Tuesday, May 7, 2013

St. Augustine on Psalm 37: Do not fret because of the wicked

How often do we get upset about what others are doing - things that are immoral, unethical, and often sinful? How often do we envy how easy evil-doers seem to have it in life? Psalm 37 deals with this and teaches us how to respond.

I'm going to do a lot of quoting here because I just can't summarize Augustine.  He has a way of saying things that hits home, but you may have to read it more than once.

St. Augustine, in discussing Psalm 37[36] had this to say:

2. This it is that disturbs you who are a Christian; that you see men of bad lives prospering, and surrounded with abundance of things like these; you see them sound in health, distinguished with proud honors; you see their family unvisited by misfortune; the happiness of their relatives, the obsequious attendance of their dependants, their most commanding influence, their life uninterrupted by any sad event; you see their characters most profligate, their external resources most affluent; and your heart says that there is no Divine judgment; that all things are carried to and fro by accidents, and blown about in disorderly and irregular motions. For if God, you say, regarded human affairs, would his iniquity flourish, and my innocence suffer? Every sickness of the soul has in Scripture its proper remedy. Let him then whose sickness is of that kind that he says in his heart things like these, let him drink this Psalmby way of potion....

Today's Office of Readings (OOR) began with Psalm 37 and it is broken up into parts.  Here is a link to the Office of Readings for May 7, 2013 (Tuesday of 6th week after Easter) at DivineOffice.org; hopefully, it will work indefinitely.  I'm going to quote some of it, but I prefer to use the RSV-Catholic Edition online for Psalm 37 [36].  Here is the beginning:

1 Fret not yourself because of the wicked, be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
It is interesting to read how St. Augustine probes this sentence.  He writes quite a bit on so little text.  First he tells us that what is "soon" to God is long to us and that we need to conform ourselves to what is "soon" for God.  This means patience is required.  He points out that the grass and green herb are on the surface of the ground, without deep roots. They may fair the winter well, but in the scorching heat of summer they fade and wither.  He then writes:

But if your love has but a deep root, like that of many trees during winter, the frost passes away, the summer (that is, the Day of Judgment) will come; then will the greenness of the grass wither away. Then will the glory of the trees appear. For you (says the Apostle) are dead, Colossians 3:3 even as trees seem to be in winter, as it were dead, as it were withered. What is our hope then, if we are dead? The root is within; where our root is, there is our life also, for there our love is fixed.

That last sentence by Augustine reminds me of Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there also will be your heart. 

 The Psalm continues:
3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will dwell in the land, and enjoy security. 4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 6 He will bring forth your vindication as the light, and your right as the noonday. 7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. 9 For the wicked shall be cut off; but those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land. 10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look well at his place, he will not be there.

Augustine explains that the land spoken of is the Church.  The security of those who trust in the Lord is not like the fleeting trust of those who are attached to worldly things. Possessing things is different from possessing God.  Possession of things does not come from God's grace, but from the world and the flesh.  Our possession of God begins with God's possession of us and it is our response.  We can't possess both God and things (Mt 6:24).  Later, in section 9, Augustine explains why it bothers us, what others do, and why we should not fret.

9. See! I do so; I do 'submit to the Lord, and I do entreat.' But what do you think? That neighbour of mine is a wicked man, living a bad life, and prosperous! His thefts, adulteries, robberies, are known to me. Lifted up above every one, proud, and raised on high by wickedness, he deigns not to notice me. In these circumstances, how shall I hold out with patience? This is a sickness; drink, by way of remedy. Fret not yourself because of him who prospers in his way. He prospers, but it is in his way: you suffer, but it is in God's way! His portion is prosperity on his way, misery on arriving at its end: yours, toil on the road, happiness in its termination. The Lord knows the way of the righteous; and the way of the ungodly shall perish. Thou walkest those ways which the Lord knows, and if you dost suffer toil in them, they do not deceive you. The way of the ungodly is but a transitory happiness; at the end of the way the happiness is at an end also. Why? Because that way is the broad road; its termination leads to the pit of hell. Now, your way is narrow; and few there be that enter in through it: Matthew 7:13-14 but into how ample a field it comes at the last, you ought to consider. Fret not yourself at him who prospers in his way; because of the man who brings wicked devices to pass.

He continues in section 9 to discuss the seriousness of potentially sinful anger.  There is such a thing as righteous anger, but it is not what most think it to be.  We will explore this in another post on anger and righteous anger (and it may need to be a series of posts).   When someone else is doing something wrong, we do not have a right to be angry any way that fits us.  Here is some of what Augustine says in the next paragraph of section 9:

Cease from anger, and forsake wrath Psalm 36:8. Wherefore are you angry? Wherefore is it that, through that passionand indignation, you blaspheme, or almost blaspheme? Against the man who brings wicked devices to pass, cease from anger, and forsake wrath. Do you not know whither that wrath tempts you on? You are on the point of saying unto God, that He is unjust. It tends to that. Look! Why is that man prosperous, and this man in adversity? Consider what thought it begets: stifle the wicked notion. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: so that now returning to your senses, you may say, My eye is disturbed because of wrath. What eye is that, but the eye of faith? To the eye of your faith I appeal. Thou believed in Christ: why did you believe? What did He promise you? If it was the happiness of this world that Christ promised you, then murmur against Christ; yes! Murmur against Him, when you see the wicked flourishing. What of happiness did He promise? What, save in the Resurrection of the Dead? But what in this life? That which was His portion. His portion, I say! Do you, servant and disciple, disdain what your Lord, what your Masterbore?...
There is so much more worth quoting, but it is really best if you just read Psalm 37 in it's entirety, then read St. Augustine's exposition on it at New Advent.  Read it slow; read each paragraph several times if need be.  When I am fixed on a particular psalm or scripture passage, I like to visit New Advent (which has a collection of texts from Church Fathers and others) then type in a few keywords, psalm, or passage number in the search tool there and see what comes up.  Sometimes, you can find several saints with commentaries or letters involving a given text.  

God gives us the tools to handle situations, we just need to look in the tool box, then use those tools.  

Lots of things are happening out there that could cause us to be down when we are suppose to mirror the light of Christ.  Every generation has it's challenges and it isn't up to us to question why we must deal with this or that. The issue is not that others sin; rather, it is our response to the sinfulness of others.  Don't dwell in it.  Don't let it make you bitter or anxious.  Bookmark this post and go back to Psalm 37 and St. Augustine's exposition if you find yourself down because of what others do.  May God give you comfort.  

We will give St. Teresa of Avila the parting word since this is so apropos. 


Update: Last night I didn't think to look in my book of commentaries on the psalms by Saint Robert Bellarmine.  He writes a rather lengthy exposition on Psalm 37.  I will make another post with further thoughts from him on this subject.

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