Category Archives: Psalms

PC: Benedict and Cassiodorus

If you’ve been following along with the Psalming Christ snippets, then you’ll have figured out that we’re heading here. Essentially, I’ve established that Benedictine spirituality is “a thing,” but that as important, useful, and helpful as Benedict’s rule is, it’s not enough—and was never intended to be. Rather, it is part of a living and lived tradition and we need some supplementation to figure out what Benedict was intending with his regulation. Here is where I make the connection between Benedict and Cassiodorus and why understanding Cassiodorus—or at least his concepts—is important for getting at the heart of a robust Benedictine spirituality…


The only source of information that we have about the life of St. Benedict is that found in Book 2 of the Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great (d. 604). A monastic admirer of Benedict, Gregory features Benedict as an example of spiritual wisdom and grace amongst a host of vignettes of other holy men who earn less space within the treatise. While the whole of the Dialogues makes for great reading, I want to direct our attention to how Gregory starts his discussion of Benedict. Classical canons suggest that a writer describing the life of a famous individual must start with his parentage and education. As a trained rhetorician, Gregory follows this pattern, and writes this of Benedict:

“He was born into a free-man’ family in the district of Nursia and was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts. But he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had he entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life. Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.”

The key things here are that Benedict turned his back on the learning that could be got at Rome and did so for a very particular reason—that he had seen it cause many students to “[fall] into vice.” As a result, he forsook Rome and its schools, going into the wilderness “learnedly ignorant” and “wisely unskilled,” a neat set of parallel phrases that Gregory as an author no doubt took delight in. I imagine Gregory also had in mind an important turn of phrase at the end of the Rule’s prologue where Benedict lays out his purpose: “Therefore we intend to establish a school (schola) for the Lord’s service” (RB Prol.45). The unlearned holy man becomes the schoolmaster of souls.

Gregory’s introductory passage accomplishes two things. First, it recalls the Life of St. Antony. In that work, penned by the learned Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 373), he too takes pains to point out that the Antony (d. 356)—regarded as the true founder of monasticism—was unlearned. Thus, Gregory portrays Benedict in the same way: untutored but in spite of that—or indeed even because of it—much wiser in the ways of God than the ways of humanity.

Second, Gregory acknowledges the existence of an important cultural gap. There was no such thing as secular learning in the Italian 6th century. All learning was pagan learning. That is, the ways that students were taught to read, write, and speak were based in the great epics of pagan Greece and Rome and attendant literature: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorpheses. There was no comparable Christian educational literature. Even the great Christian rhetoricians like Augustine and Jerome made embarrassed apologies for the Christian Scriptures—that its grammar and styling seemed rude and barbarous in comparison to its pagan counterparts, that its rhetorical faults highlighted the unlearned wisdom of its authors (pointing back to the description of Peter and John in Acts 4:13). As Christianity spread and made inroads among the learned classes, this problem came to a head. Some authors, like the North African Tertullian (d. 240), the father of Latin-language theology, famously thundered “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Other authors like Origen (d. 253) and St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), borrowed a passage of Exodus to speak of the “despoiling of the Egyptians,” arguing that if the Children of Israel could take wealth from their pagan neighbors for their own benefit, so too Christians could borrow Greco-Roman learning, strip it of its pagan character, and repurpose it for the instruction of Christian readers and thinkers.

Indeed, this educational gap was weaponized by Julian the Apostate (d. 363), the first and last Roman emperor after Constantine (d. 337) to try and restore paganism in the empire and displace Christianity. He issued an edict that all teachers had to believe what they taught. That is, those who taught higher education from the pagan epics had to be believers in them and in the gods they proclaimed, effectively barring Christians from educational roles and forcing the upper classes back into the thought-world of pagan antiquity. As Julian only remained in power for less than a year, this edict failed to have the long term effect he was looking for as it was swiftly repealed upon his death.

So—where was learning to be found for monks in the days of Benedict and beyond? As we have seen, Benedict himself was no help because none of the books he recommends assists their readers in the arts of reading itself. How should Christians read the Scriptures? What are the necessary tools for unpacking Scripture? What are the essential techniques for wringing spiritual meaning for monastics out of texts that appear to be speaking about history that happened centuries ago in an alien place and culture?

Jerome’s translations of Origen’s biblical commentaries provided a starting place but were not enough. Later monks would address this lack and the two best known would be Gregory the Great (d. 604) and the Venerable Bede (d. 725). Gregory’s Forty Gospel Homilies would become a staple of monastic libraries for centuries to come and would find their ways into sermon collections and breviaries to enrich the Church throughout the Middle Ages. Likewise, his Homilies on Ezekiel and his monumental Morals in Job would become standard works for interpreting the Old Testament. Bede would follow in his footsteps, pulling together commentaries on the New Testament Epistles, the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the Book of Revelation and parts of the Old Testament. However, sermons and commentaries alone did not suffice to teach the arts of reading. The solution to this problem penned by one of Benedict’s own 6th century Italian contemporaries, Cassiodorus.

In the first half of his life, Cassiodorus (d. 585) served the Gothic kings who ruled Italy throughout the first half of the 6th century, notably Theoderic the Great (d. 526). His family had held high positions for the previous two generations and Cassiodorus was no exception, rising to the highest civil position in the imperial bureaucracy of the West until the Eastern Emperor Justinian and his savage wars of reconquest brought an end to Gothic rule. During a time of exile in Constantinople and for the rest of his long life, Cassiodorus became a monk and—fired by the example of a school of Christian studies in the East—turned his considerable literary and intellectual talents to the creation of a Christian curriculum for educating his fellow monks.

He is best known in scholarly circles for a work called The Institutes of Divine and Human Learning which has long been considered his great contribution to keeping scholarly wisdom alive in the West. This work is divided into two books. The first is a survey of theological practice and literature—talking about the importance of Scripture, how it can be divided up, and identifying important commentaries and orthodox thinkers on each section. The second book is a crash course in the seven liberal arts: the trivium which are the initial three arts of reading (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium which are the four applied arts of mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This work has long been considered his greatest contribution to intellectual history in the West as it passed down these seven arts to later ages, most notably through the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) who took this idea and expanded it into the first known Christian encyclopedia.

