St Basil On Psalm 1

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SCRIPTURE is INSPIRED by God and is useful, composed by the Spirit for this reason, namely, that we men, each and all of us, as if in a general hospital for souls, may select the remedy for his own condition. For, it says, ‘care will make the greatest sin to cease.’ Now, the prophets teach one thing, historians another, the law some- thing else, and the form of advice found in the proverbs something different still. But, the Book of Psalms has taken over what is profitable from all. It foretells coming events; it recalls history; it frames laws for life; it suggests what must be done; and, in general, it is the common treasury of good doctrine, carefully finding what is suitable for each one. The old wounds of souls it cures completely, and to the recently wounded it brings speedy improvement; the diseased it treats,  and the unharmed it preserves. On the whole, it effaces, as far as is possible, the passions, which subtly exercise dominion over souls during the lifetime of man, and it does this with a certain orderly persuasion and sweetness which produces sound thoughts. When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or, even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul For, never has any one of the many indifferent persons gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message, but they do chant the words of the psalms, even in the home, and they spread them around in the market place, and, if perchance, someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, when he begins to be soothed by the psalm, he departs with the wrath of his soul immediately lulled to sleep by means of the melody.

(2) A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts. For, it softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him With whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining the people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, charity. A psalm is a city of refuge from the demons; a means of inducing help from the angels, a weapon in fears by night, a rest from toils by day, a safeguard for infants, an adornment for those at the height of their vigour, a consolation for the elders, a most fitting ornament for women. It peoples the solitudes; it rids the market place of excesses; it is the elementary exposition of beginners, the improvement of those advancing, the solid support of the perfect, the voice of the Church. It brightens the feast days; it creates a sorrow which is in accordance with God. For, a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone. A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense. Oh! the wise invention of the teacher who contrived that while we were singing we should at the same time learn something useful; by this means, too, the teachings are in a certain way impressed more deeply on our minds. Even a forceful lesson does not always endure, but what enters the mind with joy and pleasure somehow becomes more firmly impressed upon it. What, in fact, can you not learn from the psalms? Can you not learn the grandeur of courage? The exactness of justice? The nobility of self-control? The perfection of prudence? A manner of penance? The measure of patience? And whatever other good things you might mention? Therein is perfect theology, a prediction of the coming of Christ in the flesh, a threat of judgment, a hope of resurrection, a fear of punishment, promises of glory, an unveiling of mysteries; all things, as if in some great public treasury, are stored up in the Book of Psalms. To it, although there are many musical instruments, the prophet adapted the so-called harp, showing, as it seems to me, that the gift from the Spirit resounded in his ears from above. With the cithara and the lyre the bronze from beneath responds with sound to the plucking, but the harp has the source of its harmonic rhythms from above, in order that we may be careful to seek the things above and not be borne down by the sweetness of the melody to the passions of the flesh. And I believe this, namely, that the words of prophecy are made clear to us in a profound and wise manner through the structure of the instrument, because those who are orderly and harmonious in soul possess an easy path to the things above. Let us now see the beginning of the psalms.

(3) ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly.’ When architects raise up immensely high structures, they put under them foundations proportionate to the height; and when shipbuilders are constructing a merchantman that carries 10,000 measures, they fix the ship’s keel to correspond with the weight of the wares it is capable of carrying. Even in the generation of living animals, since the heart is the first organ formed by nature, it receives a structure from nature proportionate to the animal destined to be brought into existence. Therefore, since the body is built around in proportion to its own beginnings, the differences in the sizes of animals are produced. Like the foundation in a house, the keel in a ship, and the heart in the body of an animal, this brief introduction seems to me to possess that same force in regard to the whole structure of the psalms. When David intended to propose in the course of his speech to the combatants of true religion many painful tasks involving unmeasured sweats and toils, he showed first the happy end, that in the hope of the blessings reserved for us we might endure without grief the sufferings of this life. In the same way, too, the expectation of suitable lodging for them lightens the toil for travellers on a rough and difficult road, and the desire for wares makes mediants dare the sea, while the promise of the crop steals away the drudgery from the labours of the farmers. Therefore, the common Director of our lives, the great Teacher, the Spirit of truth, wisely and cleverly set forth the rewards, in order that, rising above the present labours, we might press on in spirit to the enjoyment of eternal blessings. ‘Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly.’ What is truly good, therefore, is principally and primarily the most blessed. And that is God. Whence Paul also, when about to make mention of Christ, said: ‘Ac- cording to the manifestation of our blessed God and Saviour Jesus Christ/ For, truly blessed is Goodness itself toward which all things look, which all things desire, an unchangeable nature, lordly dignity, calm existence; a happy way of life, in which there is no alteration, which no change touches; a flowing fount, abundant grace, inexhaustible treasure. But, stupid and worldly men, ignorant of the nature of good itself, frequently bless things worth nothing, riches, health, renown; not one of which is in its nature good, not only because they easily change to the opposite, but also because they are unable to make their possessors good. What man is just because of his possessions? What man is self-controlled because of his health? On the contrary, in fact, each of these possessions frequently becomes the servant of sin for those who use them badly. Blessed is he, then, who possesses that which is esteemed of the greatest value, who shares in the goods that cannot be taken away. How shall we recognise him? *He who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly/

