[I]f we have the same attitudes of heart wherein the Psalmist wrote or sang his psalms, we shall become like the authors and be aware of the meaning before we have thought it out instead of after. The force of the words strikes us before we have rationally examined them. And when we use the words, we remember, by a kind of meditative association, our own circumstances and struggles, the results of our negligence or earnestness, the mercies of God’s providence or the temptations of the devil, the subtle and slippery sins of forgetfulness or human frailty or unthinking ignorance. All these feelings we find expressed in the psalms. We see their texts reflected in the clear glass of our own moral experience. And with that experience to teach us, we do not hear the words so much as discern the meaning intuitively. We will not merely recite them like texts committed to memory, but bring them out from the depths of the heart as an expression of moral reality.
~ Abba Isaac in The Conferences of St. John Cassian, 10.11
The saying of the psalms is central to Orthodox monastic piety. And the Divine Liturgy and other services are full of verses and references to the psalms. I used to have quite a few memorized, 14 or 15, but now what I remember is more like 5 or 6. Reciting the few I retain is still part of my daily rule though—such “meditative association” can be highly beneficial to the soul.
As an effort to get back in the habit of memorizing, I decided to pick a short one and make my own translation, in rhyme to aid the memory. I went with the Vulgate because Latin has been my favorite ancient language and, frankly, the easiest for me. There is still a little of the Greek influencing this, but it’s mostly all St. Jerome (the original translator of the Vulgate).
A song of David.
Lord, who shall travel in your tabernacle
And who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who proceeds without blemish,
And who works justice [with his will],
And speaks truth in his heart,
Who is not loose in his tongue either,
Nor does his friend evil,
And does not slander his neighbor.
His eyes disdain the vile;
Those who fear the Lord he honors.
He keeps an oath to his harm,
And [his resolve] does not waver.
He neither lends for usury
Nor takes payment against the blameless.
He who does these shan’t be moved
Even unto eternal ages.
I like this psalm a lot. There are a few like it (Psalm 1, for example). It is a brief little summary of the way of righteousness, the way of life. It mostly focuses on outward deeds, but notice that it does not neglect the heart: “And speaks truth in his heart.”
The first stanza asks and answers a question. The rest of the psalm elaborates on the answer, though in a way the last two lines restate the question itself.
The question “Lord, who shall travel in your tabernacle/And who shall dwell on your holy hill?” is two ways of saying the same thing: Lord, who shall dwell in your presence? The tabernacle (or “tent”) was the meeting place between God and humanity, heaven and earth. It is a microcosm of all creation, for God created the world to be his tabernacle. At the same time, he created us as microcosms as well—we too ought to be the Lord’s holy hill, the dwelling place of his glory. Lastly, the Apostle John writes, “The Logos became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). That is, Jesus Christ, being both human and divine and bridging the unbridgable gap between Creator and creation, is the tabernacle filled with God himself. In turn, the Church is called his body and even a temple: the life of the Church is the life in Christ. We fulfill our created calling, and indeed all creation’s calling, when we, through the Church, live the way of life, the life of communion with Jesus Christ.
Thus the answer: “He who proceeds without blemish,/And who works justice [with his will].” On the one hand, this is written before the incarnation of the Logos and before the wonder of the Nativity, which we ever approach as Advent progresses. We can think, then, in a more basic way: the Logos “enlightens everyone” (cf. John 1:3)—he is the principle of order and harmony in the cosmos. C. S. Lewis even used the term “Tao,” as did those who translated John’s Gospel into Chinese. The one “who proceeds without blemish” and “works justice” lives according to that enlightenment. St. Justin Martyr even goes so far as to say that Socrates and Heraclitus were Christians, because “he [Christ] is the Word [Logos] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably [lit. ‘according to Logos’] are Christians.” There is a fine line here between exclusivity (life in the Church) and universality (life according to the Logos). What this psalm suggests is that—though surely ancient Israelites would want everyone to be circumcised and follow Torah, and Christians of all ages would want everyone to be baptized, enter the Church, and live the Gospel—God’s tent is big. We have an expression in the Orthodox Church: I know where the Church is; I do not know where the Church is not. If anyone asks me what they ought to do in order to “proceed without blemish,” I will tell them to follow Jesus Christ and to join the Orthodox Church. But yet, when the Logos became flesh he did not cease being the Logos. All who truly work justice do so by that Light which is in him and enlightens everyone. And Christ himself even promises, “If you abide in my word [Logos], you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). Yet on the other hand: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Universality and exclusivity—one, holy, Catholic (universal), and Apostolic Church. A true theologian could sort this out, but not a mere student like me.
The next stanza centers on righteous thoughts, words, and deeds. Thoughts: “And speaks truth in his heart”; words: “Who is not loose in his tongue either”; deeds: “Nor does his friend evil”; and words again: “And does not slander his neighbor.” Yet one could also understand this as an examination of words in particular. That is, it proceeds from motive to action: speech comes from thoughts, and words, in one sense, are deeds and also can lead to deeds. Control of the tongue is thus of central importance for the one “who proceeds without blemish.” And what a battle it is! As St. James puts it: “[The tongue] is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God” (James 3:8-9).
“His eyes disdain the vile”—this one doesn’t square so well with Gospel command to “judge not,” but it is not utterly incompatible. “Vile” what? Vile deeds? Vile thoughts in one’s heart? Vice itself? Or we may ask, “disdain” how? Perhaps the idea would be rather that his eyes disdain to look upon the vile, i.e. they turn away so as not to be tempted to judge. But “those who honor the Lord,” they are worthy of our gaze as well as our praise. Furthermore, we learn again about words: the righteous one “keeps an oath” even “to his harm.” He is faithful and trustworthy, and when he has resolved to do something, he follows through; he does not change his mind.
Next, money. What? Yes, money: one way of viewing money is as a promise. This is especially true when loaning money. When the righteous person keeps his/her oath, he/she does not do so to exploit the poor or to harm the innocent—those are not the sort of promises that such a person makes in the first place. “He who does these things shan’t be moved/Even unto eternal ages”—in control of the heart, tongue, and hands (our thoughts, words, and deeds), and in faithfulness, there is dispassion. Dispassion is not to be unfeeling but to be unmoved, that is, active rather than passive. And where dispassion is, there is eternal life, there is the tabernacle of the Lord, there is God’s “holy hill.” Indeed, as a Christian I understand the righteous person described in the psalms as being perfectly embodied in Jesus Christ. Thus, again, we have the paradox of exclusivity and universality.
These are the words of Psalm 14, and now “we have rationally examined them.” Abba Isaac is right, however: it is much better that we “discern the meaning intuitively,” that the words first be inscribed in “the depths of the heart.” After all, from our hearts come our words, and our words are, and lead to, our deeds. Lord have mercy that mine would be both unblemished and just.