The Institutes are a great work, but—from the standpoint of the arts of reading, theology, and the spirituality of the West—lag in second place behind his most circulated and impactful work: The Explanation of the Psalms.

Benedict and the rest of the monastic movement saw the psalter as the heart of monastic spirituality. Every monastic rule devoted space to prescribing how the psalms should become a central text in monastic lives, though their singing and as models for all other forms of Christian prayer. Cassiodorus taught how to read them. He split the Gordian knot of the uncomfortable relationship between classical learning and Christian spirituality with a bold assertion: that the seeds of all seven liberal arts lay within the Psalms if one just knew how to look for them and find them. His Explanation of the Psalms in three volumes provided monastic learners with a complete road map to understanding the psalms, the arts of reading necessary to profitably interpret them, and the spiritual tools to turn the act of reading into a practice of prayer.

Because Cassiodorus’s legacy has been seen for centuries in the Institutes, Cassiodorus has long been considered a competitor of Benedict, an author advancing a more secular understanding of wisdom over and against monastic spirituality. Certainly this is the way the great monastic historian Jean Leclercq (d. 1993) saw the two—as rivals, each promoting a different aim for the unfolding of monastic life. When Cassiodorus’s key work is correctly identified as the Explanation of the Psalms rather than the Institutes, the true relationship between the two men becomes evident.

Rather than competitors, Benedict and Cassiodorus are the perfect complements to one another. Benedict provides the rules and structures that create the framework of a monastic life, a life focused on immersion in Scripture—the Psalms holding pride of place. Cassiodorus provides a invaluable guide that explains how the Psalms are read and understood from a Christian perspective with the help of the classical arts. Furthermore, he models what spiritual reading and praying look and sound like. Benedict brings the structure; Cassiodorus brings the method. Together they provide a foundation for a Scripture-shaped life in the monastic tradition.

History reveals that this is the way the relationship worked. When we compare the numbers of copies of the various manuscripts that have survived to the present day, when we hunt through the booklists of ancient monastic libraries, we find the confirmation that we are after. Judging by manuscripts, the Institutes made hardly a ripple in the early medieval world. Only XX copies of the Institutes survive. This is doubtless due in large measure to Isidore taking up the theme and running with it. He incorporated whole sections cribbed directly from the Institutes in his Etymologies and thereby made the Institutes redundant in the face of his much larger work.

The Explanation of the Psalms, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Its nearest competitor, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Narrations on the Psalms survive in sixty-six medieval copies; almost twice that many editions of all or part of Cassiodorus’s Explanations survive! In addition to these 106 copies of the Explanations, material from the Explanations became a standard feature of the Carolingian glossed psalters. These books, used for both study and prayer, contained the psalms written in large letters in the middle of the page with explanations drawn from Cassiodorus, Jerome, Augustine, and other teachers written in small letters between the lines and around the margins of the page.  These glossed psalters were one of the teaching tools by which young monastics who were in the process of memorizing their psalms would learn to read and, as they grew more advanced, how to analyze and interpret the Scriptures.

Looking back at the editions of Cassiodorus’s Explanations that scholars can firmly date, almost half were written in either the 9th century or the 12th century. These spikes represent the 9th century Carolingian reform and the 12th century Monastic Reformation. The generations that renewed monastic vitality identified and copied Cassiodorus’s Explanations as a companion to a renewed focus on Benedict’s Rule and the principles at the heart of Western monasticism. When those reforming monks looked back, they identified Cassiodorus as a central resource for monastic learning.

So—what about us? As we stand at our own point in history, as many of us are drawn to the world of monastic spirituality, its rhythms and habits and patterns, is there something that Cassiodorus can teach us? However, we must approach him with a certain caution in mind. We live in a different time. Literacy and the arts of reading are deeply embedded within our societies. Our outlook on prayer is different from earlier periods. Modern biblical studies, drawing upon technological, archaeological, and theoretical advances, is vastly different in our day than those of Benedict and Cassiodorus. Many things they thought were true we now know to be false; many beliefs they treasured, we question. Nevertheless, the medieval world understood Cassiodorus and his teachings on the psalms to be an essential compliment to Benedict’s world. Does Cassiodorus still have something to teach us about reading and praying the psalms with renewed eyes and hearts?

PC: The Tradition and its Supplements

If Benedict’s Rule was not enough in itself—if it was not designed to be a self-sufficient document—then what else was needed? What supplied what it lacked? The answer is two-fold. First, it was supplemented by lived experience. Senior monastics passed on their wisdom to juniors. This was not by accident or happenstance; it was designed into the way monastic living was structured and was an intentional process cultivated by monastic rules. However, there were also other written sources that served as important supplements to the rules of life like Benedict’s. Identifying these gives us a better sense of what the monastic tradition looked and lived like.

Lived experience is fantastic and is clearly the best way for knowledge to percolate through a system: not only do you hear the wise words of the elders (just as you might read them in a text), but you get to see them in action. As a junior monastic, you’d receive teachings, but then observe how your elder lived these out, how they related to one another, what parts they took more seriously, embodied more fully, what habits and patterns shaped their being and—conversely—what teachings they held more lightly, de-emphasized in practice, or honored more in the breech than the practice.

The problem with lived experience is continuity. Yes, Benedict’s rule has been ordering the shape of western monastic experience for 1500 years—but rarely has this ordering been continuous. Very few—if any—western monasteries have existed from the time of Benedict down to our own day in unbroken continuity. When the continuity is broken, whatever lived experience hasn’t been captured in written form in one way or another is lost. An important part of the history of western monasticism is the history of monastic reform and refoundation. Monasticism of a Benedictine flavor has died out many times in many places and has had to be re-established either from earnest people working off written sources or by transplanting practices and customs from other places where it had endured.

