St Basil On Psalm 29

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A Psalm of a Canticle on the Dedication of the House of David (ON PSALM 29) HE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE of the body is, speaking figuratively, a harp and an instrument harmoniously adapted for the hymns of our God; and the actions of the body, which are referred to the glory of God are a psalm, whenever in an appropriate measure we perform nothing out of tune in our actions. Whatever pertains to lofty contemplation and theology is a canticle. Therefore, the psalm is a musical sermon when it is played rhythmically on the instrument with harmonic sounds. But the canticle is a melodious utterance expressed harmoniously without the accompaniment of the instrument. Accordingly, since this was entitled, A psalm of a canticle/ we believe that the expression suggests action following contemplation. This psalm of a canticle, according to the title, embraces certain words of the dedication of the house. And the speech, in its material form, seems to have been delivered in the time of Solomon, when the renowned temple was raised, and to have been adapted to the harp; but, in its spiritual meaning, the title seems to signify the Incarnation of the Word of God and to make known the dedication of a house, which same house had been constructed in a novel and incredible manner. We have found many things in this psalm announced by the Lord in person. Or, perhaps, it is proper to consider the house as the Church built by Christ; just as Paul writes in his letter to Timothy: In order that thou mayest know how to conduct thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God/ The dedication of the Church must be understood as the renewal of the mind, which takes place through the Holy Spirit in each, individually, of those who make up the body of the Church of Christ. It is a divine and musical harmony, not which includes words that gladden the ear, but those that calm and soften the wicked spirits which trouble souls that are exposed to harm.

‘I will extol thee, O Lord, for thou hast upheld me: and hast not made my enemies to rejoice over me.’ How is He who dwells on high extolled by those who have as their portion the lowly places? For, if God is in heaven above and you on the earth below, in what manner could you extol God? What, then, does this message mean to the prophet? Or, is He, perhaps, said to be extolled by those who are able to have noble and holy thoughts about Him and to live for the glory of God? Therefore, he who with understanding is hastening toward bliss extols God, but, he who is turning the opposite way, which rightly should not even be mentioned, abases God as much as lies in his power.

(2) We attribute to God, as it were, every state that corresponds to our circumstances. For this reason, when we are half asleep and behaving slothfully, God, since He judges us unworthy of His observant watchfulness over us, is said to be asleep. But, when, after noticing at some time the harm that comes from the sleep, we shall say, ‘Arise, why sleepest thou, O Lord?’ ‘Behold he shall neither slumber nor sleep at that time, that keepeth Israel/ Some others, as it were, turn their  eyes away from God because of their shameful deeds and their acts unworthy of the eyes of God; these, on repenting, say: ‘Why turnest thou thy face away?’ Besides these, there are others who have cast out the memory of God and, as it were, are producing in Him forgetfulness of themselves, and these say: ‘Why forgettest thou our want and our trouble?’ In a word, men do the very things that are humanly spoken about God, making God in their own regard such as each has formerly made himself. Therefore, ‘I will extol thee, O Lord, for thou hast upheld me: and hast not made my enemies to rejoice over me/ And I will suffer nothing low or abject in my life.

Why is the power of extolling present in me? Because You have first upheld me. Very clearly David said, ‘Thou hast upheld/ instead of, ‘Thou hast raised me up,’ and You have made me superior to those rising up against me, just as if some one, taking by the hand a child who was inexperienced in swimming, would draw him up above the water. He, then, who by the help of God has raised himself up from a fall, through gratitude promises God glorification by his good works. Or, as if someone, by supporting a certain weak wrestler from a possible fall and making him superior to his antagonist, provides for the one an opportunity of victory but deprives the other of the pleasure of his fall. It is not the afflictions, which are sent upon the saints for a trial, that pro- cure happiness for our invisible enemies, but, when we refuse afflictions and our thoughts are anxious, because we have grown weary of our frequent sufferings, then they are made glad and they clap and rejoice. Such it was in the case of Job. He lost his possessions; he was bereft of his children; his flesh oozed forth putrid matter and worms. This was not yet, however, a pleasure to the antagonist. But, if, yielding to his sufferings, he had uttered any blasphemous word according to the advice of his wife, then the enemy would have rejoiced over him. It is the same in the case of Paul, who was hungry and thirsty, naked, buffeted, wearied, and never at rest; the enemy did not rejoice. On the contrary, the enemy was crushed, seeing him enduring the conflicts, so that Paul said with disdain: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’

