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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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Nothing Further Can Be Found in Man: St. Athanasius on Interpretation of the Psalms

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Introduction

ONE of the finest Patristic works on Psalms is the letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria to his friend, Marcellinus, Ad Marcellinum.  Ostensibly relaying what he learned from an “old man” — perhaps a saintly desert ascetic — St. Athanasius exhorts us not only to read the Psalms, but to read them “intelligently.”  He also affirms the benefits of singing the Psalms, by which means a uniting and harmonization all one’s faculties and powers occurs.

The letter is not long, and all who are drawn to Psalms and wish to profit from them are encouraged to read it in its entirety (links in Bibliography).  Some passages of special interest are supplied below.

(Note: square brackets indicate sections as enumerated in the Migne edition; translation is by Anonymous 1953/1998).

To Marcellinus

All the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), as it is written; but to those who really study it, the Psalter yields especial treasure. … Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest. [2]

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own … [however with] Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. [11]

[T]he Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul … [12]

Just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives. [13]

The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture [more particularly] of the spiritual life. [14]

It is possible for us …  to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions …  [15]

unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil. [27]

When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart. To praise God tunefully upon an instrument, such as well-tuned cymbals, cithara, or ten-stringed psaltery, is, as we know, an outward token that the members of the body and the thoughts of the heart are, like the instruments themselves, in proper order and control, all of them together living and moving by the Spirit’s cry and breath. … he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone. [29]

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in Man. [30]

Bibliography

English translations

Anonymous (tr.). Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. In: Anonymous (tr.), Athanasius: On the Incarnation. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998. (Appendix; pp. 97−119; ‘Letter’ orig. publ. 1953). [online version]

Elowsky, Joel C. (tr.), Athanasius: Letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms. New Haven, CT: ICCS Press, 2017.

Gregg, Robert C. (tr.). Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Paulist Press, 1980. (pp. 101−129).

Greek and Latin text

Epistula ad Marcellinum de interpretatione Psalmorum. [Greek text, digital].

Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). Patrologia Graeca 27, 1857. (cols. 11−46). [Greek text with Latin translation.]

Secondary sources

Kolbet, Paul R. Athanasius, the Psalms, and the Reformation of the Self. The Harvard Theological Review, vol. 99, no. 1, 2006, pp. 85–101.

Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come

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Jesus
In the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer there is a tendency to consider as connected the two phrases, Thy kingdom come and that which follows, Thy will be done. This is partly so because, like a couplet, these two phrases have identical meter and the last syllables rhyme, at least approximately.

However in consulting the commentaries of Church Fathers on the Lord’s Prayer, the view instead emerges that the phrase Thy kingdom come is more naturally linked with the preceding Hallowed be Thy name to form a unitary concept.

Why?

Consider when it is that we best and most naturally praise and thank God. Is it not in our moments of greatest joy and happiness? When some unexpected windfall occurs, do we not exclaim, or literally gush, “Thank you God!”, even, if in public, letting everyone around witness? Anyone seeing this understands exactly how we feel. There is nothing contrived or artificial. It is a natural expression of extreme, consummate happiness.

Therefore when we pray Hallowed be thy name we say in few words what might be expanded as follows: “Please let me experience true joy, happiness, and bliss, and with such fullness that it would cause me, being perfectly satisfied in the moment, to wish to hallow Thy name by giving sincere, spontaneous thanks and praise.”

Notice also how much more such spontaneous, heartfelt exclamation of thanks and praise glorifies God, that is, hallows God’s name, more than merely reciting a prayer with labored effort, even though that may be quite sincere. No, if we truly wish to most praise God’s name, then we must wish to have joy and happiness, for this makes our desire to hallow God’s name the greatest. Our happiness, which is itself evidence of God’s supreme love for us, and the thanks and praise this elicits, glorifies God.