This aspect of monastic history should be very important to us. Many modern seekers who are drawn to monastic wisdom and spirituality find ourselves in a similar position: there is something about Benedict’s rule that draws at our hearts and spirits. We are attracted to what we read and find—but where do we go from there? Just as in days gone-by we have two options: find a monastic community from which to learn or seek out the sources that give us a fuller sense of monastic wisdom and practice. By far the best option is not to do one or the other, but to embrace them both—to connect with a monastic community and to uncover the texts that will lead us into the fundamentals of monastic practice.

Benedict’s rule is an exemplar of one aspect of a living tradition. The Rule was not supposed to capture everything that could possibly be said about how monastics, lived, worked, and prayed. Instead, it lays down fundamental rules for how community life is to be ordered and structured and to communicate how those patterns have been chosen. It emphasizes the vows of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, and puts in place practical systems to enable those virtues to flourish. Benedict himself does not pretend that his rule is the be-all and end-all of monastic wisdom. He ends his rule with these directions:

“The reason we have written this rule is that, by observing it in monasteries, we can show that we have some degree of virtue and the beginnings of monastic life. But for anyone hastening on to the perfection of monastic life, there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which will lead him to the very heights of perfection. What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life? What book of the holy catholic Fathers does not resoundingly summon us along the true way to reach the Creator?” (RB 73.1-4)

And now Benedict gets down to brass tacks…

“Then, besides the Conferences of the Fathers, their Institutes and their Lives, there is also the rule of our holy father Basil. For observant and obedient monks, all these are nothing less than tools for the cultivation of virtues” (RB 73.5-6).

He is referring here to three distinct books and a collection of materials. The Conferences and Institutes are books written by John Cassian (d. 435), one of the great transmitters of monastic wisdom from the Egyptian deserts to the Latin-speaking West. The Institutes is the smaller of the two works. The first four chapters are a kind of a brief rule, explaining what Egyptian monks wore, how they ordered their services, and how they ordered their common life; the last eight chapters are a spiritual treatise on the eight principal vices and the virtues by which they are overcome. These chapters are both theological and practical—by means of stories and advice, Cassian explains the sins, their symptoms, and the habits by which their opposing virtues are cultivated to defeat them.

The Conferences is a treasure-house of monastic wisdom. It contains a set of twenty-four wide-ranging interviews with monastic elders conducted by John Cassian and his companion Germanus in the Egyptian deserts a few decades before. In giving them written form, Cassian has filtered them through the practice, experience, and wisdom of the intervening years between when he heard them in the 390’s and when he wrote them for publication between 426 and 429.

The rule written by Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) does offer directions about the practicalities of monastic life, but places it within a broader structure of theory. His work begins with a discussion of love of God and of neighbor and proceeds into the fundamentals of the ascetical life from there. Composed in question and answer fashion, it address matters of monastic life and practice. Basil’s Small Asceticon, the version translated into Latin by Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 411) and circulated in the West, does not discuss broader questions of how or why monks sing the Psalms and do sacred reading. While it offers advice on how many Scripture passages are put into practice within the ascetic life, it does not deal with interpretation in more specific detail.

Benedict’s reference to “Lives” is not very specific but refers to a general set of documents that circulated under this title. Virtually all of these collections begin with Athanasius’s Life of St Antony, Jerome’s Life of Paul, Life of Epiphanius, Life of Malchus, and then contain sayings, lives, or histories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt and Syria.

On one hand, these documents get us a big step closer to monastic spiritual practice: they show us vignettes of how ideal monks lived, worked, and prayed. We can gain a sense of how Athanasius understood Antony to be using the psalms through his Life; single verses will be repeated over and over again as a focal point for meditation like a mantra as Athanasius describes the hardships Antony endures. On the other hand, these too, don’t give us the level of insight we’d like into how the Psalms and Scriptures were prayed.

PC: Benedict as Incomplete

This is a continuation of the previous post for Psalming Christ


Consider intentional communities for a minute. How many of them survive—and for what length of time? How many communes formed in the 1960’s are still around? Most of them folded within years of their founding. It’s hard work to for human beings to live together in community. It’s even harder to make it work over a period of decades. Yet, Benedict’s rule has endured for centuries as a template for intentional Christian communities. It’s a template that works; it has proven successful across centuries and cultures as a means of forming Christians within them and inspiring the Christians around them.

Why this particular document? It’s certainly not because it was the only monastic rule out there. When Charlemagne appointed his top monastic advisors to look into the state of monasticism and to determine what should be the single rule under which he would unite his realm, Benedict of Aniane and Smaragdus of Saint Mihiel compiled a document containing many different rules that were in circulation at the time—but Benedict of Nursia’s was chosen out of all of these.

It’s worth comparing Benedict’s Rule to one of the other rules found in this collection. It goes by the name “The Rule of the Master.” It shares so many similarities with Benedict’s Rule, including common sentences and chapters, one of them must have copied from the other. However, the Rule of the Master goes into far greater detail than Benedict’s. It doesn’t just prescribe how to pick a prior; rather, it goes into details about how the brothers are to greet the prior when they run into him in the halls, detailing a brief liturgical script for the encounter. It doesn’t just recommend certain classes of activities for the monks when they are not in the church praying; rather, it gives explicit directions for exactly what monks at various points in their professed lives ought to be doing in the different sections of the day. Where Benedict’s Rule is lean and spare, the Rule of the Master describes and details, ending with a text that is 3 times the size of Benedict’s work. For centuries it was assumed that the Rule of the Master was an expansion of Benedict’s Rule. The great bombshell in twentieth century Benedictine studies was the realization that it worked the other way around: The Rule of the Master was the earlier text. Benedict had copied from the anonymous Master.

Benedict’s rule worked better because it was shorter—because it lacked the countless scriptings of daily events that characterize the Rule of the Master. Because it didn’t give all of the details, it could be implemented in a wider variety of places and times that those imagined by the Master. The specificity of the Rule of the Master was undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was left behind while the Rule of Benedict was adopted more broadly. Benedict’s brevity is one of the keys to his success.

