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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.

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Your Greatest Psychological Enemy

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Dorees engler

Today my readings took me to St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, and an interesting passage where he warns them against what he calls the great Rebel (2 Thess. 2:3) This is in a modern (Jerusalem Bible) translation. The King James Version renders the Greek expression (anthropos hamartia) as that man of sin. Usually I am wary of modern translations, but here one suspects that the international team of scholars who translated the Jerusalem Bible had good grounds for their more evocative choice of words.

In any case this reading serves as a welcome stimulus to address a topic I have too long delayed. I wish to call attention to the reality of this great Rebel as a psychological phenomenon , and as a major obstacle to human happiness.

Now as to whether Satan, in the traditional sense, exists or not does not concern me here. What is of concern is a satanic principle as it exists within the psyche of each individual. That I am convinced does exist.   And it is this inner satanic principle which is, I believe, our most immediate concern, and perhaps ultimately our greatest adversary and obstacle to well-being.

What is the evidence for this? To begin with, I call attention to the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung’s theories are not always right, and much of what he wrote is either inconsistent with — or has been interpreted (perhaps wrongly) in ways that make it inconsistent with — Christianity. However, points of incorrectness or disagreement should never make us hesitate to accept whatever else is true and useful. And there is indeed much true and useful in Jung’s theories.

In this case, Jung’s theories make a very strong case that the Bible, as well as the sacred writings and myths of all cultures, (1) can be interpreted psychologically, and (2) that this can be done more or less along the same lines as one interprets dreams psychologically.

One proviso or explanation must be made immediately: to say that the Bible can be interpreted psychologically in no way denies that it has other levels of meaning. Most importantly, it does not deny that the New Testament is literally true. (Whether the Old Testament is literally true is, of course, another matter.) Thus, rather than detract from the grandeur of the Bible, this view actually enhances it: it allows that God, the Supreme Author, uses all modes of meaning which literature may carry — literal and symbolic — to communicate with our souls.   But having stated this, I will not further defend the premise here, having done so elsewhere. In any case, many readers will be willing to accept this key premise prima facie.

A corollary of this premise is that each figure in the Bible has some counterpart, and thus serves as a symbol for some part or process of the individual psyche. Again, many, especially those already familiar with Jungian theory, will accept this without further explanation. It is a standard element of psychological interpretation of dreams, as well as of mythology, art and literature.

However, from the preceding, fairly unimpressive propositions, logic leads us necessarily to a momentous one: this means that the figure of Satan — or the great Rebel — must also correspond to something within the individual psyche.

If true, this is a huge concern. It means that, at virtually all times, in whatever we do or think, in whatever way we seek to improve ourselves on the road of virtue, or to love others, or to contribute to a better word, something within us opposes our efforts. Moreover this energy, force, or principle of opposition is extremely strong, crafty, utterly callous and unloving, devoid of virtue, and, in every way corresponds to the figure of Satan in the Bible!

Evidence of the reality of this adversarial principle can be found in ancient philosophy. I refer, in particular, to the writings of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BC–c.50 AD). Philo is most famous for his complex and amazingly astute psychological interpretations of Genesis and Exodus. However in the process of his interpreting Scripture he contributed quite a bit of philosophical and psychological theory as well. In particular, Philo sees human nature as containing two opposed energies — one salvific and salutary, which he calls soteria (so-tay-ree’-ah; the Greek work for salvation), and the other, its antithesis: a destructive force, which he calls phthorá (fthor-ah’; Liddell-Scott; Strong G5356).

Even this much is quite valuable to know. Now we have a name for this opposing principle, our great enemy: phthorá. This is a great advance over not having a name, in which case we must simply experience the effects of this force. With a term, however, we have the ability to form a definite concept, to associate that concept with other concepts, and to think rationally and productively about it.

There would appear to be at least a vague connection between this negative principle and Freud’s concept of death wish, or thanatos. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, I think that phthorá is something more — and more problematic for us — than the Freudian death wish.

As would be expected for something of such vital and fundamental psychological importance, this principle is represented in the world’s mythologies. In Greek mythology, for example, it corresponds to the god Typhon, a many-headed serpent of inconceivable strength and virulence, who is also the god of storms (hence our word, typhoon.)

Each of us is concerned, both each day and moment to moment, with constructing a stable, integrated personality. This corresponds to the state of unity or harmony discussed in my previous article on the monomyth of fall and restoration. Phthorá is that force within us which actively seeks our fall, and, once we’ve fallen, prevents us from rising again to wholeness.

At a phenomenological level, this is experienced as disturbing thoughts which agitate our mind, and distract us from positive, creative, loving and productive cognition. In a very real sense, at least phenomenologically speaking, life is virtually the same as clear and whole awareness of our outer and inner experience. If we look at a meadow and our mind is tranquil, we see the beauty, the details —we are alive to it. The more our mind is agitated, the more our experience comes to approximate semi- and even un-consciousness — and, in that degree, we are only partly alive. In a state of complete mental agitation we could be said to be dead, in the sense that, if we are conscious at all of our surroundings or inner life, the mental impressions are devoid of vitality and vividness (i.e., of life)

I wish to do no more here than to expose this deadly foe by naming him (or her or it). Knowing phthorá exists alone will not stop it. But better to know your foe than to let it wreak havoc unobserved.