This is an important insight. For how much better it is to pray for what we truly desire (i.e. happiness), and how much more strong such authentic prayer may be, rather than to merely make ourselves pray for what we believe we ought to pray for!

But then consider how the only way we can reach such states of happiness is when we surrender control, letting go of myriad forms of ego-drivenness, and let ourselves instead be guided by the Holy Spirit; and so inspired by grace, do God’s will, and by that to discover to our delight that what we have done brings some happy outcome. Previously we considered the suggestion that this surrender to the guidance of God is the main meaning of the kingdom (i.e., reign, kingship, rule, dominion) of God, a detail evident in other languages but somewhat obscured in English.

Therefore these two phrases, Hallowed be Thy name and Thy kingdom come are linked to form a unitary concept. [1] The desired end is stated first, and then the means: the end is to reach a condition of true happiness, and the means to discern and follow God’s guidance. We pray for these not in an abstract or remote sense, but for them to happen now, today, this hour or moment if possible. We pray to return to the condition which we may call, without trying too hard to define it precisely, the state of grace.

An ancient and rare manuscript tradition (see e.g., here) has a variant form of the Lord’s Prayer as given in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 11). In place of Thy kingdom come it reads, “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.” This supports our view, shared by St. Gregory of Nyssa [2] among others, that to pray Thy kingdom come is in essence the same thing as to pray, Come Holy Spirit.

first draft: 15 September 2014 (please excuse typos)

Notes

  1. The words which follow, Thy will be done, would then be understood as linked with on earth as it is in heaven. We may address the significance of this another time.
  2. Graef, Hilda C. (editor, translator). Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954. (pp. 52–53, 56).

The ‘Our Father’ Explained by the Church Fathers

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Patristic Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer

The following is a list of Patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, with links to original-language versions and English translations.

The Lord’s Prayer is a pearl of great price, a treasure of Christianity, the value of which is often obscured by its very familiarity. Tertullian rightly called it “truly the summary of the whole Gospel.” (De oratione 1; Migne PL 1,1155). More than a simple prayer, the Our Father constitute a spiritual exercise, a form of meditation and contemplation, and a complete philosophy of life, all contained in a few lines.

It is vital that Christians learn to pray it reflectively, with understanding. For this we have numerous commentaries of Church Fathers to assist us.

Perhaps no better preface for the following can be found than the following remarks of St. John Cassian, taken from Conferences 9 (full citation supplied below).

[3] … and the soul kept free from all conversation and from roving thoughts that thus it may little by little begin to rise to the contemplation of God and to spiritual insight. …

[4] For the nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather or very light wing, which, if it has not been damaged or affected by being spoilt by any moisture falling on it from without, is borne aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath: but if it is weighted by any moisture falling upon it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any aerial flights but will actually be borne down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received. So also our soul, if it is not weighted with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised as it were by the natural blessing of its own purity and borne aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation; and leaving things low and earthly will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible. …

[25] This prayer then though it seems to contain all the fullness of perfection, as being what was originated and appointed by the Lord’s own authority, yet lifts those to whom it belongs to that still higher condition of which we spoke above, and carries them on by a loftier stage to that ardent prayer which is known and tried by but very few, and which to speak more truly is ineffable; which transcends all human thoughts, and is distinguished, I will not say by any sound of the voice, but by no movement of the tongue, or utterance of words, but which the mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light describes in no human and confined language, but pours forth richly as from copious fountain in an accumulation of thoughts, and ineffably utters to God, expressing in the shortest possible space of time such great things that the mind when it returns to its usual condition cannot easily utter or relate.

Compilation of the list was considerably facilitated by: Petiot, Henri (alias M. Daniel-Rops; editor); Hamman, Adalbert (translator). Le Pater expliqué par les Pères. (2nd ed.) Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 1962.

Authors are listed chronologically, in order of year of birth.

