St Basil On Psalm 114

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A Psalm of Thanksgiving for Deliverance from Death (ON PSALM 114)

HAVING ARRIVED so long in advance at these sacred precincts of the martyrs, you have persevered from midnight until this midday appeasing the God of the martyrs with hymns, while awaiting our arrival. The reward, therefore, is ready for you, who prefer honour for the martyrs and the worship of God to sleep and rest. But, if we must undertake a defence of ourselves because of our delay and, to a great extent, desertion of you, we shall tell the cause. It is, that, as we administer a church of God, equal in honour to this, which is separated by no short distance from you, we spent in it the earlier part of the day. Since the Lord has permitted me to perform the liturgy for them, while at the same time not altogether disappointing your love, return thanks with us to the Benefactor, who guides by His invisible power this visibly weak body of ours. In order that we may not be distressed at detaining you further, after discoursing briefly on that psalm which we found you singing on our arrival, and feeding your souls with the word of consolation according to the power that is ours, we shall dismiss all of you for the care of your bodies. Now, what was it that you were singing?

‘I have loved,’ he says, ‘because the Lord will hear the voice of my prayer.’ It is not in the power of everyone to say: ‘I have loved,’ but of him who is already perfect and beyond the fear of slavery, and who has been formed in the spirit of adoption as sons. He does not add to ‘I have loved’ the word ‘someone,’ but we supply in thought ‘the God of the universe.’ For, that which is properly beloved is God, since they define ‘beloved’ as that at which all things aim. Now, God is a good, and the first and most perfect of good things. Therefore, I have loved God Himself who is the highest of objects to be desired, and I have received with joy sufferings for His sake. What these things are, he goes through in detail a little later the pangs of death, the dangers of hell, the affliction, the pain, all things whatsoever that are desirable to him because of the love of God and he shows forth the hope which was stored up for those who receive sufferings for the sake of piety. For, I did not endure the contests, he says, contrary to my will, nor by force or constraint, but, I accepted the sufferings with a certain love and affection, so that I was able to say: ‘Because for thy sake we are killed all the day long.’ And these words seem to have equal weight with the words of the Apostle and to be spoken by him with the same feeling, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword?’ Therefore, I have loved all these things, knowing that I endure the dangers for the sake of piety under the hands of the Lord of the universe who sees and bestows the reward. ‘Because the Lord will hear the voice of my prayer.’ So, each one of us is able to perform the difficult tasks enjoined by the commandments whenever he displays his conduct of life to the God of the universe as if to a spectator.

‘Because he hath inclined his ear unto me.’ ‘He inclined,’ he said, not that you might take some corporeal notion about God having ears and inclining them to a gentle voice, as we do, putting our ear close to those who speak low, so that by the nearness we may perceive what is said, but he said, ‘He inclined/ in order that he might point out to us his own weakness. Because through kindness He came down to me while I was lying on the ground, as if, when some sick man is not able to speak clearly because of his great weakness, a kind physician, bringing his ear close, should learn through the nearness what was necessary for the sick man. Therefore, ‘He hath inclined his ear unto me.’ The divine ear, indeed, does not need a voice for perception; it knows how to recognise in the movements of the heart what is sought. Or, do you not hear how Moses, although he said nothing, but met the Lord with his inexpressible groanings, was heard by the Lord, who said: ‘Why cries t thou to me?’ God knows how to hear even the blood of a just man, to which no tongue Is attached and of which no voice pierces the air. The presence of good works is a loud voice before God.

‘And in my days I will call upon him.’ If we have prayed on one day, or if in one hour for a brief time we were saddened by our sins, we are carefree as if we had already made some compensation for our wickedness. However, the holy man says that he is disclosing his confession which is measured by the whole time of his life, for he says: ‘In all my days I will call upon him.’ Then, in order that you may not think that he called upon God because he was fortunate in this life and because all his affairs were successful, he describes in detail the magnitude and difficulty of the circumstances in which, when he was involved, he did not forget the name of God.

‘The sorrows of death,’ he says, ‘have compassed me; and the perils of hell have found me.’ Properly the sorrows of death have been agreed upon as the pains of childbirth, when the womb, distended with its burden, thrusts out the foetus; then, the generative parts, being compressed and stretched around the foetus by spasms and contractions of the muscles, produce in the mothers the sharpest pains and most bitter pangs. He transferred the name of these pains to those which besiege the animal in the division of soul and body at death. He says that he has suffered nothing moderately, but that he has been tried even to the sorrows of death and has arrived at the peril of the descent into hell. Now, did he endure only these things for which he is exalted, or did he endure these things frequently and unwillingly? Nothing that is forced is praiseworthy. But, look at the nobility of nature of the athlete. When ‘the sorrows of death compassed me, and the perils of hell found me,’ I was so far from succumbing to these trials that I willingly proposed to myself even much greater trials than these. Trouble and sorrow, I, as it were, willingly devised for myself; I was not unwillingly seized by them.

Indeed, in the preceding words we read: ‘The perils of hell have found me,’ but here, I met with trouble and sorrow.’ For, since I was found to be unyielding there in regard to what was brought on by the tempter, in order that I might show the abundance of my love toward God, I added trouble to trouble, and sorrow to sorrow, and I did not rise up against these sufferings by my own power, but I called upon the name of the Lord. Such is also the declaration of the Apostle, who says: ‘But in all these things we overcome because of him who has loved us.’ For he conquers who does not yield to those who lead on by force, but he is more than conqueror, who voluntarily invites sorrows for a demonstration of his endurance. Let him who was in some sin to death say: ‘The sorrows of death have compassed me.’ ‘For everyone,’ he says, ‘who commits sin has been born of the devil.’ Now, when I, he says, committed sin, and was pregnant by death, then also I was found by the perils of hell. How, then, did I cure myself? Because I devised trouble and sorrow through penance. I contrived for myself a suffering of penance proportionate to the greatness of the sin, and thus I dared to call upon the name of the Lord. But, what was it that I said? ‘O Lord, deliver my soul.’ I am held in this captivity, so You give ransom for me, and deliver my soul.