But, before I explain what it is ‘not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly/ I wish to settle the question asked at this point. Why, you say, does the prophet single out only man and proclaim him happy? Does he not exclude women from happiness? By no means. For, the virtue of man and woman is the same, since creation is equally honoured in both; therefore, there is the same reward for both. Listen to Genesis. ‘God created man/ it says, ‘in the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them/ They whose nature is alike have the same reward. Why, then, when Scripture had made mention of man, did it leave woman unnoticed? Because it believed that it was sufficient, since their nature is alike, to indicate the whole through the more authoritative part.

‘Blessed, therefore, is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly/ Notice the exactness of the wording, how each single word of the statement is fulfilled. It did not say, ‘who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly/ but ‘who hath not walked/ He who happens to be in this life, is not yet blessed, because of the uncertainty of his departure. But, he who has fulfilled what has fallen to his share and has closed his life with an end that cannot be gainsaid, that one is already safely proclaimed blessed. Why, then, are they who are walking in the law of the Lord blessed? Here Scripture regards as blessed not those who have walked, but those who are still walking, because they who are doing good receive approval in the work itself; and they who are fleeing evil are to be praised, not if, perhaps, they shun the sin once or twice, but if they are able to escape the experience of evil entirely. From the train of my reasoning another difficulty has presented itself to us. Why does Scripture proclaim as blessed, not him who is successfully performing a good act, but him who did not commit sin? Because in that case the horse and ox and stone will be considered blessed. For, what inanimate object has ‘stood in the way of sinners’? Or what irrational creature has ‘sat in the chair of pestilence’? Now, if you will wait a little, you will find the solution. It continues: ‘But his will is in the law of the Lord.’ However, the practice of the divine law falls only upon him who possesses intelligence. And we say this, that the starting point in acquiring the good is the withdrawal from evil. ‘Decline from evil/ it says, ‘and do good/

(4) Therefore, leading us on wisely and skilfully to virtue, David made the departure from evil the beginning of good. If he had put forth for you immediately the final perfections, you would have hesitated at the undertaking, but, as it is, he accustoms you to things more easily gained in order that you may have courage for those which follow. I would say that the exercise of piety resembles a ladder, that ladder which once the blessed Jacob saw, of which one part was near the earth and reaching to the ground, the other extended above, even to the very heavens. Therefore, those who are being introduced to a life of virtue must place their foot upon the first steps and from there always mount upon the next, until by gradual progress they have ascended to the height attainable by human nature. As withdrawal from the earth is the first step on the ladder, so in a manner of life in harmony with God the departure from evil is the first. Actually, idleness is in every way easier than any action whatsoever, as for instance, ‘Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal/ Each of these demands idleness and inactivity. ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself/ and ‘Sell what thou hast, and give to the poor,’ and ‘If anyone forces thee to go for one mile, go with him two/ are activities worthy of athletes, and requiring for success a soul already vigorous. Therefore, admire the wisdom of him who leads us on to perfection through things that are rather easy and more readily gained.