Notation: Migne PL = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina; Migne PG = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Graeca.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225)

On Prayer (De oratione) 1–10

  • Latin: Migne PL 1, 1149–1166
  • English: Thelwall, Sydney. (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (ANF-03), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887. (pp. 681–684). (Text)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253)

On Prayer (De Oratione) 18–30

St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; Treatises 4)

  • Latin: Migne PL 4, 519–544
  • English: Wallis, Robert Ernest (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (ANF-05), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. (Cyprian: Treatises, 4, pp. 447–457). (Text)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386)

Catecheses mystagogicae 5.11–5.18

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; 5 Sermons)

St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337–397)

On the Sacraments (De sacramentis) 5.4.18–5.4.30

Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)

Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (Expositio in orationem dominicam); Clavis patrum graecorum (CPG) no. 2461

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)

Homilies on Matthew (In Mattheum) 19

Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio)

  • Greek, Latin: Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio; Migne PG 51, 44–48
  • English: ?

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428)

Catechetical Lectures

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

On the Sermon on the Mount 2.4.15–2.11.39

Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament 6–9 (= Benedictine edition 56–59 )

St. John Cassian (c. 360–435)

Conferences 9.18–9.25 (On the Lord’s Prayer, De oratione Dominica)

St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450)

Sermons 67–72

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)

A Brief Explanation of the Prayer Our Father to a Certain Friend of Christ (Orationis Dominicae expositio)

Bibliography

Ayo, Nicholas. The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 (Orig. 1992, Notre Dame University)

Hammerling, Roy. The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church: The Pearl of Great Price. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Simonetti, Manlio (ed.). Matthew 1-13. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). InterVarsity Press, 2001. (pp. 130–139).

On the Praying for Others’ Forgiveness in the Catholic Mass

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Carthusian Rite Confiteor

Why the Confiteor is one of the most beautiful and important parts of the Mass

The section of the Roman Catholic Mass called the Penitential Rite is insufficiently appreciated. This part contains, among other things, the prayer known as the Confiteor. Its name comes from the first line, which, in Latin, is Confiteor Deo omnipotente…, in English translated as “I confess to Almighty God….” The Confiteor is the source of the phrase, mea culpa (mea culpa, mea culpa, me maxima culpa — i.e., one confesses that one has sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

A special virtue of this section of the Liturgy is that it is an opportunity for members of the Church to pray for one another. When I was younger, I understood the Confiteor, along with the Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy!) which comes later, as being mainly concerned with seeking forgiveness for ones own sins. But with age comes a growth in instinctive concern for others; you look around and see what difficulties and burdens others bear, and, if you have a heart, you naturally want them to be helped. As this charitable concern develops, the Mass takes on new meaning and importance.

Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:23)

Just think of what the verse above implies. Look at the suffering and the burdens others bear — whether those be their sins, or the consequences of those sins, or the guilt and shame their sins produce. And then consider the possibility that you may be an agent in removing those burdens and effecting their healing. Have you never noticed how real benefits may come to others as the result of your prayers? What if no-one else on the entire the planet is praying for these individuals? That may easily be the case! Can you not bring yourself — indeed, can you not resist the compassionate urge — to pray for them?

To give a personal example, suppose I’m at Mass and I see people in the congregation with serious obesity problems; these days, I’m afraid, that’s an all too common experience. Now God has given me the gift of physical fitness and a strong personal motivation to exercise. This is a grace not everyone has. It is a blessing, and I’m extremely grateful for it. But I have been overweight before, and therefore know that these people suffer very much because of obesity. It’s perfectly natural, then, for me to pray for them.

Now it might be objected, “Aren’t you being judgmental here? On what basis are you apparently equating their health issues with sin?” The answer is that I’m taking a very broad view of sin; it might be better to call the issue here moral imperfection, or even an insufficiency of moral strength. We need to strip ‘sin’ of its judgmental connotations in any case. The original Greek word for sin is hamartia, which means ‘missing the mark.’ It’s appropriate, then, to see the alleviation of obesity, depression, substance abuse, or many other things people suffer from as subjects of prayer in the Penitential Rite.

