24 June 2009

St Dorotheus of Gaza on 'Dash Thine Infants Against the Rock'

Okay, I promised at least one more post on a passage from the Discourses of St Abba Dorotheus of Gaza (St Dorotheus of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, trans. Eric P. Wheeler [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1977]), and Bishop Savas is certainly enthusiastic about these even if no one else is, so I feel must fulfill my promise if only to thank him for his many insightful comments, recommendations, and bounteous gifts.

The other passage I wanted to mention from St Dorotheus is in his Eleventh Discourse, ‘On Cutting Off Passionate Desires Immediately Before They Become Rooted Habits of the Mind’ (pp. 172-81). On p. 174 of Wheeler’s translation, St Dorotheus tells the story of an elder instructing his disciples to pull up progressively larger and more mature cypress trees, until they were so large and firmly rooted that they were impossible to pull out. The story ends with the elder’s lesson—‘So it is with our evil desires: insofar as they are small to start with, we can, if we want to, cut them off with ease’ (p. 174). St Dorotheus then adds, ‘And the prophet in the psalm says something similar’ (p. 174), and then quotes Ps. 136:8-9 (LXX): ‘O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one, blessed shall he be who shall reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us. Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock’ (Psalm trans., HTM).

It is of course very nearly a non sequitur to the modern reader, but St Dorotheus goes on to explain this verse in greater detail:

But let us search out the meaning of this saying in detail. ‘Babylon’ means confusion. For Babel has the same meaning as Shechem (Gen 12:6). ‘Daughter of Babylon’ means enmity [or the enemy]. First the soul is put to confusion and so it produces sin; but he calls sin miserable, because sin (and I have spoken of this elsewhere) has no existence or substance of its own but is brought into existence through our own carelessness; and again through our correction it is destroyed and loses its existence. Therefore, he says, as though a holy man were speaking to sin, ‘Blessed is he who pays back to you what we have received.’ Let us learn what we have given, what we have received, and what we should desire to give back again. We have given our desire and we received back sin. This text calls ‘happy’ the man who gives back this evil and by this ‘giving back’ he means no longer doing it. Then he adds, ‘Happy the man who takes your little ones and dashes them against a rock’—as if he would say: Happy the man who seized the things generated from you, ‘the enemy’, i.e. the evil thoughts [logismoi], not giving them a chance to grow strong in him and constrain him to evil deeds, but immediately, while they are still in their infancy, before they are fed and grow strong against him, flings them down on the rock, which is Christ. In other words he utterly destroys them by taking refuge in Christ. (pp. 174-5)

St Dorotheus’s interpretation of this Psalm is completely foreign to the average modern reader, long accustomed to reading the Scriptures at a purely literal, historical level. By way of contrast with the Abba, consider John S. Kselman’s note on these verses in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: ‘Though anti-Babylonian sentiments are found elsewhere (e.g., Jer 50-51, Lam 4.21), none are so vividly compact as this’ (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 3rd ed., ed. Michael D. Coogan [Oxford: Oxford U, 2001], p. 894).

But St Dorotheus is by no means alone in his use of this passage. To take just one more example from the Greek patristic tradition (my friend Reader Paul cites a similar reading in St Cassiodorus here), St Theodorus the Great Ascetic, in his ‘Century of Spiritual Texts’, elabourates on the process by which logismoi mature, and then finishes with a familiar allusion (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 2, comp. St Macarius of Corinth and St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1990], pp. 17-8):

19. Every assent in thought to some forbidden desire, that is, every submission to self-indulgence, is a sin for a monk. For first the thought begins to darken the intellect through the passible aspect of the soul, and then the soul submits to the pleasure, not holding out in the fight. This is what is called assent, which—as has been said—is a sin. When assent persists it stimulates the passion in question. Then little by little it leads to the actual committing of the sin. This is why the prophet calls blessed those who dash the children of Babylon against the stones (cf. Ps. 136:9 LXX). People with understanding and discretion will know what is meant.

Obviously, the last line shows that St Theodorus is writing for an audience that is either already familiar with this traditional interpretation, or one that, he believes, is able instinctively to read the passage in accordance with such an interpretation. But at least one Father of the West has alluded to these verses as well, and he expresses this interpretation almost casually, placing the emphasis on the spiritual act itself rather than the text of the Psalm. In answer to the question of Psalm 14:1, ‘Lord who shall dwell in thy tabernacle, or who shall rest upon thy holy hill?’, St Benedict of Nursia replies, ‘He that taketh the evil spirit that tempteth him, and casteth him and his temptaton from the sight of his heart, and bringeth him to naught; who graspeth his evil suggestions as they arise and dasheth them to pieces on the rock that is Christ’ (RB Prologue 28; The Rule of Saint Benedict in English and Latin, trans. and ed. Abbot Justin McCann, OSB [Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.], pp. 9, 11).

But one question still remains: what precisely do our exegetes mean by ‘dashing’ the logismoi against Christ? Although he doesn’t refer to Psalm 136, St Symeon the New Theologian writes of the nous driving away and destroying logismoi ‘with the invocation of Christ’, a definite reference to the Jesus Prayer (‘The Three Methods of Prayer’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, comp. St Macarius of Corinth and St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1995], p. 73). Thus, Olivier Clément writes (The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text and commentary, trans. Theodore Berkeley OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone [London: New City, 1995], pp. 170-1):

Invocation of the name of Jesus is habitual in these exercises of discernment. It is important that the ‘natural’ thought giving expression to the deep but still blind yearning of the soul should be enlightened and strengthened by being clothed with the name of Christ. Any idolatrous or obsessive idea is dashed against this name. For example the name of Jesus may be invoked faster and faster until the soul is quieted. This is how the monks used to interpret the psalm of the exiles that recommends the dashing of the ‘children of Babylon’ against the rocks. The children symbolize negative thoughts. The rock is Christ.

On this point too it will be seen that Benedictine monasticism is hardly distinguished from Eastern monasticism.

‘He who acts righteously . . . is he who drives the devil from his heart. He seizes this brood of devilish thoughts and dashes it to pieces against Christ.’

Benedict of Nursia Rule, Prologue 28 (Centenario, p. 6)

A shout out to Justin for the use of his New Oxford Annotated Bible and Philokalia 4 in a pinch!


orrologion said...

A Romanian hieromonk counseled me with this passage (and with this meaning) in my very first confession after baptism - about 3 days after, if I remember correctly, as I began to notice the intrusion of thoughts in a way I had never understood before.

Fr. Christian Mathis said...

thanks for this post.....it is a very powerful psalm when put into the context of sin.

aaronandbrighid said...

Christopher> Was that Fr Roman (Braga)?

Fr Christian> Glad you liked it. I quite agree with your assessment of the Psalm!

orrologion said...

No, Fr. Constantine (Chirilla). I am hoping to meet Fr. Roman as Rives Junction is only a few hours from my in-law's home in Indiana.

I wrote a little something on him back in April. He currently serves at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Iasi, Romania where the relics of St. Paraskevi the New are kept, but he was resident at the OCA Cathedral in NYC the first number of years I was a member there. He is a monk of Putna Monastery, originally.

He published, personally, the "Hymns of Divine Love" by St. Symeon the New Theologian.

He chrismated me following my baptism.

+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

Thanks again, Aaron, for helping to make this wonderful saint better known. I look forward to your post on his spiritual charge, St Dositheos, later this summer.