(3) ‘O Lord my God, I have cried to thee, and thou hast healed me/ Blessed is he who knows his own interior wound so that he can approach the physician and say: ‘Heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled,’ and 1 said: O Lord, be thou merciful to me: heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee/ Here, however, there is thanksgiving for the healing that has been conferred; for he says, ‘O Lord my God/ God is not the God of all, but of those who are united with Him through love. He is the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ If He were the God of all, He would not have borne this witness to them as something special. Again, Jacob says: ‘My God has helped you.’ And Thomas, embracing the Lord with the fullest assurance, says: ‘My Lord and my God.’ The expression, then, ‘O Lord my God, is spontaneous, and is proper to the state of the prophets. ‘I have cried to thee, and thou hast healed me.’ There was no interval between my voice and your grace, but at the same time that I cried out the healing came to me. While you are still calling, it is said, ‘I shall say, “Behold I am here.” ‘ In praying to God, therefore, we should speak loudly, in order that a speedy healing may be sent forth to us. ‘Thou hast brought forth, O Lord, my soul from hell.’

For this healing, he who was going down from illness into hell but was led up from hell through the power of Him who over- throws for our sake the ruler of death, gives thanks to God. ‘Thou hast saved me from them that go down into the pit/ Frequently, underground ditches which have been made into a prison for captives are called pits. Thus, there is the expression in Exodus: ‘From the firstborn of Pharaoh, unto the first- born of the captive woman who was in the pit.’ But, they even threw Jeremiah also into a pit; and his brothers through jealousy confined Joseph in a pit without water. Each act, therefore, either draws us downward by oppressing us with sin, or lifts us upward by raising us on wings toward God. Therefore, You have saved me, who formerly lived a wicked life, and have separated me from those who go down to the dark and frigid region. This is the meaning of the words: ‘Thou hast upheld me/ That is to say, ‘You have led me back from my downward course, so as not to give my enemies an occasion to rejoice over me/ Now, this he said in another place: ‘Who hath made my feet like the feet of harts: and who setteth me upon high places/ He calls the deliverance from the pit and the uplifting, the return to high places.

‘Sing to the Lord, O ye his saints/ Not if someone utters the words of the psalm with his mouth, does that one sing to the Lord; but, all who send up the psalmody from a clean heart, and who are holy, maintaining righteousness toward God, these are able to sing to God, harmoniously guided by the spiritual rhythms. How many stand there, coming from fornication? How many from theft? How many concealing in their hearts deceit? How many lying? They think they are singing, although in truth they are not singing. For, the Scripture invites the saint to the singing of psalms. ‘A bad tree cannot bear good fruit/ nor a bad heart utter words of life. Therefore, ‘make the tree good and its fruits good/ Cleanse your hearts, in order that you may bear fruit in the spirit and may be able, after becoming saints, to sing psalms intelligently to the Lord.

(4) ‘And give praise to the memory of his holiness.’ David did not say: ‘Give praise to His holiness,’ but, ‘to the memory of his holiness 1 ; that is, ‘Give thanks.’ Indeed, the singing of praises here is accepted in place of giving thanks. Give thanks, therefore, that you were mindful of His holiness, since formerly, because you were sinking deep in evil and were polluted with the uncleanness of the flesh, you had become forgetful of the holiness of Him who made you. For the atonement of your sins, confess your former actions which were not rightly performed. For wrath is in his indignation; and life in his good will.’ First, he mentioned something depressing, wrath in the indignation of God; then, something brighter, life in His good will. This seems to be tautology to those who are not able to attain to an exact understanding of the meanings, since the prophet says that wrath is in the indignation of God, as if wrath and indignation were the same thing; but, there is a very great difference. Indignation is the decision to inflict some particular sad punishments upon a man deserving of them; but wrath is the suffering and the punishment already being inflicted by the just Judge according to the measure of the wrong done. What I say will become clearer from an example. The doctor, having diagnosed the swollen and festering part, judges that an incision is necessary for the sufferer. This, Scripture calls indignation. But, after the decision of the doctor on the remedy, the operation then follows, bringing the remedies decided upon to accomplishment; and the knife, cutting in, also causes pain for the one who is being cut. This is called the wrath of God. Come, then, to the proposition, and you will find the consequence of this opinion. Tor wrath is in his indignation,’ a penalty, according to the just judgment of God; but, ‘life in his good will.’ What, then, does he say? That what God wills is this, that all share His life; and misfortunes are not wrought by His will but are brought on by the just deserts of those who have sinned. Therefore, God grants life to each one according to His own will, and each one stores up wrath for himself ‘On the day of wrath and of the revelation and of the just judgment of God.’ It is customary for Scripture to place sad conditions before the more auspicious ones, because the pleasure is sweeter when grief has gone before it. ‘I will kill/ it says, ‘and I will make to live.’ He Himself causes the suffering and again restores; He struck, and His hands healed. The afflictions precede, in order that the graces may be lasting, since we then exert ourselves exceedingly for the preservation of what has been given.