It is of some interest to note changes in the liturgy apropos of this. Before the reforms of the 1960’s and 70’s, the Mass was, of course, still said in Latin. People may not remember this detail, but in the traditional Tridentine Mass the Confiteor was actually prayed twice. First the priest recited it to the assistant(s) or altar servers, confessing his sinfulness and pleading for the intercession of “Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul” and “all the Saints.” In conclusion he further asked, “you brethren, to pray to the Lord our God for me.”

In response, the assistant(s) — representing the entire congregation — prayed,

May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.

To which the priest said, “Amen.”

Then the assistant(s) recited the Confiteor, changing only the last phrase by asking “you Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.” The priest then prayed the same response as the assistant(s) had to his Confiteor, to which the latter responded, “Amen.” Then the priest, making the sign of the cross, prayed:

May the Almighty and merciful God grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

To which the server(s) replied, “Amen.”

This detail actually signifies something momentous: that the priest and congregation, symbolized by the assistant(s), are praying, interceding with God, for each other’s forgiveness.

The present form of the Roman Catholic Mass includes only one Confiteor, said jointly by the priest and congregation. In theory, nothing has changed spiritually: all are praying both for themselves and for each other. But the present liturgy leaves this more ambiguous. If not instructed in the matter, people may misunderstand, and think they are only praying for their own forgiveness.

At one level, it’s perfectly understandable and ordinary for people to be so intent on confessing their own sins and seeking forgiveness that the reciprocity of the Confiteor escapes attention. Yet Christians in this respect are called on to be more than ordinary. They are called to be priests, a priestly people (1 Peter 2:5–10; cf. Exodus 19:6); and one vital function of a priest is to intercede with God for the welfare of others.

Moreover, an exclusively self-oriented confessional attitude fails to recognize a fundamental principle of the psychology of forgiveness, a detail to which Scripture pointedly calls our attention: that forgiving others and being forgiven ourselves are so integrally related as to literally be two aspects of the same thing. Let us recall some relevant passages:

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:16)

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6: 14–15)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

Note that we are not just called to forgive those who have trespassed against us, but also those sins others commit that might not involve us at all.

Sometimes we might think that the connection between forgiving and forgiveness is merely a kind of reciprocal justice: if we forgive, then we’ve done a good deed, and our reward is to be forgiven in exactly the same degree. But the connection is actually much stronger. In a sense, our holding onto grudges, or even just a ‘stinginess’ in wishing forgiveness for anyone, automatically carries with it a burden of moral imperfection, if not outright sin. Said another way, the moment we earnestly pray for others’ forgiveness — not just those who have harmed us, but those who need forgiveness in any way and for any reason — we ourselves come into right relation to God and with ourselves. And whatever burdens we have imposed on ourselves by being out of right relation are removed.

This shouldn’t be taken to imply that an awareness of our own sinfulness isn’t terribly important. Quite the opposite: the more cognizant we are of our need for forgiveness, the more enthusiastic and willing we are to forgive others, as this is a small price to pay indeed. If we fully understood this principle, we would beg and thank God for the opportunity to forgive others!

Perhaps at this point some will expect me to suggest that we should restore the Tridentine Mass, but that is by no means my point. In fact, I think the liturgical changes have been, in the main, for the better. It seems sufficient for the Confiteor to be said once — provided that people are aware of all that’s going on. I believe it proper to say that the main focus of ones prayer here should be for others’ forgiveness. That is the object of our prayer. The action of our praying for others is itself implicitly the prayer for our own forgiveness — so that both needs are being met at the same time.

I do believe, however, that, with the present liturgy, special attention needs to be given to instruct people about the dual nature of the Penitential Rite. Further, some things I’ve read online seem to suggest that in certain diocese and/or at certain times, the Confiteor is omitted from masses. If so, then it seems to me very important that whatever is used in its place emphasize and encourage the dual aspect of praying for forgiveness.

