Grist for the mill

by abbamoses

Holy Prophet David

‘I must learn to read,’ I resolved. And so I quickly set to work. Whenever I found a spare moment — and I had lots of free time — I would read the Psalter, the New Testament and the poetic canons from the daily offices to loosen up my tongue, and so from the countless times I read it, I learned the Psalter by heart. I read even during the night… When I used to go in obedience to fetch earth and walked towards Saint Niphon’s cave, it was my habit not to leave my thoughts to roam freely, but to learn by heart passages of Holy Scripture, the psalms and the poetic canons. I did this in order to have purity of mind.

— Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, pp. 10, 17

As I’ve mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, I’ve been trying to memorize psalms. Far from the Elder’s experience of learning the whole Psalter by heart without conscious effort, I labor over each psalm. But I have built up a small arsenal of psalms that I can say to myself whenever I wish:

  • 1, Blessed is the man
  • 22, The Lord is my shepherd
  • 23, The earth is the Lord’s
  • 33, I will bless the Lord at all times
  • 50, have mercy on me, O God
  • 69, O God, be attentive unto helping me
  • 83, How beloved are Thy dwellings
  • 99, Make a joyful noise unto the Lord
  • 115, I believed, so I spake
  • 129, Out of the depths

Right now I’m working on Psalm 18, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’.

The holy words of the psalms are bottomlessly edifying, and having them on hand to ponder is reason enough to know any of them by heart. But the best motive for memorizing them is, as Elder Porphyrios said, ‘in order to have purity of mind’. Unless we are comatose, demented, or extemely advanced in hesychia, our minds are always doing something — and when they are allowed to ‘roam freely’ they often take the opportunity to roam far from God.

I often wake up around 2 or 3 in the morning and have difficulty going back to sleep. Lying awake in the dark can quickly turn the mind into a playground for worries over real and imagined problems, fantasies and all manner of harmful thoughts. I’ve found that, during these times, turning to the psalms and saying a few to myself is a profitable way to quiet and purify the mind’s activity. I’ve gradually come to see these wakeful times as opportunities rather than problems.

The Jesus Prayer is the time-honored method for keeping the Orthodox Christian’s mind centered on Christ. I use it too. But I’ve found that sometimes, when the worldly undertow is especially strong, the extra mental effort needed to recall a psalm is a powerful means of bringing the mind back where it belongs.