Blessed indeed is the man
who follows not the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stands in the path with sinners,
nor abides in the company of scorners,
But whose delight is the law of the Lord,
and who ponders his law day and night.
Revised Grail Translation
What an odd beatitude! Not “Blessed is the one who does thus-and-such” or “Blessed is the one who is thus-and-so.” Not, for example, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness” or “Blessed are the merciful” (Matt 5:6-7)). Rather, blessed is the one who does NOT do any of the following: follow the counsel of the wicked, stand in the path of sinners, abide in the company of scorners.
Parents worry, as many of you well know, and as all of us discovered when we were kids. Parents worry about where their kids hang out and with what companions. Apparently, God worries about it too. The point at issue in parents’ concern about the company kids keep and God’s concern about the company we keep comes down to the matter of listening. The people we hang out with are the voices we hear most often. The voices we hear shape us: they shape what we think, what we value, what we aspire to, what we do. For kids, those voices were once most likely to be the voices of their friends. Parents might speak, teachers might speak, preachers might speak, but the voices that most often got through in the moment were the voices of the crowd the kid ran with. The other voices might have had a longer impact, or at least so the speakers hoped, but the voices that defined “now” were the voices most often heard, and the voices most often heard were those of friends. Nowadays, the voices most often heard might come from even more frightening sources as media of every kind feed into the ears of many kids through ever-present earphones.
Kids grow up. We did. We grew into a world where we discovered a wider range of voices to listen to, and where, no doubt, we became a bit more choosy about which ones we chose to hear. But we are still most affected by the voices we hear most often, as advertisers well know. That is God’s concern, as expressed by the psalmist: With whom do you hang out? What voices do you hear? To which voices are you most likely to listen?
The psalmist apparently names three sets of undesirable voices: those of the wicked, sinners, and scorners. However, in the psalm-world, all three are essentially concrete descriptions of what Psalm 14:1 calls the fools who say in their hearts, “There is no God.” A bit of cultural translation might help here. The people of the psalms didn’t live in a world of rampant atheism of the kind that speaks to us from every side now. They did live among two rather more subtle kinds of unbelievers. The first, to whom Psalm 14 refers, were those members of the covenant people who had abandoned the covenant code of comprehensive justice that governed all relationships. Some of its laws sound alien to us now, but they were in fact intended to protect the poor, the helpless, the outsider, and, indeed, all God’s people from their own worst selves. The godless of Psalm 14 and other psalms were those who no longer held themselves accountable before the God of their people for their behavior toward others. It was a useful kind of atheism-in-practice for those whose lives were governed instead by self-interest. The second kind of unbelievers were, of course, Israel’s neighbors and enemies who worshipped other gods who called for different values. However, they were of less concern to the psalmist than the “godless” who lived next door or down the street and congregated in the marketplace where anyone might join them.
Both kinds of unbelievers are with us still, though they wear different clothing now and hang out in other places. We usually know them. We often hear them in the media. We might work with them or even, sometimes, live with them. To us the psalmist says what our parents said: be careful of the company you keep; watch out who you listen to.
However, the monastic tradition knows of a subtler crowd of unbelievers who pose a greater danger than the ones among whom we live our daily lives. They inhabit the recesses of our own hearts. Father Gabriel Bunge, in his excellent book Despondency (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, NY, 2011) offers a bit of wisdom from the desert: we all host collaborators--inner weaknesses, selfish inclinations, perhaps even bad habits we thought we had abandoned--who open the door from the inside to let the Tempter’s minions in. Especially when we are tired, lonely, or disheartened, we may more or less unintentionally allow them in without much resistance. Perhaps the most dangerous of them all are the ones who whisper, “Prayer? Come on. You can do that later. Today you deserve a break. Be good to yourself.” So, without clearly making the choice, we shut out the one Voice that matters in favor of the wicked, the sinners, the scorners of God’s word who clamor quite persuasively to be heard. We make Eve’s choice, and Adam’s: we listen to the wrong voice and obey a different word than God’s and go away the very opposite of “blessed.”
St. Benedict warns us. “Listen!” he urges at the very outset of the Rule. But he goes on to specify which voice we should listen to and obey: “Listen carefully… to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labor of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord” (Prologue 1-3) Commentators have noted that “the master” can mean St. Benedict himself, but it can also mean Benedict’s Master, Christ, the Word of God.
Indeed, the psalmist says, “Blessed are they who don’t hang out with those who follow other gods, even the powerful god we call Ego, but rather listen to the Voice that brought us into being, the Voice that shapes us into our own true selves, the Voice that speaks salvation throughout the length and breadth of the bible and indeed of human history: “Blessed the one whose delight is the law of the Lord, and who ponders his law day and night.”
And there you have as succinct a description of lectio divina as you will ever read. We will explore it further in later postings.
©Abbey of St. Walburga, 2014