St. Gregory of Nyssa on Psalter and its link to spiritual life. Part I

Psalter is another word for Psalms and is also seen as a translation, musical, or metrical version of the Psalms.

The Psalms have become a part of our Christian life, so much so that we the people of the New Testament sometimes tend to forget that the Psalter is also an Old Testament book. The Apostles mention the use of Psalms during the prayer meetings of the first Christians (1 Cor. 14:26). They called on believers to edify themselves with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Already by the beginning of the 4th Century, the use of the Psalter in private homes was widespread.

As St. Basil the Great wrote, the Book of Psalms embraces everything contained in the other Holy Books. It prophesies about the future, and recalls the past, and stipulates laws for life and rules for action. The Psalter is sometimes called, rightfully so, The Little Bible, for it speaks in the tongue of prayer about the creation of the world and man, and traces in detail the thousands-year-old paths and fortunes of nations. It describes the struggle between Good and Evil and the psychology of sin and virtue with unusual depth.

The Psalter is first and foremost, however, a book of prayer. The Psalmist prays, opening his heart to God. The prayer of the Psalmist is often so emotional and spontaneous that he does not pay attention to its outward form and one feels that the Psalms were born in the process of prayer.

{Excerpt is taken from "These Truths We Hold - The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings". Compiled and Edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon's Monastery. Copyright 1986 by the St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania 18459.}

Since the beginning of Christianity, the Psalter has enjoyed a central position in the Church's liturgical life. According to the Church Fathers, there is a five-fold arrangement to the Psalter. St. Gregory of Nyssa pointed out a five-fold division of the Psalter by bringing out how it can be applied spiritually. Through this arrangement, St. Gregory takes the first Psalm in each section as representative of that section.

The First Book: Turning away from evil (Psalms 1-40)

The first section of the Psalter presents us with two paths: the way of the righteous and the way of the Wicked. St. Gregory explains that the first action to be performed in a spiritual ascetic life is 'meditation.’ This can be seen through the following verse:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” (Psalm1:1)

Through meditation, we can seek God and hear His calling. The above verse shows us that man always has a choice, and through silence and meditation, we can make the right choice to follow the path of righteousness help in seeking God. Once we achieve to fool the Evil it becomes easier to express our praise and longing for God.

St. Gregory explains that if we follow the Church’s teachings and pray to God we can discern the earthly passions and take the right path towards our Savior Jesus Christ.

The Second Book: Thirsting for God (Psalms 41-71)

Through the second part of the Psalter St. Gregory of Nyssa uses the image of the hart thirsting for the fountains of water as an image of the man who thirst for union with God.

"As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God" (Psalms 41:1)

The image of the hart drinking at the springs can often be found in early Christian baptisms. This image also connects to the catechumens who had come to drink from the well of everlasting life. Sometimes the image of the heart is portrayed with a serpent in its mouth, which represents through the baptism that which can be overcome by drinking the water of life. The second book is also a representation of a Christian’s constant longing for God.

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14)