St Gregory of Nyssa on the Psalms & Blessedness
The Divine Book of the psalms wonderfully shows us the way [to blessedness] by a systematic, natural order showing the various means for man to attain blessedness both by a simplicity which is evident and a teaching which is plain.
Blessedness, as St. Gregory defines it, is “participation in that which truly exists” – God. In Evagrian terms, blessedness is union with the Trinity. The Book of the Psalms can be a guide for us to attain unto blessedness if only we learn how to read it. The Psalms as used/read in the Divine Office are not mere praise of God, they are also the means to attain unto God by hearing His voice and following it. The recitation of the Psalms, contra popular misconception, is not prayer. Rather the recitation of the Psalms is the beginning of the path which leads to prayer. Strictly speaking prayer follows upon Psalmody and reading of Scripture. The “Oratio” or “Prayer” is found at the end of the Divine Office and not at the beginning for a very good reason. In order to pray we first need to be made ready to pray.
The first psalm presents us with an outline of the task before us. It divides virtue into three parts, with each part testifying to blessedness by an appropriate analogy.
The way in which St. Gregory will read the Psalm is not informed by higher or lower criticism. Rather – as announced – St. Gregory reads the Psalm as a guide to blessedness. In spite of the virtues academic readings of Scripture have undoubtedly produced, it has never (and cannot) lead to blessedness. To achieve blessedness requires that one submits to the Scripture as words given by the Word which lead up to Him. An entirely nonacademic enterprise. That is not say we need to be young-earth creationists in order to attain blessedness, for clinging to the “creationist” guns is still reading Scripture as a “science project.” It is extremely unlikely that the earth is a mere 6.000 yrs old and that all species were created as is at the beginning according to a (so-called) literal reading of Genesis 1-2. But to argue about Scripture at this level locks our minds and hearts firmly in this earthly realm and does not elevate and guide our minds and hearts toward a godly living and thereby to God. Attaining blessedness is a life-long journey – it is a journey. A journey we will not be able to even begin, let alone complete, if we don’t learn to hear the Scripture as our guide: as words leading up the Word.
It calls blessedness a turning away from evil, the beginning of an impulse to the good followed by a study of sublime, divine realities which enable us to possess the good. Hence, these [divisions of the first psalm] bring about likeness to God for the perfect blessedness as we have just said. An evergreen tree implies this fact, for it is compared to a life perfected through virtue,
Whatever academic reading of the same Psalm will bring us, it must be in the service of reading it as “showing us the way to blessedness” if it is to do any good. If academic reading is an end in itself rather than a means to an end, the fruit of such reading is like a stillborn child. It has the shape of life, but it has never lived. To read the words in such a way that they become seeds of life within, in such a way that we become “pregnant” with them and continue to use these words to lead us to the Word they will eventually bring us to a new and higher life. They will become our wings that carry us to blessedness.
* Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Inscription of the Psalms, trans. by Richard McCambly (p. 24).