‘In the evening weeping shall have place, and in the morn- ing gladness.’ Recall the time of the passion of the Lord, and you will find the meaning. For, in the evening, weeping overwhelmed the disciples of the Lord when they saw Him hanging on the cross; but, in the morning, gladness, when after the Resurrection they ran about with joy, giving each other the good tidings of the appearance of the Lord. Or, perhaps, even in general this time is called evening in which those who have wept blessedly will be consoled when morning comes. ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted/ ‘Blessed are they who weep, for they shall laugh.’ They, therefore, who spend the days of their life, which is already at its consummation and declining toward its setting, in weeping for their sins, these will be glad in that true morning which is approaching. ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy/ of course, in the future.

(5) ‘And in my abundance I said: I shall never be moved.’ As the prosperity of a city is dependent upon the supply of goods for sale in the market, and as we say that a country is prosperous which produces much fruit, so also there is a certain prosperity of the soul when it has been filled with works of every kind. It is necessary first for it to be laboriously cultivated, and then to be enriched by the plentiful streams of heavenly waters, so as to bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold, and to obtain the blessing which says: ‘Blessed shall be thy barns and blessed thy stores/ He, therefore, who is conscious of his own constancy, will say with sure confidence and will strongly maintain that he will not be turned away by any opponent, like a full field which the Lord has blessed.

‘O Lord, in thy favour, thou gavest strength to my beauty/ They who are engaged in the examination of the reason for virtues, have said that some of the virtues spring from contemplation and some are non-contemplative; as for instance, prudence springs from contemplation in the sphere of things good and evil, but self-control from the contemplation of things to be chosen or avoided, justice, of things to be assigned or not to be assigned, and valour, of those that are dangerous or not dangerous; but beauty and strength are non-contemplative virtues, since they follow from the contemplative. From the fitness and harmony of the contemplations of the soul, some wise men have perceived beauty; and from the effectiveness of the suggestions from the contemplative virtues, they have become aware of strength. But, for this, namely, that beauty may exist in the soul, and also the power for the fulfilment of what is proper, we need divine grace. As, therefore, he said above: ‘Life is in his good will/ so, now, he extols God through his thanksgiving, saying: ‘In thy favour, thou gavest strength to my beauty.’ For, I was beautiful according to nature, but weak, because I was dead by sin through the treachery of the serpent. To my beauty, then, which I received from You at the beginning of my creation, You added a strength which is appropriate for what is proper. Every soul is beautiful, which is considered by the standard of its own virtues. But beauty, true and most lovely, which can be contemplated by him alone who has purified his mind, is that of the divine and blessed nature. He who gazes steadfastly at the splendour and graces of it, receives some share from it, as if from an immersion, tingeing his own face with a sort of brilliant radiance. Whence Moses also was made resplendent in face by receiving some share of beauty when he held converse with God. Therefore, he who is conscious of his own beauty utters this act of thanksgiving: *O Lord, in thy favour, thou gavest strength to my beauty/

Just as the non-contemplative virtues, both beauty and strength, follow from the contemplative virtues, so there are certain non-contemplative vices, shameful conduct and weak- ness. In fact, what is more unbecoming and uglier than a passionate soul? Observe, I beg you, the wrathful man and his fierceness. Look at the man who is distressed, his abasement and dejection of soul. Who could endure to look at him who is sunk in sensuality and gluttony or who is alarmed by fears? For, the feelings of the soul affect even the extremities of the body, just as also the traces of the beauty of the soul shine through in the state of the saint. Accordingly, we must have regard for beauty, in order that the Bridegroom, the Word, receiving us, may say: ‘Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee/