But here’s the thing: while his brevity might have helped the Rule be adopted in a wide variety of contexts, his Rule is not enough. To put a finer point on it, Benedict’s Rule assumes many things that are never described or explained. For instance, Benedict goes into great detail around the singing of the psalms: he explains how many psalms should be prayed in the Offices (RB 9-13, 17), how the psalms determine how many Offices should be prayed (RB 16), which psalms should be prayed at which Offices (RB 18), he describes the intention with which the psalms should be prayed (RB 19-20), but he never gets around to telling us why the psalms should be prayed! He assumes it, he expects that his readers will accept it as self-evident. But—why?

To zero in on another core practice of the Rule, sacred reading (lectio divina) forms a central part of the monastic day (RB 48). But how is it done? Why is it done? Benedict assumes the importance of the practice, carving out significant amounts of time for it, but he never describes the goal or purpose or method he expects his monks to follow. If this activity is so central that it becomes one of the three basic practices of the monk (praying the Offices, sacred reading, and work), why does he devote so little place to explaining or exploring it?

If we flip back to that longer, more expansive Rule of the Master, we find our situation not much improved. The Master doesn’t answer any of these questions either! Instead, we have to see both of these documents as not sufficient in and of themselves. Neither of these rules contain everything that they need to contain in order to communicate the fullness of monastic life and values.

One of the ways monastic communities addressed this gap was by writing customaries—legislative documents that would help describe how the Rule of Benedict was put in place within their particular time, situation, and architectural arrangement. One well-known example of a customary is the Ordo Qualiter used by the great Abbey of Cluny and its many daughter houses. Another is the English Regularis Concordia that the monastic bishops of the 10th century Benedictine Reform wrote to establish uniform monastic practice throughout England (based, in part, on the Ordo Qualiter). However even these documents don’t get into the heart of spiritual practices of the monasteries. Yes, they prescribe additional devotions and say what the monks should be doing when, but so often they pass by the question of why and how: the questions that we are most interested in.

Rules and customaries exist within a living tradition, some of it written, but some of it oral as well, that has had to be recaptured and recompiled whenever monasticism has been restarted in places where it has ceased to exist. The English had to do this in their monastic reboot in the early 10th century after decades of viking depredations. The French Benedictines had to do it 19th and 20th centuries. While the Rule is essential, it’s is not sufficient. There is more that has to come along with it. Here’s the key point for us: if we too wish to explore the heart of Benedictine spirituality, we too must realize that there is more too it that the Rule itself does not describe.

PC: Starting with Benedict

Here’s the first chunk of Psalming Christ. If I’m trying to make the argument that modern readers should consider the use of a sixth century commentary to enhance their spiritual lives, I’ve got to make the case up front. I’m connecting it into my own way of getting into the topic: an appeal to a Benedictine-infused spirit…


When I was in my late twenties, my wife, a friend, and I squeezed into my pickup truck and headed out on a weekend road trip. Where to—a concert or a festival? Actually, no. Although we did (and still do) like to go to those things, our destination was rather different. This was a four-plus hour road trip from Columbus, Ohio to the Abbey of Gethsemani: the Cistercian monastery outside of Louisville, Kentucky where—among others—Thomas Merton had lived and written. We stayed in the guest quarters, attended the round of daily prayer offices, read in the library, and hiked in the fields around the abbey. We attended mass each day, but observed rather than receiving because we none of us were Roman Catholics. At that time we were two Lutherans and an Episcopalian (all three of us are Episcopal now) and yet there we were. We were drawn to a place and a feeling and an experience that our theological traditions had, during the Reformation, denounced as an aberration of Christian life and practice. Nor were we alone, either: among the several visitors were others from a number of Christian bodies and even some agnostics seeking for something deeper.

What would cause otherwise normal Protestant young adults to seek out a place that our Protestant traditions had reviled?

For me it was part of a spiritual journey that I had been on for several years. As a young Lutheran college student I had encountered Kathleen Norris’s Dakota and Cloister Walk. A Presbyterian coming back to faith, her meditations on the spirituality she had discovered in the high plains of the Dakotas struck a deep chord within me. Her encounters with Benedictine monks, their spirituality, and the endless round of psalms and canticles with which they construct their life inspired me with a vision of the faith unlike anything I had known before. A college-intensive led by a fierce and formidable Benedictine nun from the Twin Cities didn’t satisfy my hunger, only whetting my appetite to learn more. And, as a final-year seminarian feeling restless and ill-at-ease in my Lutheran tradition, my future was decided when, in the undercroft of a small Episcopal church, I heard the rector explain that the psalm-centered rhythms of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer were the heritage of the Benedictine spiritual system granted to the whole church—not just a special subset within it. To steal John Wesley’s famous phrase, my heart was strangely warmed and I knew not only that I had found my spiritual home but also why: these rhythms answered that deep call I had heard for years.

That’s just my experience. Over the years I have heard many similar stories. I have discovered a wealth of literature for Christians who aren’t vowed to religious life, lay and clergy alike, who are drawn to the ancient rhythms of Benedictine spirituality. Certainly many are Roman Catholics, but some are mainline Protestants and non-denominational Christians, and some are even seekers who would rather not restrict themselves by any religious labels. All of us have found meaning and depth in monastic patterns even though we make our homes outside of monasteries and abbeys.

St. Benedict of Nursia (d. 543?) never intended to start a movement. He just wanted to live a Christian life. Trying to find his way through the tumultuous Italian 6th century—subject to three different invasions, a disastrous plague, and at least one major regional famine—he fled city life to become a hermit in the wilderness. Drawing a following, he reluctantly became the leader of a group of monks and founded monasteries at Subiaco and later Mount Cassino. His wisdom comes down to us in the Rule of Benedict, a brief—but important!—document that lays out the spiritual and practical principles to guide his monks into living the Christian life. His intention, of course, was to provide instructions for full-time renunciants: people who had turned their backs on secular society and who intend to live out an arduous life of prayer and service without hindrance of family or children. For hundreds of years, this was the way it worked.