I would only add a few additional points:

  1. As already noted, this force is opposed by soterias, the principle of self-actualization, which is stronger. In Christianity, Jesus Christ corresponds to (among having other meanings and levels of reality), or perhaps is, soterias. This means that remedy for phthorá is to be found in the complex system of mythos, religion, psychology and philosophy that surrounds the figure of Jesus Christ.
  1. There is possibly some legitimate reason, biologically and/or psychologically, for the existence of phthorá. Perhaps goodness needs an adversary to stay in trim and so that we can grow in virtue. Nevertheless, in this case a little goes a long way: if we need the devil, keep it chained, well guarded, and hopefully with Jesus Christ standing on its head.
  1. Again, it is very important to recognize how this force operates within us. Otherwise (as Jung pointed out), there is a strong tendency for us to project our own satanic tendencies onto others. Our great enemy, adversary and antagonist is within.   Whatever harm anyone else can do us is negligible in comparison with the ferocity and malice of this opponent.
  1. In keeping with everything said here, it follows that there is a serious danger our identifying with this principle, of becoming it. This, in fact, happens routinely. It occurs, for example, when we become so harshly condemning of others that we literally take the attitude of an avenging angel towards them. To take an example from today’s news, political conservatives may condemn progressives, angrily denouncing them and insisting they are great sinners, etc. But in doing this, in relinquishing the reign of love and goodness in their psyche, they become literally possessed by phthorá. And, of course, the exact same can be said of progressives who condemn, rather than try to engage or reason with conservatives.   But this is only an example; a hundred others could serve equally well as illustrations.

Philo – War with Amalek: Aaron and Hur Steady Moses’ Arms

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John Everett Millais - Victory, O Lord (1871) - Manchester Art Gallery (Source: Wikipedia)

Battle at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8–16)

[8] Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.
[9] And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand.
[10] So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek: and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill.
[11] And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.
[12] But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.
[13] And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
[14] And the LORD said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.
[15] And Moses built an altar, and called the name of it Jehovah-nissi:
[16] For he said, Because the LORD hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.

Philo, Life of Moses (De Vita Moses) 1.217–219

(217) And just as the two armies were about to engage in battle, a most marvellous miracle took place with respect to his hands; for they became by turns lighter and heavier. Then, whenever they were lighter, so that he could hold them up on high, the alliance between God and his people was strengthened, and waxed mighty, and became more glorious. But whenever his hands sank down the enemy prevailed, God showing thus by a figure that the earth and all the extremities of it were the appropriate inheritance of the one party, and the most sacred air the inheritance of the other. And as the heaven is in every respect supreme to and superior over the earth, so also shall the nation which has heaven for its inheritance be superior to their enemies. (218) For some time, then, his hands, like the balances in a scale, were by turns light, and by turns descended as being heavy; and, during this period, the battle was undecided. But, on a sudden, they became quite devoid of weight, using their fingers as if they were wings, and so they were raised to a lofty height, like winged birds who traverse the heaven, and they continued at this height until the Hebrews had gained an unquestionable victory, their enemies being slain to a man from the youth upward, and suffering with justice what they had endeavoured to inflict on others, contrary to what was befitting. (219) Then Moses erected an altar, which from the circumstances that had taken place he named the refuge of God, on which he offered sacrifices in honour of his victory, and poured forth prayers of gratitude to God.

Philo, Allegorical Interpretation (Legum Allegoriarum) 3.186187

LXVI. (186) And the war between these things in manifest. At all events, according to the superiority of the mind when it applies itself to incorporeal objects, which are perceptible only to the intellect, passion is put to flight. And, on the other hand, when this latter gains a shameful victory, the mind yields, being hindered from giving its attention to itself and to all its actions. At all events, he says in another place, “When Moses lifted up his hands Israel prevailed, and when he let them down Amalek prevailed.”[Ex 17:11] And this statement implies, that when the mind raises itself up from mortal affairs and is elevated on high, it is very vigorous because it beholds God; and the mind here means Israel. But when it relaxes its vigour and becomes powerless, then immediately the passions will prevail, that is to say, Amalek; which name, being interpreted, means, the people licking. For he does, of a verity, devour the whole soul, and licks it up, leaving no seed behind, nor anything which can excite virtue; (187) in reference to which it is said, “Amalek is the beginning of nations” [Num 24:20]; because passion governs, and is the absolute lord of nations, all mingled and confused and jumbled in disorder, without any settled plan; and, through passion, all the war of the soul is fanned and kept alive. For God makes a promise to the same minds to which he grants peace, that he will efface the memorial of Amalek from all the lands beneath the heaven.

Philo, Allegorical Interpretation (Legum Allegoriarum) 3.45

(45) “For the hands of Moses are heavy.” [Ex 17:12] For since the actions of the wicked man are like the wind and light, those of the wise man on the other hand are heavy and immovable, and not easily shaken; in reference to which is hands are held up by Aaron, who is reason, or by Ur, who is light. Now of all existing things there is nothing clearer than the truth; therefore Moses intends here to signify by a symbolical form of expression, that the actions of the wise man are supported by the most necessary of all qualities, reason and truth.

Source: Yonge, Charles Duke.  The Works of Philo. Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition. David M. Scholer, editor. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0943575931.