He put before us three acts which must be guarded against: walking in the counsel of the ungodly, standing in the way of sinners, sitting on the chair of pestilences. In accordance with the nature of things, he set up this order by his words. First, we take counsel with ourselves; next, we strengthen our resolution; then, we continue unchanged in what has been deter- mined. Primarily, therefore, the purity of our mind is to be deemed blessed, since the resolution in the heart is the root of the actions of the body. Thus, adultery, first enkindled in the soul of the lover of pleasure, causes destruction through the body. Whence, also, the Lord says that the things that defile a man are from within. And, since impiety is properly called the sin against God, may it never happen that we admit doubts concerning God through want of faith. It is ‘walking in the counsel of the ungodly/ if you should say in your heart, Is it really God who governs all things? Is God actually in the heavens, managing each individual thing? Is there a judgment? Is there a reward for each according to his work? Why, then, are the just poor, and sinners rich? Why are these sick, and those in good health? These dishonoured, and those held in esteem? Is not the world borne along without visible cause, and do not some unaccountable circumstances allot the lives for each without any order?’ If you have had these thoughts, you have walked in the counsel of the ungodly. Blessed, therefore, is he who has not admitted any doubt concerning God, who did not become weak in soul concerning the present, but awaits that which is promised, who did not hold any disloyal suspicion about Him who created us.

‘And blessed is that man who has not stood in the way of sinners/ Life, then, is called a way because each being that enters into life hastens toward its end. Just as those who are sleeping in ships are carried by the wind through its own force to the harbours, even though they themselves do not perceive it but the course hurries them on to the end, so we also, as the time of our life flows on, are hurried along as if by some continuous and restless motion on the unheeded course of life, each one toward his proper end. For example, you sleep, and time runs past you; you are awake, and you are busily engaged in mind. All the same, life is spent, even though it has escaped our notice. We run a certain course, each and every man urged on to his proper end; for this reason we are all on the way. And thus you should understand the meaning of ‘the way/ You are placed as a traveler in this life; you pass by all things, and everything is left behind you. You saw a plant or grass or water on the way, or any other worthwhile sight. You enjoyed it a little, then you passed on. Again, you came upon stones, gullies, peaks, cliffs, and palisades, or perhaps, even wild beasts, reptiles, thorns, and other troublesome objects; you were a little distressed, then you left them behind. Such is life, which holds neither lasting pleasures nor permanent afflictions. The way is not yours, neither are the present affairs yours. Among travellers, as soon as the first moves his foot, immediately the one after him takes a step, and after that one, he who follows him.

(5) Consider also the circumstances of life, whether they are not very much the same. Today you have cultivated the earth, tomorrow another will do so, and after him another. Do you see these fields and these costly houses? How many times has each of them already changed its name since it came into existence? They were said to be this man’s; then, the name was changed for another; then they passed on to that man; and now, finally, they are said to belong to still another. Is not our life a way, receiving one man after another successively and keeping all following one another? ‘Blessed, therefore, is he who has not stood in the way of sinners/ Now, what does the expression ‘has not stood mean? While we men were in our first age, we were neither in sin nor in virtue (for the age was unsusceptible of either condition); but, when reason was perfected in us, then that happened which was written: ‘But when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died/ Wicked thoughts, which originate in our minds from the passions of the flesh, rise up. In truth, if, when the command came, that is, the power of discernment of the good, the mind did not prevail over the baser thoughts but permitted its reason to be enslaved by the passions, sin revived, but the mind died, suffering death because of its transgressions. Blessed, therefore, is he who did not continue in the way of sinners but passed quickly by better reasoning to a pious way of life. For, there are two ways opposed to each other, the one wide and broad, the other narrow and close. And there are two guides, each attempting to turn the traveler to himself. Now, the smooth and downward sloping way has a deceptive guide, a wicked demon, who drags his followers through pleasure to destruction, but the rough and steep way has a good angel, who leads his followers through the toils of virtue to a blessed end.

As long as each of us is a child, pursuing the pleasure of the moment, he has no care for the future; but, when he has become a man, after his judgment is perfected, he seems, as it were, to see his life divided for him between virtue and evil, and frequently turning the eye of his soul upon each, he separates the analogous traits that belong to each. The life of the sinner shows all the pleasures of the present age; that of the just reveals in a slight measure the blessings of the future alone. And, insofar as the future promises beautiful rewards, to that extent does the way of those saved offer the present toilsome works; on the contrary, the pleasant and undisciplined life does not hold out the expectation of later delights, but those already present. So, every soul becomes dizzy and changes from one side to the other in its reasonings, choosing virtue when things eternal are in its thoughts, but, when it looks to the present, preferring pleasure. Here it beholds the comforts of the flesh, there the enslavement of the flesh; here drunkenness, there fasting; here intemperate laughter, there abundant tears; in this life dancing, in that prayer; here flutes, there groans; here incontinence, there virginity. While, therefore, that which is truly good can be apprehended by the reason through faith (it has been banished far and the eye did not see it nor the ear hear it) , yet, the sweetness of sin has pleasure ready and flowing through every sense. Blessed is he who is not turned aside to his destruction through its incitements to pleasure, but eagerly awaits the hope of salvation through patient endurance, and in his choice of one of the two ways, does not go upon the way leading to the lower things.

