The Psalms
Our Lenten Study Group this year examined the Book of Psalms. I found the study very interesting and illuminating; I do not know if anyone else did.

The Psalms are arguably both the best-known and the worst-known book of the Bible; best-known, in that the Psalms have permeated Christian worship for so long that all of us, consciously or unconsciously, are familiar with their language and imagery; worst-known, in that even those of us who say the whole Book of Psalms regularly, in the course of the Daily Office, do so in somewhat mechanical fashion, as an act of duty and obedience, without stopping to analyse the many archaisms and obscurities which remain, even for the scholars and commentators, impenetrable mysteries.

Archaism and obscurity are of the very nature of the Psalms, perhaps of all liturgical language: we need always to be reminded that our understanding of God is imperfect! Even the Levites who sang the Psalms in the Jerusalem Temple in the days of Our Lord were probably at a loss to explain much of what they were singing. Thousands of years of study, both Jewish and Christian, have demonstrated rather than solved the difficulties.

The element of incomprehensibility in the Psalms has the beauty of inviting new interpretations unsuspected by the original authors. In particular of course, Christians have found in the Psalms meanings unknown to Jews.

I came across a particularly striking example of this process of re-interpretation when I was preparing a sermon for the Feast of St Monica, mother of St Augustine, on the 4th of May – unfortunately too late to include in the Lent Study Group...

I was for many years puzzled by a verse in the Latin text of Psalm 4, which is sung as one the Compline Psalms: “In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam”. It appears in the BCP as “I will lay me down in peace and take my rest”; now “in pace” means “in peace”, and “dormiam et requiescam” means “I will lay me down and take my rest” – but what on earth does “in idipsum” (literally, “into that self-same thing”) mean? I think I know enough Latin to be able to say that even Cicero would have found the words largely incomprehensible!

The explanation is found in the history of translation. The word in the original Hebrew is “yahdaw” which means something like “together” (KJV: “I will both lay me down in peace and sleep”). The Greek version rendered it “epi to auto” which again means something like “together”, but literally means “unto the same”. The Latin version then translated the Greek so literally as to produce the largely meaningless “in idipsum”, “into that self-same thing”.

The capacious mind of St Augustine was not satisfied with so banal an explanation. Meditating on the Psalm, he decided that That Self-Same Thing must be that which has ultimate and unchanging existential being – i.e. nothing less than the Divine Nature; hence to lie and and take one’s rest “in idipsum” is nothing less than to be subsumed into the Godhead and to find that perfect rest of which he said famously “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”.

A few days before Monica’s death, she and Augustine experienced together a moment of mystical exaltation in which they felt themselves ascending above all earthly and corporeal things to be caught up... in idipsum!

Thus by a long and circuitous process, a largely meaningless Hebrew adverb became an image of the Beatific Vision, and gave St Augustine the words with which to express the profoundest experience of his spiritual life!


-Fr Richard Bowyer, May 2011