I wrote at the outset that this is something momentous, but have yet to fully explain why. Consider this principle of each forgiving another — of striving to do this oneself, and of coming to regularly expect that others approach you in the same way — carried to its logical extreme. That is, imagine a society where this principle became conventional, usual, regular. In that case the whole orientation of the individual towards others and society in general would be transformed, and for the better. Inasmuch as the ability to heal by forgiving is natural, and human beings are naturally social and gregarious, then an ambient recognition of this principle would amount to a revolution in human consciousness, individual and social. We would achieve in practice what is yet only latent and dormant in our collective potential.  We would change as a species.

 

Written by John Uebersax

July 28, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Thy Kingdom or Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?

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media-527672-2 There is an important issue with the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, the phrase Thy Kingdom come might be more accurately given as “Thy Reign come.” Alternatively, Rule, Kingship, Dominion, or Sovereignty are arguably better translations of the Greek word here, which is Basileia (Βασιλεία). There is a major difference between a Kingdom and Reign or Rule. The former is a thing, a place; the latter imply an action or process. What we are praying for, in particular, is that God will govern our will and soul; that we are morally purified, cleansed of egoism, so that God reigns. The word “Kingdom” has this psychological meaning only obliquely. Actually I think both meanings are implied by Basileia, but “Kingdom” loses the important psychological sense. A few minutes after writing the above, I found the following confirmation in note to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer: “Basileia, the word for kingdom is the same as that for kingship in Greek. The argumentation from “Thy Kingdom come” to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit can therefore not be adequately reproduced in English, as it depends on the double sense of the one Greek term.” (Graef, 1954, n68, p. 187) St. Gregory of Nyssa’s association of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit is based on a rare variant of Luke 11:2 he quotes which has “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us,” in place of Thy Kingdom come. Reference Graef, Hilda C. (translator). St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954.

Written by John Uebersax

July 21, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Paul Elmer More on the Communion of Saints

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Paul Elmer More (1864—1937), one of the great twentieth-century American men of letters, is little read today, and that is unfortunate.  Part of the problem is timing:  More, a classicist, essayist, social critic – and mentor of C. S. Lewis – came along just when interest in traditional religion, patristics, and classics went out of fashion in American universities.  His works, however, contain a wealth of insight uniquely relevant to the cultural crises and religious dilemmas of our times.

This will be the first of several planned posts about More.  Here he is analyzing the items of faith of the Apostles Creed with his own unique blend of Anglo-Catholic traditionalism and modern scepticism, and comes to the Communion of Saints.

From Paul Elmer More, The Catholic Faith (Princeton, 1931), pp. 96-100.

Article 11: The Communion of Saints. — Here we are stopped by a doubt as to the actual meaning of the original words such as meets us nowhere else in the creed. It is contended by certain scholars, that the Greek phrase and its Latin equivalent (sanctorum communionem) had no reference to “saints” or to persons at all, but implied “a participation in the holy things” (sancta, neuter).  However that may be — and the contention is probably correct — it happened at an early date that the phrase came somehow to be referred to persons (sancti, masculine); and thus the clause stands in the English translation. So taken, the article must be understood simply to define and amplify the preceding confession of belief in the Church [note: i.e., Article 10 of the Creed, ‘the Holy Catholic Church’]. Yet it is an extension so rich in possible consequences as to merit separate consideration.