(6) ‘Nor sat in the chair of pestilence/ Does he mean these chairs upon which we rest our bodies? What is the association of wood with sin, so that I flee the chair occupied before by the sinner as being harmful? Or, should we not think that a steady and lasting persistence in the choice of evil is called a chair? This we must guard against because the practice of assiduously occupying ourselves with sins engenders in our souls a certain condition that can scarcely be removed. An inveterate condition of the soul and the exercise of evil strengthened by time, are hard to heal, or even are entirely incurable, since, for the most part, custom is changed into nature. Indeed, not to attach ourselves to evil is a request worth praying for. But there remains a second way: immediately after the temptation to flee it as if it were a venomous sting, according to words of Solomon concerning the wicked woman: Do not set your eye upon her, but leap back; do not delay.’  Now, I know that some in their youth have sunk down into the passions of the flesh and have remained in their sins until their old age because of the habit of evil. As the swine rolling about in the mire always smear more mud on themselves, so these bring upon themselves more and more each day the shame of pleasure. Blessed is it, therefore, not to have had evil in your mind; but, if through the deceit of the enemy, you have received in your soul the counsels of impiety, do not stay in your sin. And, if you have experienced this, do not become established in evil So then, ‘do not sit in the chair of pestilence.’

If you have understood what Scripture calls a chair, that it means lasting persistence in evil, examine now of what pestilences it speaks. Those who are skilled in these matters say that the pestilence, when it touches one man or animal, is communicated to all those who are near at hand; for, the nature of the disease is such that all are infected with the sickness by one another. Of some such kind are the workers of iniquity. Since one gives the disease to one and another gives it to another, they are all sick together and perish at the same time. Or, do you not see the licentious persons sitting in the market place, who laugh at the chaste, relate their shameful acts, the works of darkness, and recount their disgraceful passions as deeds of prowess or some other manly virtues? These are the pestilences who are striving to bring their own evil upon all, and who vie emulously that many be made to resemble them, in order that by fellowship through evils they may escape censure. In fact, neither can a fire, which has seized upon material that is easily enkindled, be prevented from passing through all of it, especially if it meets with a favourable breeze that carries the flame, nor can the sin which has fastened upon one be prevented from going through all, if the winds of wickedness have kindled it. For, the spirit of impurity does not allow the disgrace to remain in the one, but, immediately, comrades of the same age are called in; carousels, strong drink, and shameful tales; a harlot drinking with them, smiling upon this one, goading that one on, and inflaming all to the same sin.

Is this pestilence, indeed, a small thing, or is the spreading of evil something small? But, surely, did not the emulator of the avaricious man or of one possessed of civil authority who is conspicuous for some other wickedness, or of him who holds the power among his people, or commands armies, and who then is contaminated with shameful passions, did not he, I say, admit the pestilence into his soul, making his own the evil of the person emulated? For, the distinctions acquired in life make the lives of those who are distinguished conspicuous; and soldiers strive, for the most part, to be like military commanders, and the common people in the cities emulate those in power. And in general, whenever the evil of the one has been considered deserving of imitation by the many, properly and fitly the pestilence of souls will be said to prevail in life. Even renown won in the midst of evil draws many of the unsteady to the same ambition. Since, therefore, one is filled with corruption by this man, and another by that one, let such be said to have the pestilence in their souls. Do not, therefore, sit in the chair of pestilence, nor participate in the council of seducers and corrupters, nor persist in counsels badly given.

My speech, however, is still in its introduction, yet, I see that its extent exceeds due proportions, so that it is not easy either for you to retain more, nor for me to continue my lecture because of the natural weakness of my voice which is fail- ing me. Although my words are incomplete, since flight from evil has been taught, but perfection through good works omitted, nevertheless, in commending the present matters to attentive hearers, we promise, if God permits, to complete the omissions, if only we do not experience complete silence henceforth. May the Lord grant us the reward for our words, and you the fruit of what you have heard, by the grace of Christ Himself, because to Him is glory and power forever. Amen Amen.