(6) ‘Thou turnedst away thy face from me, and I became troubled/ As long as the rays of the sun of Your watchfulness shone upon me/ he says, ‘I lived in a calm and untroubled state, but, when You turned Your face away, the agitation and confusion of my soul was exposed.’ God is said to turn away His face when in times of troubles He permits us to be delivered up to trials, in order that the strength of him who is struggling may be known. Therefore, ‘if the peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts,’ we shall be able to escape the tumult and confusion of the passions. Since perversion is opposed to the will of God, and disorder to beauty and grace and strength, the disorder would be a deformity and weakness of the soul, present in it because of its estrangement from God. We pray always for the face of God to shine upon us, in order that we may be in a state becoming to a holy person, gentle and untroubled in every way, because of our readiness for the good. ‘I am ready,’ he says, ‘and am not troubled.’ ‘To thee, O Lord, will I cry: and I will make supplication to my God/ Frequently, the statement is made in regard to crying out to the Lord that it is the privilege of him alone who desires great and heavenly things to cry out. But, if anyone asks God for trifling and earthly things, he uses a small and low voice, which does not reach to the height nor come to the ears of the Lord.

‘What profit is there in my blood, whilst I go down to corruption?’ ‘Why/ he says, ‘have 1 cried out? And for what have I prayed to You, my Lord and my God? What need is there for me/ he says, ‘of bodily comfort and much blood, since presently my body will be handed over to the general dissolution/ ‘But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection/ lest at any time, because my blood is in good condition and overheated, my corpulence may become an occasion of sin. Do not flatter your flesh with sleep and baths and soft coverings, but say always these words: ‘What profit is there in my blood, whilst I go down to corruption?’ Why do you treat with honour that which a little later shall perish? Why do you fatten and cover yourself with flesh? Or, do you not know that the more massive you make your flesh, the deeper is the prison you are preparing for your soul?

‘Shall dust confess to thee, or declare thy truth?’  How, indeed, shall man, made of clay and flesh, confess to You, his God? And how will he declare the truth, who has never given time to learning and has buried his mind in such a mass of flesh? For this reason, therefore, I waste away my flesh and I am unsparing of my blood which, indeed, is wont to be converted into flesh, that there may be no obstacle to me for confession or for the knowledge of truth.

(7) ‘The Lord hath heard, and hath had mercy on me: the Lord became my helper/ After relating what it was that he cried out to God, immediately sensible of the assistance of God, he encourages us to ask for the same things, saying: ‘The Lord hath heard, and hath had mercy on me: the Lord became my helper/ Let us also pray, therefore, and cry out with a spiritual cry, demanding great things, not seeking after the flesh (‘For they who are carnal cannot please God’), in order that the Lord may hear us, having mercy on our weakness, and that we also, rejoicing in the divine assistance, may say, ‘Thou hast turned for me my mourning into joy/ The joy of God is not found in just any soul but, if some one has mourned much and deeply his own sin with loud lamentations and continual weepings, as if he were bewailing his own death, the mourning of such a one is turned into joy. That it is praiseworthy to mourn is evident from the boys who sit in the market place, saying: ‘We have sung dirges, and you have not wept; we have piped to you, and you have not danced.’ The flute is a musical instrument which needs wind for the melody. Wherefore, I think that every holy prophet was called figuratively a flute because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For this reason he says: ‘We have piped to you, and you have not danced/ The prophetical words, indeed, urge us on to the rhythmic action of the holy prophecy, which is called dancing. But, the prophets make lamentation for us, summoning us to mourn, in order that, becoming aware from the prophetic words of our own sins, we may bewail our destruction, afflicting our flesh with hardships and toils. By such a person, the mourning garment, which he put on when bewailing his sin, is rent, and the tunic of joy is placed around him and the cloak of salvation, those bright wedding garments, with which, if one is adorned, he will not be cast out from the bridal chamber.

Thou hast cut my sackcloth, and hast compassed me with gladness/ The sackcloth is a help to penance, since it is a symbol of humility. ‘They would have repented long ago/ it is said, ‘sitting in sackcloth and ashes/ Now, since the Apostle ‘with face unveiled is transformed into his very image from glory to glory/ he calls the grace given to him by the Lord his own glory. (8) To the end that my glory may sing to thee.’ The glory of the just man is the Spirit which is in him. Therefore, let him who sings by the Spirit say: ‘To the end that my glory may sing to thee, and I may not regret/ He means, ‘No longer shall I do things which deserve the pricking and piercing of ray heart at the remembrance of my sins/ ‘O Lord my God, I will give praise to thee for ever/ This is instead of ‘I will give thanks/ For, when You granted me pardon because of my repentance and led me back into glory, taking away the shame of my sins, for this I shall give praise to You for all eternity. In fact, what space of time could be so great, that it could produce in my soul forgetfulness of such mighty benefits?