His Rule spread beyond Italy, was used in combination with other monastic rules to ground the practices of hundreds of monasteries, until it was adopted as the official monastic rule of the 9th century Carolingian Empire in modern-day France and Germany. His rule became the de facto Rule across Europe for centuries, and many of the towering figures in the 12th century Monastic Reformation shook up the system and founded new orders—like the Cistercians—to get back to the core principles that Benedict had elaborated. After the upheavals of revolutions and wars that accompanied the start of modernity in Europe, Benedict’s Rule was again identified as a vital source for Christian living and a wave of monasteries were begun or refounded in Europe. These spread to America as Roman Catholic immigrants brought their faith to the New World. By the late 19th century even Anglican Christians were founding monastic institutions that either used adaptations of Benedict’s Rule or had rules of their own that partook of Benedict’s spirit.

But—Benedict’s spirit did not simply find a home within monasteries, with cloistered professed religious who had no contact with the world outside their walls. Monasteries were places of pilgrimage and spiritual vitality within medieval communities. For many centuries, monastic priests were the local clergy, and taught the laity the spirituality they knew. Until the rise of the mendicant orders (the Franciscans, Dominicans, and their kin) the spirituality taught to nobles and commons alike was Benedictine in spirit and focused on the psalms. In Handbook for William, a book of advice dictated by the 8th century Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda to her son, she spends time focusing on his spiritual responsibilities and includes part of a treatise attributed to Alcuin on the importance of praying the psalms. Nobles would commission beautifully written and lavishly illustrated psalters for their daily prayers in imitation of monastic patterns; as centuries wore on, these would morph into the Books of Hours where Offices of the Blessed Virgin, Passion, and the Holy Spirit (among others) taken from monastic models would nourish the spirituality of the literate.

Even the illiterate knew of the the monastic patterns even if they could not participate within them. Early in its development, the fifty beads of the rosary were prayed through three times with an “Our Father” on each; praying 150 prayers allowed the illiterate to imitate the monastic recitation of the 150 psalms even if they did not have access to the words of the psalms.

Even while the Protestant Reformers railed against the theology of monasticism, they did not reject its spirituality entirely. In the early days of the Reformation, the Church of England made the conscious decision to retain daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and Thomas Cranmer’s introduction to the first Book of Common Prayer explicitly appeals to early medieval monastic models several times.

While monastic vocations fell off sharply after the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-5), a spirituality recalling the principles of monastic life is alive and well. In recent years Christians of all stripes have discovered monastic patterned prayer in some version or other of the Daily Office. Sacred reading, Benedict’s lectio divina, is practiced and taught in and beyond Roman Catholic circles.

So—what does all of that have to do with a book on the psalms? You should be getting a few hints by this point… The psalms are the center of classic monastic spirituality. The spiritual habits borrowed from monastic models like praying the Offices and doing lectio divina are aided tremendously by a solid knowledge of the psalms—and also understanding how monastics were taught to encounter the psalms.

You may have an attraction to the monastic way of life, whether formal or informal. Formally, many monastic houses have oblate programs. Oblates are laity who live and work, and have families in the world but who are bound through love and prayer to a monastic house and return there often for spiritual renewal. Even if this is not your cup of tea—or too complicated or burdensome in an already over-scheduled life—an informal appreciation of monastic models can be nurtured by occasional visits to monasteries, reading books (like this one), and actually practicing the practices found therein.

On the other hand, you may be like my mother-in-law. Growing up in Catholic schools in 1950s and ‘60s New Jersey, she has a reflexive dislike of nuns. As far as she’s concerned they are the mean people with rulers who whacked you if you ever strayed out of line. If you can relate or simply don’t have any attraction to monasticism at all, don’t worry—I’m not going to try to make you like them. We’ll keep talking about monks because we need to explore these practices in their original context, but I’ll not force you to try and become one. What I do want to do is to introduce you to a way of experiencing the psalms borne out of a millennium of monastic experience. Hundreds of thousands of our ancestors in the faith have used these patterns to enrich their lives of prayer—and I believe they still have important lessons to teach us today.

The Still-Being-Written Book

As Michelle mentioned below, there is an Amazon seller who is helpfully offering a used version of my book Psalming Christ: Learning to Pray the Psalms with Cassiodorus. Personally, I’m a little skeptical about this offer. The chief reason is because I have yet to finish writing it… Kinda hard to sell a used copy of something that doesn’t exist yet!

This is the “so what” book that follows up the historical study of Cassiodorus. The key thing I’m fussing with is this: how do educated laypeople, familiar with the tenets of modern biblical criticism, go to somebody like Cassiodorus (or even Augustine) and use patristic work on the psalms profitably to aid the modern spiritual life?

Work is progressing on it, and I think I’m about at the point to begin releasing sections of it on the blog to test out. It’s good for me to see how people who don;t live inside my head or household react to what I’m trying to get across.

One thing I’ve already determined is that the title may need a tweak; the second part perhaps should read “Learning to Pray the Psalms with Cassiodorus and Benedict” or maybe even “Praying the Psalms with Cassiodorus and Benedict.” That’s because the more I work with Cassiodorus and his reception history, the more convinced I am that his psalm commentary fits hand-in-glove with Benedict’s rule. I’m not suggesting that they knew each other or anything, but that the two works complement each other perfectly and that the circulation of Cassiodorus’s Explanation of the Psalms appears to demonstrate this.  What I will say is that, despite his genius in so many other areas, Leclercq made an error in painting Benedict and Cassiodorus as oppositional figures. In Love of Learning and Desire for God (which you really should read if you haven’t), Leclercq positions the two as he does reading Benedict’s Rule as being opposed to the spirit of Cassiodorus’s Institutions. He, like so many others, read the wrong book by Cassiodorus and incorrectly identified the Institutions as being more important than the Psalm commentary.  The manuscript distributions in early medieval Europe clarify to true state of things…

In any case, look for modern prayerful engagement with patristic psalm exegesis to be showing up here over the next few months mixed in with other stuff that’s floating around in my head.