‘The Lord is merciful and just.’ Everywhere Scripture joins justice with the mercy of God, teaching us, that neither the mercy of God is without judgment nor His judgment without mercy. Even while He pities, He measures out His mercies judiciously to the worthy; and while judging, He brings forth the judgment, having regard to our weakness, repaying us with kindness rather than with equal reciprocal measurement.

‘And our God showeth mercy.’ Mercy is an emotion experienced toward those who have been reduced beyond their desert, and which arises in those sympathetically disposed. We pity the man who has fallen from great riches into the uttermost poverty, him who has been overthrown from the peak of vigor of body to extreme weakness, him who gloried in the beauty and grace of body and who has been destroyed by most shameful passions. Though we at one time were held in glory, living in paradise, yet, we have become inglorious and humble because of our banishment; ‘our God showeth mercy,’ seeing what sort of men we have become from what we were. For this reason He summoned Adam with a voice of mercy, saying: ‘Adam, where are you?’ He who knows all things was not seeking to be informed, but He wished to perceive what sort he had become from what he had been. ‘Where are you?’ instead of ‘to what sort of a ruin have you descended from so great a height?’

‘The Lord is the keeper of little ones; I was humbled, and he delivered me.’ According to natural reason human nature would not stand unless the little ones and those still infants were kept by the Lord. For, unless it was preserved by the custody of God, how could the foetus in the mother be nourished or moved while it was in such narrow spaces, with no room for turning, and while it lived in dark and moist places, unable to take a breath or to live the life of men, but, on the contrary, was borne around in liquids like the fish? And how would it last even for a short time after it had come out into this unaccustomed place and, lacking the warmth within the mother, had become chilled all over by the air, unless it was preserved by God? Therefore, ‘the Lord is the keeper of little ones; I was humbled, and he delivered me.’ Or, you may understand these words thus. When I was turned and became as a little child and received the kingdom of heaven as a child and through innocence brought myself down to the humility of children, ‘the Lord, the keeper of little ones,’ since I was humbled, ‘delivered me.’

‘Turn, O my soul, into thy rest: for the Lord hath been bountiful to thee.’ The brave contestant applies to himself the consoling words, very much like to Paul, when he says: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. For the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice.’ These things the prophet also says to himself: Since you have fulfilled sufficiently the course of this life, turn henceforth into thy rest, ‘for the Lord has been bountiful to thee.’ For, eternal rest lies before those who have struggled through the present life observant of the laws, a rest not given in payment for a debt owed for their works, but provided as a grace of the munificent God for those who have hoped in Him. Then, before he describes the good things there, telling in detail the escape from the troubles of the world, he gives thanks for them to the Liberator of souls, who has delivered him from the varied and inexorable slavery of the passions. But, what are these good things?

‘For he hath delivered my soul from death: my eyes from tears, my feet from falling.’ He describes the future rest by a comparison with things here. Here, he says, the sorrows of death have compassed me, but there he hath delivered my soul from death. Here the eyes pour forth tears because of trouble, but there, no longer is there a tear to darken the eyes of those who are rejoicing in the contemplation of the beauty of the glory of God. ‘For God has wiped away every tear from every face.’ Here there is much danger of a fall; wherefore, even Paul said: ‘Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.’ But, there the steps are firm; life is immutable. No longer is there the danger of slipping into sin. For, there is neither rebellion of the flesh, nor cooperation of a woman in sin. Therefore, there is no male and female in the resurrection, but there is one certain life and it is of one kind, since those dwelling in the country of the living are pleasing to their Lord. This world itself is mortal and is the place of mortals. Since the substance of visible things is composite, and every composite thing is wont to be destroyed, we who are in the world, being part of the world, necessarily possess the nature of everything. Therefore, even before the soul is separated from the body by death, we men frequently die. And let not the saying appear incredible to you, but consider the truth of the matter.

In twenty-one years man is wont to undergo three variations and vicissitudes of age and life, and in each week its proper boundary circumscribes the past and displays a visible change. The age of infancy is limited by the loss of his teeth about the first week. The prescribed time for a child who is capable of learning is until youth. The youth, having attained to his twenty-first year, when he begins to cover his cheeks with the first growth of beard, imperceptibly disappears, since the adolescent has already changed into the man. Accordingly, when you see a man who has laid aside the progressive increase according to age, who is already advanced in his reasoning, and who bears no trace of youth, will you not think that the past has died in him? Again, the old man, transposed into another form and another disposition of soul, is evidently another man, as compared with the former. So that the life of men is wont to be fulfilled through many deaths, not only by the change in the passing from one age to another, but also by the lapses of the souls through sin. But, where there is no alteration either of body or soul (for there is no deviation of reasoning, nor change of opinion unless some difficult circumstances take away the constancy and tranquillity of the reason), that is truly the country of the living, since they are always like themselves. In this, especially, the prophet promises that he will be pleasing to the God of the universe, since he will be interrupted by nothing from the outside in his pursuit of a true servitude and of equal honour with the angels. ‘We strive,’ it is said, ‘whether in the body, or out of it, to be pleasing to him.’ That is the country of the living, in which there is no night, in which there is no sleep, the image of death, in which there is no eating, no drinking, the supports of our weakness; in which there is no disease, no pains, no remedies, no courts of justice, no businesses, no arts, no money, the beginning of evil, the excuse for wars, the root of hatred; but a country of the living, who have not died through sin, but live the true life in Christ Jesus, to whom be glory and power forever. Amen.