcast.

Those who have been freed and raised up follow the light. The light they follow speaks to them: I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness. The Lord gives light to the blind. Brethren, that light shines on us now, for we have had our eyes anointed with the eye-salve of faith. His saliva was mixed with earth to anoint the man born blind. We are of Adam’s stock, blind from our birth; we need him to give us light. He mixed saliva with earth, and so it was prophesied: Truth has sprung up from the earth. He himself has said: I am the way, the truth and the life.

We shall be in possession of the truth when we see face to face. This is his promise to us. Who would dare to hope for something that God in his goodness did not choose to promise or bestow?

We shall see face to face. The Apostle says: Now I know in part, now obscurely through a mirror, but then face to face. John the Apostle says in one of his letters: Dearly beloved, we are now children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. This is a great promise.

If you love me, follow me. “I do love you,” you protest, “but how do I follow you?” If the Lord your God said to you: “I am the truth and the life,” in your desire for truth, in your love for life, you would certainly ask him to show you the way to reach them. You would say to yourself: “Truth is a great reality, life is a great reality; if only it were possible for my soul to find them!”

via Universalis: Office of Readings.

Written by John Uebersax

March 22, 2009 at 8:51 am

St. Augustine – Living waters

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From a treatise on John by Saint Augustine, bishop

A Samaritan woman came to draw water

What could be more gentle and kind than the encouragement he gives? If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” perhaps you might ask and he would give you living water.

What is this water that he will give if not the water spoken of in Scripture: With you is the fountain of life? How can those feel thirst who will drink deeply from the abundance in your house? He was promising the Holy Spirit in satisfying abundance. She did not yet understand. In her failure to grasp his meaning, what was her reply? The woman says to him: Master, give me this drink, so that I may feel no thirst or come here to draw water. Her need forced her to this labour, her weakness shrank from it. If only she could hear those words: Come to me, all who labour and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Jesus was saying this to her, so that her labours might be at an end; but she was not yet able to understand.

Written by John Uebersax

March 15, 2009 at 8:44 am