Sunday, June 11, 2006

Trinity Sunday, Monastic-Style

Commentators on Psalm 19 often speculate that there are two 'layers' of composition involved. Verses 1-6 were perhaps originally a hymn to a solar god, adapted to celebrate the creator god. It is a hymn rather typical of much nature hymnody of the late second-millennium B.C. ancient Near East. There are strikingly similar examples in surviving hymns from Egypt and Mesopotamia. What is the normally postulated is that Israel adapted the hymn, but adjusted it to fit their own theology, of a God who both creates and give the Law/Torah. Thus, verses 7-14 are of a clearly different character, celebrating the Law of the Lord in the style of wisdom poetry deriving from the period after the Exile (587-536 B.C.).

There is much about the Psalm to recommend this reconstruction, much as I am something of a skeptic in these matters normally. Of particular interest is the shift from calling God Elohim in the first section, a name with variants common throughout Palestine at the time of its composition, to Yhwh in the second half, a name peculiar to Israel. Often concealed in such reconstructions is a bias against what the Israelite liturgists did in adapting the original poem. they seem to have stuck two things together that don't belong, and in doing so, they haven't honored the intention of the original author.

It could be instead that they actually saved the very best of the original poem. By giving it an orthodox context, the soaring sentiments in gazing at the heavens are properly directed, not toward the sun itself, but toward the God who has a personal relationship, through the Law, to His people as well as to inanimate creation.

[I like to think of Western monks doing a similar thing for classical literature: by copying and glossing on the texts that were able to be 'baptized', they preserved the very best examples of Rome and Greece. Renaissance thinkers lost sight of the fact that inferior material wasn't copied, and this gave them an overly-inflated view of the virtues of classical culture.]

Well, if the Mesopotamian author of the first half of Psalm 19 couldn't have anticipated his work of art being reused in the context of the Torah of YHWH, how much less could either of these authors imagine us monks this morning adding this text to this Psalm:
Te unum in substantia, Trinitatem in personis confitemur.
We confess that You are one in substance, yet Trinity of Persons!

Here we have yet another name for God: Trinity. We see that the God who created the heavens and gave the Law has revealed something even more intimate about Himself: that He is a relationship, a community of Persons.

In a sense, we use this method of celebrating the Holy Trinity everyday. We end every Psalm with the doxology: Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit...

As Dom Brendan put it in his homily, Trinity Sunday is a preacher's nightmare. We tend to think of the Trinity in language borrowed from Neo-Platonist concerns about Being, filtered through the less-than-direct stylings of the likes of Karl Rahner. How refreshing it has been today to honor and meditate on the Holy Trinity with a large helping of mythological Psalms. The mystery of the Holy Trinity in the monastic approach is less an intellectual puzzle and more of a surprise twist to what we knew all along: we knew that God was awesome, majestic and invisible: in the revelation of Jesus Christ, we see that the power behind this majesty is Love.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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