The Forthcoming Book

Another thing that has been occupying my time is the Cassiodorus book projects. I’ve shared a certain amount of that here but not tons. A couple of dedicated readers of the blog helped me plow through the manuscript and tighten it up a bit, but then we entered the waiting phase when the publisher does their magic with what I sent in. Well—that time is almost up!

I received an email from the publicist yesterday that the new book is back from the printer and will be distributed shortly; Amazon is saying that it will be released on December 15th.

So—the forthcoming book is entitled Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms in the Early Medieval West. Here’s what the blurb says:

The Honey of Souls is the first full-length study of the Explanation of the Psalms by Cassiodorus. While the Explanation became a seminal document for the monastic movement in the West and was eagerly read and widely quoted for centuries, it has languished in relative obscurity in the modern period. Derek Olsen explores Cassiodorus and his strategies for reading as a window into a spirituality of the psalms that defined early Western biblical interpretation.

While Cassiodorus and his writings were my main target, I found out fairly soon on that I couldn’t talk about him properly without backing up quite a bit and talking about the psalms, their place in Late Antiquity, and how literacy, technology, and the spread of the faith interacted with one another. As a result, this is a much more wide-ranging book than the title alone might indicate. I talk about why the psalms came to be so important, how they factored into the monastic movement and monastic education, and then wander through how a variety of interpreters from Origen to Hilary to Athanasius to Augustine talked about them.

Another thing that I focused on was materiality and physicality. We tend to think of Scripture and hermeneutics in abstract intellectual terms. I emphasize here the material nature of not just books and their tangibility but the process of scholarship as well. In fact, I make the case that one of the classically disputed points about Cassiodorus’s commentary—how it relates to Augustine’s sermon series on the psalms—is best solved by considering the conditions under which Cassiodorus encountered Augustine’s work and borrowed from it. In short, I suggest that he never owned the whole thing and, as a result, worked off notes taken down in dictation as a library copy was being read…

Unlike Reading Matthew with Monks which is an adaptation of my dissertation, this book was designed from the ground up to be a book for interested lay people or introductory college/seminary level. Although the content digs into some academic material, I don’t think of it as an academic book. In tone and readability, it’s designed for regular people. So—if you have an interest in the Psalms and how Christians have prayed them through the centuries, I urge you to take a look!

 

All that having been said, you would not be wrong if you noticed that I said “projects” up above. This book is part 1. This is the historical look at Cassiodorus suitable either for readers of faith or for readers of no faith at all. It’s a non-confessional historical study. Part 2 takes the next step and asks what modern practicing Christians can learn from Cassiodorus about praying the Psalms. That’s the one I’m working on now…

Love Song to a Psalter

Here’s a section from the manuscript. The poem stays in, but I’ve trimmed away most of the supporting material…


People who are familiar with the Bible are usually aware of the rather scandalous contents of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs): it’s erotic love poetry narrating an unnamed woman’s quest for her lover, King Solomon. Clearly some of the more prudish interpreters in the Christian tradition have sought to downplay the literal sense of the text and have interpreted it in a spiritual direction. Thus, to some it is the soul’s quest for God, or perhaps the personified Church’s quest for God, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s quest for God. And, thanks to the power of multi-level reading, at can be all three at the same time!

But readers formed in a modern Protestant perspective may not know that there is a complementary style of lyrics tucked away in the Wisdom Literature where a man is portrayed questing and lusting after a woman. While there are references and early forms of it in the books of Proverbs and Job, it reaches its apex in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). To medieval readers, these two books were simply “Bible” but Protestant reformers placed them in the Apocrypha, a section of literature dating from between the Old and New Testaments, and even most faithful Bible readers never read them.

In these poems, the sage is questing after wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman. She is to be preferred above all else, and he will spend his time, effort, and wealth in order to woo her. There is a long section from chapter 6 to 9 in the Wisdom of Solomon that recounts Solomon’s wooing of Lady Wisdom in terms parallel (although not as explicit) as the Song of Solomon:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. . . . I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. (Wis 6:12–14; 7:8–14; 8:2–4)

Needless to say, monks were quite familiar with these texts and often cast themselves in this same role: forsaking all else in search of wisdom and in service to the Gospel.

These wisdom lyrics are the necessary context for a poem written by an old monk at the furthest range of the time period we are considering. The Irish monk Mael Isu O Brolchain died in 1086 in a monastery in Armagh having received the title “chief sage of Ireland.” At some point, he wrote a poem which for many years was assumed to be about an elderly nun in a kind of ascetic marriage. However, James Carney, a specialist in medieval Irish poetry, recognized the true object of the poet’s affections:

The problem lay upon my mind for many years before the easy and natural solution suggested itself: it was a poem written by a religious in his old age to an old and tattered copy of the Psalms which had been his first lesson book. The solution, which has found general acceptance by scholars, emerged quite clearly when I noted that in early Ireland a boy destined for the Church began his education at the age of seven, and that the Psalter, from which he learned Latin, reading, singing and religion , was his first lesson book. This book which he had used in his youth in its virgin freshness passed through four generations of young scholars before by some chance it came back into the old priest’s hands again.[1]

We have talked at some length in these two chapters about the Psalter and about when and how a student would have encountered it. What this poem reveals, though, is what they felt about it. Here, with the sages’ songs to Lady Wisdom echoing in our heads, we see the thoughts of an old man taking in his hands again the book of his youth:

 

Crinóc, lady of measured melody,

not young, but with modest maiden mind,

together once in Niall’s northern land

we slept, we two, as man and womankind.

 

You came and slept with me for that first time,

skilled wise amazon annihilating fears

and I a fresh-faced boy, not bent as now,

a gentle lad of seven melodious years.

 

There we were then on that firm Irish earth

Desirous, but in pure and mystic sense;

Burning with love my flesh, still free from fault

As fool of God in smitten innocence.

