In A Letter to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius offers a beautiful meditation on the unique power of the Psalms for bringing about emotional healing. What he says about praying with the Psalter, I think, can best be understood through the lens of the classical Greek conception of “mimesis” (or “representatio” in Latin), albeit with a strongly Christocentric character. Though written centuries ago, Athanasius’s reflections have lost none of their force to this day, especially for those who pray the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.
It is not uncommon today to hear the expression, “I feel that …” Young people, especially, say things like “I feel that my grade is unfair” or “I feel like you don’t understand me.” Such claims really express a judgment, not a feeling, but they show how closely we have come to align emotions with thought. Feelings have become a kind of infallible guide to reality. I am a man if I feel like one or a woman if I feel like one, regardless of my biology. If I feel offended, then you’ve said something offensive, no matter what you said or why you said it.
This situation contrasts sharply with the view found in much of classical thought, namely, that feelings can be reasonable or unreasonable and, to live a flourishing life, one must shape the emotions through the cultivation of virtue. In the Phaedrus, for example, Plato describes the emotions as a spirited horse that needs to be trained to support its charioteer (reason) over the stubborn and lazy horse (the appetites) to which it is yoked. And in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a sophisticated schema of the virtues required to moderate our emotions—courage, for example, is the mean between fearing too much (cowardice) and too little (rashness). In other words, emotions are responses to reality that can be proportionate or disproportionate, and thus the ancients recognized the importance of habituating our emotions properly, often through mimesis. “Mimesis” is a Greek word that means “imitation,” and it signifies art’s ability to shape our emotions and thereby our moral sensibilities and character. Poetry and music, for example, can serve as a kind of moral catechesis, for good or for ill. The Greeks recognized the importance of good art because they understood our embodied character—we are rational, and thus we respond to abstract argumentation; but we are also animals, and we are moved, often strongly, by the concrete and particular. I may make a compelling philosophical case for the importance of preparing oneself for death, for example, but it will lack the emotional impact of a literary masterpiece like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
In line with the mimetic tradition, Athanasius gives us a wonderful summation of how the Psalms can shape our emotions with an eye to human flourishing and ultimately to salvation. The Book of the Psalms, Athanasius observes, contains elements of other Old Testament books—like history, prophecy, and moral admonitions—which “it sets to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.” In other words, “The Book of Psalms has a certain grace of its own, and a distinctive exactitude of expression.”
What is this unique grace of the Psalms? There are, Athanasius thinks, two elements. First, the Psalms bring about the proper ordering and healing of our emotions. How? Not by a philosophical treatise or theological exhortation, but by offering “the perfect image for the souls’ course of life,” that is, concrete examples that appeal to our intuitions and serve as standards by which we can model our emotions. If we wish to learn endurance in trials, for example, then we would do well to recite Psalm 39 (“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry”); to express gratitude at having escaped trails, Psalm 33 (“I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears”); to foster repentance for sin, Psalm 50 (“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions”); to praise God for all his gifts, Psalm 8 (“O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”); and so forth. The more we recite such Psalms, the more they penetrate and shape our very being. In Only the Lover Sings, Josef Pieper notes that music in a way bypasses a person’s consciousness and goes directly to the heart: “Since music articulates the immediacy of man’s basic existential dynamism in an immediate way, the listener as well is addressed and challenged on that profound level where man’s self-realization takes place. In this existential depth of the listener, far below the level of expressible judgments, there echoes — in identical immediacy — the same vibration articulated in the audible music.” Herein lies music’s power—the listener cannot help but be affected by the artist’s mental and emotional state in which he or she composed a particular piece of music, whether that artist be a shallow, narcissistic pop star or divinely inspired psalmist. This is why Athanasius says that the one who takes up the psalter “is deeply moved, as though he himself were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs.” Moreover, it is why he thinks that the psalms should be sung, because the melody of the words comes to symbolize and foster the spiritual harmony of the soul.
The above should allay any fears that Athanasius is encouraging a psychologically unhealthy repression of the emotions or, at least, a kind of Stoic indifference toward them. Rather, he says, “through hearing [the Psalms], it teaches not only not to disregard passion, but also how one must heal passion through speaking and acting.” He acknowledges the great goodness of the emotions, but also the need to form them properly through gentle encouragement.
The second element that comprises the unique grace of the Psalms is this: unlike other forms of mimesis, the Psalms do not just conform our emotions to some praiseworthy natural or cultural standard of goodness, they conform them to Christ, the source of all goodness. This is so because, as the Catholic Church teaches, the Old Testament anticipates and prefigures the New Testament, and specifically the words and actions of Christ. Thus, Athanasius notes, the Psalms provide a precursor to the “perfect instruction in virtue which the Lord typified in himself.” That is, the words of the psalmist prefigure the words and actions of Christ and provide an anticipatory model according to which we can form our character. This, in addition to the Psalms that Athanasius takes to prophesy explicitly about Christ’s life, suffering and death, such as Psalm 21 (“They have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones”).
Athanasius’s Letter shows, I think, the power of Christianity, which purifies and elevates all that is natural and good. For centuries even before Athanasius’s time, human beings had recognized the role that art plays in forming our character and thereby helping or hindering our flourishing. In the Psalms, we get a perfect mimesis, because they point to the One through whom we are created and in whom we find our final end, in a manner accessible to all and suitable for our bodily nature.