(Oct. 29/ Nov. 11)

About the Reading of the Psalter

          Brothers and sisters,


          In the very earliest days of the New Testament Church, there appeared a special order of women who dedicated their virginity or widowhood to God, and who were set apart from the wives and the young ladies who planned to marry.  Soon these widows and virgins began living together in informal communities, which were the forerunners of the convents and monasteries which would spread throughout the Christian world in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Later texts sometimes anachronistically refer to these widows and virgins as nuns, which they were not, at least formally.  But their devout way of life and shared existence clearly foreshadowed the somewhat later emergence of cœnobitic monasticism.

          The chief saint we commemorate today, the holy martyr Anastasia the Roman, was a twenty-year-old virgin who lived in one of these sacred communities.  Sophia, the superior, took in Anastasia when she was orphaned at the age of three and instructed her in every virtue.  Anastasia loved fasting and prayer, and none of the others could compare with her for fervent devotion to Christ.

          Because Anastasia grew up to be a very beautiful young woman, there were many youths who desired her hand in marriage, but she preferred the devout way of life she had known since she was a little girl.  Then, however, persecution arose the persecution of Decius, which took place at the middle of the third century and, with it, a great temptation for the little community.  Governor Probus sent troops to the house of the pious women, which was not far from Rome, and the soldiers beat down the front gates.  The other women fled through the back side of the property, but Sophia, wise in God, had Anastasia stay with her, saying, “Fear not, my child, the hour of contest has arrived.”  The soldiers’ orders were to take Anastasia to Probus, who was intrigued by reports of her beauty.  Sophia requested and was granted two hours to adorn Anastasia for her audience with the Governor.  But instead of curling Anastasia’s hair, painting her face, or bedecking her with jewels and pearls, Sophia spent the time exhorting Anastasia to martyrdom and praying with her, so that she might complete the contest successfully and be adorned with the crown of suffering.  At the end of the two hours, the soldiers entered and saw that Anastasia was entreating God’s help with tears and was still clothed in her usual humble attire.  Enraged, they clapped an iron collar on her neck and dragged her away.

          When presented to the Governor, Anastasia told him her name and, since he knew no Greek, explained that it meant “resurrection.”  Probus invited her to renounce Christ and promised her one of the great nobles as a husband if she did so, but she answered that Christ was her Bridegroom and that she would die a hundred times for Him, if she could.  At this the Governor’s servants struck Anastasia in the face and stripped her naked.  Then the persecutor suspended her over a fire and flogged her.  As she was roasted and beaten, the saint neither cried out in pain nor groaned, but repeated the Fiftieth Psalm, Have mercy on me, O God.  After this, she was tied to a wheel and rolled, so that her bones were shattered.  Other tortures followed:  her fingernails were torn out, her hands and feet were chopped off, and her teeth were shattered.  All the while, the saint recited other psalms.  Finally, just before she was decapitated, her tongue was cut out.  Only then did the voice of the holy Psalter finally fall silent.  The saint’s remains were left to be eaten by birds and beasts of the field, but an angel guided Sophia to the relics.  Two men completely unknown to her appeared on the scene at just the right time, and with their help Sophia was able to give the remains an honorable burial.

          Dear Christians, we see how, from an early age, the holy martyr Anastasia was taught to love prayer and how she especially learned to love the holy Psalter:  so much so, that even while undergoing the most terrible cruelties, the words of psalms were continuously on her lips.  It is clear that she must have known very well these divinely inspired songs of the Prophet David.  Because they were indelibly imprinted in her heart, it was precisely these words (and not curses or complaints) that came forth from her mouth when she was in utmost distress.  In the terrible minutes of her passion, she found deep consolation and tremendous strength in the verses of the psalms.

          Why, brothers and sisters, is it that we do not find similar consolation and strength in the psalms?  Why else but that we seldom if ever pick up the holy Psalter and read it if we even own a copy.  But consider this:  there was a time when the Christians had no special prayer books, when there were no canons, akathists, or patristic prayers appropriate to the morning, the evening, and the preparation for Holy Communion.  There was only the holy Psalter, and it sufficed in place of all of these.  For most of Christian history, children were taught to read from the Psalter, and thus the words of the psalms were imprinted in letters of gold in the Christians’ hearts from an early age.  The Psalter sufficed as it can still suffice to express every need, every yearning, every devout feeling of the Christian soul.

          Especially in our moments of anxiety, sorrow, boredom, despondency; in our times of trouble, sadness, and temptation, we should repeat the words of the psalms.  One of the greatest saints of our Holy Orthodox Church, the devout hierarch Tikhon of Zadhonsk, lived the later years of his life in retirement in a monastery.  Although he loved solitude and was a person of exalted spiritual life, he nevertheless struggled with black despondency, especially when he allowed himself to ponder why he had forsaken his diocese at a relatively early age and shut himself away behind monastery walls.  So, what did he do, in those moments of temptation?  He would walk around in his cell and repeatedly chant the words of Psalm 118:  It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me.  After this he found that his soul was completely calmed and that he was able to surrender himself wholeheartedly to God’s will.  The sorrow and the despondency disappeared, quickly and miraculously.

          The writings of the Holy Fathers are full of praises of the psalms.  Here is just one example, something blessed Augustine says about them:  “The chanting of the psalms is the adornment of the soul.  It summons angels to our assistance, drives away demons, strengthens the minds of sinful men, blots out sins, and increases faith, hope, and love.  It shines like the sun, cleanses like water, burns away impurity like fire, calms anger, and quenches wrath.  Psalmody is unceasing praise of God, as sweet as honey.”

          As I said earlier, the children of the Christians were formerly taught to read from the Psalter.  But today, how many of our children or even our adults can recite a single psalm from memory?  Our children will certainly not learn the Psalter in our godless, anarchic contemporary schools.  If you want your children to understand what feelings they should have and just as important how they should express those feelings to God, then you must acquaint them with the Psalter.  If you do this, then they will be able, they will know how to pour out their hearts to the Lord in praise, in thanksgiving, in petition, in joy, and in sorrow.  Then they will know how to speak to God, what words and phrases to use.  Besides this, they will learn, from what Prophet David says about the Egyptians, and the Amorites and his many other foes, how to hate with perfect hatred 1 the enemies of their salvation, the pestiferous demons.  From what the Prophet-King says about the Old Testament House of God, they will learn to esteem and reverence and rejoice in our New Testament temples of grace; and they will also begin to understand how Christ is wondrously revealed throughout the Old Testament in many dark sayings of the prophets. 

          And not only they, but you, brothers and sisters, will profit thus by taking the Holy Psalter in hand and reading it regularly.  No book not even the Holy Gospels survives in a greater number of manuscripts from Byzantium or, for that matter, from the early medieval West or from ancient Russia.  This is a clear indication of how deeply our forebears in the faith were steeped in the Psalter and how they were constantly nurtured by it.  May the Lord help us to return to this forgotten but most fundamental and essential of books, which heals infirmities of the soul better than can any therapist or drug.  So doing, may He grant us to bring forth the spiritual fruits produced by Christians of old like the righteous martyr Anastasia, restoring in us the now almost-vanished life of prayer and sweet devotion so marvelously expressed in the holy Psalter; that is, the infinitely precious and incomparably rich true Orthodox way of life.  Amen.


1.  Ps. 138:22