 

Your counsel is ever there to hand,

we choose it, following you in everything:

love of your word is the best of loves,

our gentle conversation with the King

 

Guiltless you are of any sin with man,

Fair is your name, and bright, and without stain,

Although I know that when you went from me

Each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.

 

And now you come, your final pilgrimage,

Wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust,

Wise still but body not immaculate:

Time it is that ravished you, not lust.

 

Again I offer you a faultless love,

A love unfettered for which surely we

Will not be punished in the depths of hell

But together ever walk in piety.

 

Seeking the presence of elusive God

wandering we stray, but the way is found,

following the mighty melodies that with you

throughout the pathways of the world resound.

 

Not ever silent, you bring the word of God

to all who in the present world abide,

and then through you, through finest mesh,

man’s earnest prayer to God is purified.

 

May the King give us beauty back again

Who ever did his will with eager mind,

May he look on us with eagerness and love,

Our old and perished bodies left behind.[2]

 

In Mael Isu’s poem, Lady Wisdom—the beautiful, the desirable, the beloved—is none other than the Psalter itself. Images of fleshly intimacy are cooled with a spiritual admonition, but the monk paints with exquisite colors a lover who initiates him into the arts of love and directs him to ultimate love in God: the Psalter is his Diotima.

Of course, this is one look at the Psalter from the far end of the learning process. Undoubtedly other young Irish lads did not feel this way while slowly learning the text. The second earliest evidence of the Psalms we have in Ireland is a student’s tablet, wooden boards covered with a layer of wax, into which has been scratched with a stylus Psalms 29-31 in the Gallican translation. This artifact is known as the Springmont Bog Tablets because that is where they were recovered. While we will never know how they came to be there, I like to imagine a particularly willful student hurling his tablet into the bog in a fit of pique after a difficult time with his lesson!

[1] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. xxviii.

[2] Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, p. 75-79.

Tour de Cassiodorus

There were articles up at Covenant the past couple of days that I’d like to respond to (This one by the Bishop of Dallas which implicitly defines “traditionalist” in an exceedingly narrow fashion, and this one by Zach that begins by quoting me) but I must refrain for now.

I had a conversation with my publisher yesterday: the Cassiodorus books are late and he’s not happy…

So—from now until their hopefully swift completion it’ll be all Cassiodorus, all the time. I’m letting a number of things go in order to make this happen which I don’t necessarily want to do but which I have to do. If you email me, please be aware it might be a while before I get back to you…

As M and I were discuss this last night, I said I felt like I was girding myself for a marathon. After a moment’s reflection, we both knew that wasn’t it. We both run them: a marathon is a pain but it’s over in less than four hours (quite a bit less for her!). She said, “No, this is a stage race–because you need to put in sustained effort over many days.” We ended up dubbing this push the Tour de Cassiodorus.

Hence, I’ll be going into hiding now. I am intending to post some stuff here to gauge reader reaction, but know in advance it will be patristic and psalm-y.

On John Cassian’s Method of Reading Scripture

I’m jumping around quite a bit in the Cassiodorus books as I write them… This is a section of what I believe is going to be Chapter 3. Basically, in Chapter 3, I’m going to be diving directly into Cassiodorus’s great Psalm commentary and discussing what he thought a commentary was for, our stereotypical view of allegorical interpretation  (based largely in the High Medieval period with extra fuel on the fire a la De Lubac), and then an investigation of how Cassiodorus actually read, focusing on methods from Classical Antiquity, Augustine, and John Cassian. Here’s the Cassian bit… So, yes, it starts in the middle of a larger argument that isn;t conclude here either, but I think is sufficiently robust to stand on its own as well.


John Cassian’s Conferences are a strange and wonderful collection of conversations. The story goes that John Cassian and his friend Germanus, after spending some time in a monastery in Bethlehem, took the theological equivalent of a Gap Year trek and set off to see the sites—in the Egyptian deserts. They hiked around the wastelands of Northern Egypt, meeting and interviewing the famous hermits of the desert and gaining wisdom from them about the spiritual life. Many years later—probably in the opening decades of the fifth century—after founding two monasteries around modern day Marseilles, Cassian wrote down the conversation as the Conferences and, in so doing, created the first great work on the nuts and bolts of Christian spirituality in the West.

Translating and transmitting a spirituality born of experience in the desert, rooted in the teachings of Origen, Cassian’s writings were invaluable to the emerging monastic movement in the West. Benedict praises him, and advises his monks to read Cassian (RB 73.5). As monastic reformations periodically swept through the Church in the course of the Middle Ages, John Cassian’s books in general and the Conferences in particular are cited again and again with approval.

John Cassian’s fourteenth conference portrays a conversation between Cassian, Germanus, and an old man known as Abba Nesteros which is focused on the topic of spiritual knowledge. As they delve into the topic, Abba Nesteros begins talking about the ways to interpret and understand the Scriptures. First, he separates spirituality in general into two parts. The words that he uses are the “practical” and the “theoretical,” but it’s better to say that one part is the active external part while the other is the internal meditative part. That is, the central task of the active/practical part is the control of the body and mind—built on a foundation of fasting and self-mortification—whereby one focuses on sinning less. Once that has task has been fully engaged and some progress has been made will the turn to the interior life bear fruit. This is where he gets to the Scriptures.

Abba Nesteros explains that the study of Scripture is divided into two main parts: “historical interpretation and spiritual understanding.” In making this division, he lays down the two major modes of interpreting that writers of the early medieval period will prefer. He splits the spiritual interpretations into three subcategories: tropology, allegory, and anagogy. After identifying these, he explains them a bit. The historical sense is not just about the past but includes what we would consider the literal meaning of the text. In particular, the Abba says that history pertains both to things that happened in the past and to visible things. Hence, an interpretation relating to natural science would be an historical reading in the sense of the phrase “natural history.” Allegory is the mystery that is prefigured by the historical/literal events. Said another way, allegory is the means “by which the things that the historical interpretation conceals are laid bare by a spiritual understanding and explanation.” Anagogy “mounts from spiritual mysteries to certain more sublime and sacred heavenly secrets.” This is restated a little better to clarify that it is the means “by which words are directed to the invisible and what lies in the future.” Tropology, at least, is more clear: “moral explanation pertaining to correction of life and to practical instruction.” More helpful than his definitions, though is his example where he demonstrates what these four look like in practice:

The four figures that have been mentioned converge in such a way that, if we want, one and the same Jerusalem can be understood in a fourfold manner. According to history it is the city of the Jews. According to allegory it is the church of Christ. According to anagogy it is that heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all.’ According to tropology it is the soul of the human being, which under this name is frequently reproached or praised by the Lord.