The certain nemesis of individualism, the price perhaps of being individuals, is loneliness, — the sullen power ever on watch if it may creep in at the gate of the soul, to darken with its shadows the hours of revelry, to tantalize the sweet expectations of love, to embitter the anguish of sorrow, — the mocker whose thin laughter can be heard without even when the bolts are drawn against its entrance. There is no escape from it though we go down to the pits of folly, no distraction that will drive it away, no pride of ambition that will satiate it, no human wisdom that will utterly extract its sting, and the threat of death is its eternal reality. The most terrible word of our western philosophy is the sentence with which Plotinus closes his account of the mystic ecstasy: “The flight of the alone to the Alone”; and it is but a chilly comfort that comes with the same idea from the theosophy of the East:

He, in that solitude before
The world was, looked the wide void o’er
And nothing saw, and said, Lo I
Alone! — and still we echo the lone cry.

Thereat He feared, and still we fear
In solitude when naught is near:
And, Lo, He said, myself alone!
What cause of dread when second is not known?
(Source: Century of Indian Epigrams, lxvi. From the Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad, I, iv, 1 and 2.)

If there be any real mitigation of that loneliness, which otherwise seems only to be brought into deeper consciousness by the upward strivings of religion, we must look for it in the Church. Here, if anywhere, in the community of worship through prayer and praise, the spirits of men are united in “the fellowship of the Holy Ghost.” This is the thought that underlies the symbol of the Church as the body of Christ, running through the epistles of St. Paul like a beautiful refrain: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,” and “For we being many are one bread and one body.”

But the Church includes a wider fellowship than this. Besides the visible body of living believers it embraces the body of those who have passed into the invisible world, so that by this communion with the saints the very sundering partitions of time are broken down as well as the separations of place, and almost we can say that death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. It is a thought of unspeakable consolation, if only we could realize it in experience as we profess it in words.

Something of what is meant by this article of faith can be guessed from the arts, for in these too we have communion with the great dead as well as with the living. We read the poets whose soul has gone into their works, an Aeschylus or Virgil or Dante or Milton, we hear the melodies or see the pictures of the ancient masters, and forthwith we are rapt out of ourselves, out through the locked doors of the present, into the large atmosphere of those who once lived in the mystery of beauty and turned life itself into a tale of wonder.

Or we study the sages, the veritable seers to whom the gross forms of matter were commuted into a vision of Ideas or lost in “the intellectual love of God.” We know that there, in that society, is our true home, and we say, sit anima mea cum philosophis [note: May my soul be with the philosophers]. Such is the communion of art and philosophy, the high and glorious adventure of education; yet withal it is but a sign and foretaste of that which may be given by religion. For in philosophy and the arts we are made free indeed of the world in which the masters lived, and partakers of that which they added to the world by their creative genius; we live with their works, but, so far as they are merely artists and philosophers, not with them;  they are dead and their task is done. It is not so with the communion of saints. No doubt we have here too the benefit of their achievements as such; their holiness is a lesson and an ensample [note: synonym for example] to us, as it were a poem, a picture, and a book of wisdom on which we can draw for courage and enlightenment. But if the article of the creed is properly understood, it means more than this. It signifies that the saints are active spirits, members of the Church like ourselves, though withdrawn from sight and nearer to the source of light than we, to whom a man may come in prayer and friendship. That is a mystery of religion, none the less precious for the abuses of exaggeration it has suffered in certain practices of the actual Church.

Nor is it limited to the mighty champions of the faith, the canonized or uncanonized heroes of holiness. In another sense the lesser dead as well as the greater are included among the saints, those of our own circle who have gone before, and who speak to us, not in the dull mechanical fashion of the spiritualists so-called, but in a silence that can stir our being to its depths. There are those who will tell you how sometimes at the hearing of the mass or at the regular morning and evening service of prayer, and more especially when the congregation is united in saying the creed, they become strangely aware of the presence of one “loved long since and lost awhile,” and with that spirit seem to be carried close to the throne of mercy. And the memory of that communion is to them inexpressibly sweet. You may say that they are carried away by aesthetic emotions, momentarily rapt out of themselves by the illusions of fancy. It may be so; but I believe they are not utterly deceived. All this is conveyed by profession of faith in the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints.

Written by John Uebersax

December 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm