Thursday, July 15, 2021 (Day 45)

Katie Snipes Lancaster

Psalm 45 (from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation)
My heart is astir with a goodly word.
I speak what I’ve made to the king.
My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.
You are loveliest of the sons of man,
grace flows from your lips.
Therefore God blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,
your glory and your grandeur.
And in your grandeur pass onward,
mount on a word of truth, humility and justice,
and let your right hand shoot forth terrors,
your sharpened arrows—peoples fall beneath you—
into the heart of the king’s enemies…
You loved justice and hated evil.
Therefore did God your God
anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.

An Opening Word
What a strange Psalm. It begins with the Psalmist bragging about his own scribe-abilities, and then shifts to a military Psalm celebrating the work of a soldier. Walter Bruggeman describes it as a wedding Psalm written for the king’s marriage, an event that would have had political, cultural and religious significance, so the poets and musicians would be employed to celebrate and mark the occasion (think Amanda Gorman at Biden’s inauguration, but intensified across months of celebrating and pontificating).

Psalm 45 gives us a sense that when a king lives rightly, the king is in deep relationship with God, but some scholars think Psalmist walks too tight a rope between celebrating the king and worshiping the king. In other Ancient Near Eastern cultures, like Egypt, the king was considered divine, and all throughout the Hebrew Bible, we see God warning against this kind of thinking. One of the reasons monarchy was deemed tricky by God and the prophets is because it could lead to the king being worshiped, or at least being turned to instead of turning to God.

Today’s mystic, Gregory Palmas, was equally caught in the middle of empires in leadership transition, but Palmas didn’t sidle up to the powerful royal families singing their wedding songs like today’s Psalmist. His father, a political advisor to the emperor, the story goes, would find himself so deep in prayer that he would hardly notice that the emperor was trying to address him in court meetings. This kind of spiritual aloofness (or, maybe rather, spiritual depth, lost in the mystic presence of God) deeply influenced Gregory Palmas, and so when his father died, Gregory joined monastic life, taking his mother and siblings with him to the monastery (something I’ve never heard was even a possibility).

Gregory Palmas was a practitioner of Hesychasm, “a very active spiritual practice aimed to keep the spirit perpetually awake… extreme ascetic discipline and mental concentration are designed to stop thoughts from wandering and prepare the soul for the divine light” (Yelena Mazour-Matusevich, Crosscurrents 2014). This was not the normative theological worldview at the time, and by whatever twist of fate, Gregory Palmas’ Hesychasm became part of a massive theological dispute in the eastern Roman Empire, entangled not just ecclesially, but as part of the subtext of the civil war in Byzantium. I love that his opponents were called the Anti-Palamites, who I imagine threw his name around with the same kind of spit and vinegar as Americans of another era talking about McCarthyism.

Today however, it’s hard to imagine how a life spent in deep awakened prayer would bring about such controversy. We have our own entangled religion-political battles these days, I suppose.

His three word prayer below, would be exactly the kind of short, repetitive phrase, that would help keep focus in the meditative spiritual practice of Hesychasm.

Prayer from the Mystics: Gregory Palmas (1296–1357)
Lighten my darkness.
Amen.