While a theoretical distinction is made between these four senses, as far as early medieval writers are concerned, there are two broad sense: the historical and the spiritual. Only rarely will an early medieval author specify what kind of spiritual interpretation they are using and, in practice, the categories are very fluid. Indeed the fact that only three kinds of spiritual understanding are described seems to have more to do with scriptural prooftexts than actual practice. Abba Nesteros cites two different biblical texts, one which refers to three things, Proverbs 22:20 (”…have I not written for you [three] sayings of admonition and knowledge…”), and one that refers to four, 1 Corinthians 14:6 (”…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching…”). In each case, you get the sense that the numbers recorded in Scripture are driving the enumeration of elements rather than the methods themselves. In practice, there are many more modes of spiritual interpretation than three, and not all of them are clearly defined or delineated. We will come back to this point a little later as we discuss how we actually see spiritual interpretation happening in Cassiodorus and other authors.

Modern readers—and especially biblical scholars looking for the history of the discipline—tend to focus in on this section of this conference. However, this is just one part of a larger argument, and it deserves to be put into the proper context. Again, this whole conference begins with the idea that first step of proper interpretatin is the purification of the body, mind, and spirit. The undisciplined who persists in their sin simply cannot read the Scriptures rightly—they don’t yet have the right frame of mind to read what is found there. As a result, after talking interpretive method, Abba Nesteros returns to hammer this point again:

Maintaining the diligence in reading that I think you have, then, make every effort to get a complete grasp of practical—that is, ethical—discipline as soon as possible. For without this the theoretical purity that we have spoken of cannot be acquired. The only people who attain to it, possessing it as a reward after the expenditure of much toil and labor, are those who have found perfection not in the words of other teachers but in the virtuousness of their own acts.

This is a key point and leads to an emphasis on doing rather than teaching. Scripture must be put into practice; any one who wishes to teach it must first demonstrate with their actions their deep grasp of its teachings. Knowing with the mind is not enough; no one should presume to teach Scripture until its truths have been—literally—embodied in their habits and actions. Abba Nesteros explains that this is essential for two reasons. First, because you cannot presume to teach what you do not know and knowledge only comes by putting it in action. Second, because putting the teaching of Scripture into action is itself a sign of the converting presence of the Holy Spirit—the true guide to right reading and interpretation: “For it is one thing to speak with ease and beauty and another to enter deeply into heavenly sayings and to contemplate profound and hidden mysteries with the most pure eye of the heart, because certainly neither human teaching nor worldly learning but only purity of mind will possess this, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.”

Humility and the other virtues, then, are the central prerequisites to reading Scripture well. From that point, Abba Nesteros describes the proper practice of engaging Scripture. While he had talked about technical matters of interpretation in the earlier part of the dialogue, he now turns to what this looks like in day-to-day experience:

Then, once all worldly cares and preoccupations have been cast out, you must strive in every respect to give yourself assiduously and even constantly to sacred reading. Do this until continual meditation fills your mind and as it were forms it in its likeness, making it a kind of ark of the covenant . . . All of these are guarded by two cherubim—that is, by the fullness of historical and spiritual knowledge, for the cherubim are interpreted as the breadth of knowledge. . . . Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention in occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapments of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow grow with the person who is making progress.

In this set of statements, Abba Nesteros speaking to us through John Cassian reveals the incredible profoundity that we encounter again and again in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: they have a remarkable grasp of the habits of the mind, displayed here in the discussion of the processing power of the subconscious mind, that seems amazingly modern—yet is centuries old. In the spiritual laboratory of the desert, these hermits and anchorites observed and taught about the power of habit and the functions of the conscious and subconscious mind in ways that would not be replicated again until the rise of psychology in the twentieth century.

The pattern, then, is clear: memorize and rehearse. Soak the soul in Scripture, and Scripture itself would transform the soul to be more like Scripture. In so doing, the soul’s perception of Scripture will be transformed and freed to perceive more and deeper meanings within Scripture.

 

Conveying Psalm Commentary?

Ok, y’all—I need your help…

As I’ve been saying, I’m working on this book on the Psalm commentary of Cassiodorus. Right now I’m wrestling with how to present the way that he structures his commentary and give readers a sense of the experience of reading his commentary. He goes about things in a very novel way (especially for an early medieval exegete!) in that he has a four-part structure that he always uses: an introduction that discusses the superscription, then a breakdown of the psalm into its divisions (often grouped by speaker), then a phrase-by-phrase analysis (which is all that most typical patristic/early medieval exegetes do), then a summary that often underscores a moral or doctrinal point.

In particular, I want to make sure that readers get a flavor of the phrase-by-phrase process, but—honestly—I think people are only going to want a limited taste of this stuff. I’m intending to do a fairly close reading/exposition of five or six psalms to convey a complete sense of what he’s doing. Right now I’m trying to gauge how in-depth to go on each one.

So, I could do this a couple of ways. The one I’m leaning towards is to take a “representative” psalm and do a really thorough breakdown of it in excruciating detail to give my readers a sense of how he does what he does. Then, when I discuss other psalms just do a summary of the main points. However, another option would be to do something like that but also to include a chart on the 5-6 psalms that show what he’s doing with each phrase and then the narrative summary.

What do you think—do the extra psalm structure charts/outlines sound like overkill or a helpful way to grasp this rather alien reading strategy to modern lay readers?