FROM THE BOOK OF PSALMS TO THE RESPONSORIAL PSALM (4) – Saint Augustine on Psalms

– Aurelio Porfiri

We have spoken about the beautiful commentary of Saint Athanasius on the Psalms, a commentary that certainly deserves to be known better. Most of the Christian writers, if not all, give attention to the Psalms, given that the same Psalms are the most important prayers through which we let God speak to us and then speak to Him in return.

In the 4th century, we may also mention Saint Basil (330-379), one of the Cappadocian Fathers (with Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Gregory of Nyssa, that was his brother). Basil the Great, in his homily on Psalm 1, that is a sort of introduction to the whole Psalter, tells us, as James McKinnon put it,  “the melodiousness of the psalms is an effective tool for teaching weak humans.”

Saint Basil mentions: “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 a child at heart or even those who are youthful in disposition, might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in the soul. For, never has anyone who is indifferent gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message, but they do chant the words of the psalms, even at home, and they spread them around in the marketplace.  If perchance if someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, then 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.”

But the most important commentary on the Psalms is probably the one of Saint Augustine (354-430), in Enarrationes in psalmos. But before looking at a few passages from these commentaries, I want to quote a passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a passage where he talks to us about the danger of aesthetic pleasure in music. It is certainly a very important element to think about. Here, he also refers to Saint Athanasius and his way of performing the Psalms: “The delights of the ear had more powerfully inveigled and conquered me, but You unbound and liberate me. Now, in those airs, which Your words breathe soul into, when sung with a sweet and trained voice, do I somewhat repose; yet not so as to cling to them, but so as to free myself when I wish. But with the words which are their life do they, that they may gain admission into me, strive after a place of some honor in my heart; and I can hardly assign them a fitting one. Sometimes, I appear to myself to give them more respect than is fitting, as I perceive that our minds are more devoutly and earnestly elevated into a flame of piety by the holy words themselves when they are thus sung, than when they are not; and that all affections of our spirit, by their own diversity, have their appropriate measures in the voice and singing, wherewith by I know not what secret relationship they are stimulated. But the gratification of my flesh, to which the mind ought never to be given over to be enervated, often beguiles me, while the sense does not so attend on reason as to follow her patiently; but having gained admission merely for her sake, it strives even to run on before her, and be her leader. Thus, in these things do, I sin unknowingly, but afterward do I know it. Sometimes, again, very earnestly avoiding this same deception, I err out of too great preciseness; and sometimes so much as to desire that every air of the pleasant songs to which David’s Psalter is often used, be banished both from my ears and those of the Church itself; and that way seemed unto me safer, which I remembered to have been often related to me of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who obliged the reader of the psalm to give utterance to it with so slight an inflection of voice, that it was more like speaking than singing. Notwithstanding, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of Your Church, at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved not by the singing but by what is sung, when they are sung with a clear and skilfully modulated voice, I then acknowledge the great utility of this custom. Thus, vacillate I between dangerous pleasure and tried soundness; being inclined rather (though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion upon the subject) to approve of the use of singing in the church, that so by the delights of the ear, the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional frame. Yet, when it happens to me to be more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned criminally, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. See now the condition I am in! Weep with me, and weep for me, you who so control your inward feelings as that good results ensue. As for you who do not thus act, these things concern you not. But You, O Lord my God, give ear, behold and see, and have mercy upon me, and heal me, — Thou, in whose sight I have become a puzzle to myself; and this is my infirmity.”

This is a passage of fundamental importance in the history of sacred music because it gives us a very clear analysis of the benefits and the dangers of having music in worship. It is also an interesting reference made to Saint Athanasius that suggests a sort of cantillation, between speaking and singing.

In one of his sermons on Psalm 149, he says:  “Sing to the Lord a new song; his praise is in the assembly of the saints. We are urged to sing a new song to the Lord, as new men who have learned a new song. A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly, it is a thing of love. Anyone, therefore, who has learned to love the new life has learned to sing a new song, and the new song reminds us of our new life. The new man, the new song, the new covenant, all belong to the one kingdom of God, and so the new man will sing a new song and will belong to the new covenant.  There is no one who does not love something, but the question is, what to love. The psalms do not tell us not to love, but to choose the object of our love. But how can we choose unless we are first chosen? We cannot love unless someone has loved us first. Listen to the apostle John: We love him because he first loved us. The source of man’s love for God can only be found in the fact that God loved him first. He has given us Himself as the object of our love, and he has also given us its source.” The Psalms are this new song that we raise to the Lord, always new, even if they were written thousands of years ago. Speaking of Psalm 73, he gives us an interesting definition of what is a hymn, that has become very influential: “Hymns are praises of God accompanied by singing: hymns are songs containing the praise of God. If there be praise, and it is not of God, it is no hymn: if there be praise and God’s praise, and it is not sung, it is no hymn. It must needs then, if it is a hymn, have these three things, both praise, and that of God, and singing.”

At the beginning of his commentary on Psalm 120, Saint Augustine says: “The Psalm which we have just heard chanted, and have responded to with our voices, is short, and very profitable.” This reference is very important for us because it witnesses the practice of singing the Psalms in a responsorial way, which was already known in the early Church. Of course, we will see more about this later in our study of the Psalms, but it is worthy to note that this was a way that our ancestors used the Psalms in their worship, which we should be ready to emulate.

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