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Pressure and desire

The title of Psalm 83/84 has the word gittith, which today is often left untranslated and is taken to refer to some kind of musical instrument. The Septuagint and early Latin versions of the Psaltery appealed to one possible etymology and translated the word as "wine-presses" (torcular in Latin). This explains Augustine's initial comment below where he refers to the pressing out of wine or of oil. Elsewhere he expands considerably on how the image of a wine- or oil-press applies to the life of the Church on earth. Here he focuses on what may flow from experiences of pressure and trial:

They are poor who are without any worldly wealth, and, even if it were to abound, they know how uncertain it is. Sighing for God, having nothing to delight them in this world, nothing to possess them, placed in the press by the pressures and temptations they experience, they flow with wine, they flow with oil. And what are these? Their good desires. Already they do not love the earth, and God remains as the object of their desire. They love the one who made heaven and earth, but they are not with him. Their desire is deferred so that it may grow; it grows so that one day it may attain.No small thing will God give to those who desire him, and no slight effort is required in order to become capable of so great a good. God is not going to give something he has made; he is going to give himself, the one who made all things. Make the effort to attain God. Continue to desire what you will possess forever. (Augustine, En in Ps 83/84, 3; PL 37, 1057)

 

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At the mass I attended yesterday, we had a homily that is one more variation on a theme that I've been hearing from homilists and others for many years now: that "giving up something for Lent" doesn't really allow us to get to the heart of the season's meaning or potential for spiritual growth.I take it that Augustine may have disputed that theme; he seems to have thought that fasting from the world really does bring about spiritual benefits.

"experiences of pressure and trial", and the idea of a press, and the mention of someone "without any worldly wealth", suggest something involuntary, say, someone who loses his job and has to downsize. Yet "the temptations they experience", suggest something voluntary, say, someone who decides to downsize in the spirit of "giving up something for Lent". So, that great effort required to desire God, is it the effort to voluntarily give things up, or the effort required to adjust to being forced to give things up?

Claire: I would suppose that it's both. The word I translated as "temptation" could easily be rendered as "trials" or "tests." I suppose, then, that it's roughly equivalent to Jesus' command, "Take up your cross and follow me," which could refer to difficulties, troubles, tragedies, one encounters in one 's life as well as to burdens or disciplines taken up voluntarily. I also don't like the emphasis in Lent to fall on what one is giving up, but fasting is an ancient and very widespread religious practice and so there must be something to it.It is striking how often in his Lenten sermons Augustine urged fasting from the desire for revenge (something also very ancient and common and still surviving in the Mediterranean world) and, more positively, the almsgiving that is the forgiveness of sins, releasing those with debts to us from their burden. But I illustrated these things during earlier Lents and so haven't put it again on this year's. Maybe there are people new to this, and I should revive some of the earlier posts.

Hi, Joseph:I think Augustine meant qitharos (lyre/zither), not wine press.See Strong's: http://biblesuite.com/hebrew/7030.htmAlso, Jewish Encyc.: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6693-gittithIn Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Garry Wills says, "The Incarnation is God's way of harmonizing the universe." He tells how "Augustine searches for a way to describe Christ's union with his believers, rejecting noun after noun as inadequate until he comes up with a new noun: 'This joining together [congruentia] . . . or sounding together [consonantia] -- or, to put it better where notes in octave are concerned, this joining is essential in whatever is held togethter [compaginatio], or, to be even more precise, whatever is tuned together [coaptatio]."He goes on to discuss , coaptatio in musical terms, as the notes sounded at 'one and two' (i.e., when a lyre string is one length or two), what we can modernize as at the octave.'"There's much more in the beautiful chapter, "The Saving Trinity," on Augustine's "'harmonizing' theory of the Incarnation" and why "interjecting superfluous intermediaries between Jesus and his body of believers" disrupts the harmony.(It's in that chapter, also, that Wills debunks various other theories, including the mousetrap.)

Fasting probably has effects very similar to backpacking. When we come back to civilization afterwards, there are two common reactions: one is relief, but the other, more constructive one, is the realization that we need little more in life than what can be carried on our backs, and a desire to remove the clutter that encumbers our lives. That reaction doesn't happen after one or two days. It takes time to adjust to having almost nothing. It's fun to observe first-time backpackers, after a week or ten days, when it dawns on them that the deprivation that seemed so hard at first (say, going without toothpaste) is no big deal after all, and that the stuff they own back down away from the mountains is almost entirely superfluous and even in the way. It's a real discovery.Maybe if you live with hunger for a while, you realize that a full stomach is not necessary to go through life? I wouldn't know.

Why do you think that, Gerelyn? The Latin text Augustine had in front of him had in the title for Ps 83/84: pro torcularibus, and the Hebrew here has, as I noted above, gittith, some sort of musical instrument, according to the modern commentators I consulted. Augustine went on at such length over the metaphorical significance of the "wine-press" that I'm sure he could not have meant qitharos here. Where musical instruments are mentioned in Psalms elsewhere, he talks about their symbolic meaning, but there's nothing here to suggest that for the interpretation of this Psalm he meant anything else but "wine-press."

I like the emphasis on fasting from desire and revenge. These and similar psychologically ascetic practices are very good in terms of building up our character.That said, I am noticing how a lot of nutritional people and people in the health and fitness community such as Mark Sisson tout the benefits of intermittent fasting from food.http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fasting/#axzz2LHOiZqfB

Numerous animal and human studies done over the past 15 years suggest that periodic fasting can have dramatic results not only in areas of weight (fat) loss, but in overall health and longevity as well. A recent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition gives a great overview of these benefits which include decreases in blood pressure, reduction in oxidative damage to lipids, protein and DNA, improvement in insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake, as well as decreases in fat mass.How can you argue with results like these? And it all makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because our predecessors almost certainly went through regular cycles where food was either abundant or very scarce. The body may have established protective mechanisms to adapt to these conditions by sensitizing insulin receptors when it was critical that every bit of food be efficiently used or stored (as in famine), or by desensitizing them when there was a surplus, so the body wouldnt be overly-burdened by grossly excessive calorie intake.

Why do I think it's about a musical instrument instead of about a wine-press?It could be both. An animated strain of music plucked on the gittith to celebrate the vintage, the feast of tabernacles. Plink, plink, plink. Drink, drink, drink. http://topicalbible.org/g/gittith.htmFrom that:Gittitha musical instrument, by some supposed to have been used by the people of Gath, and by others to have been employed at the festivities of the vintage. Psal 8,81,84.GittithThe word Gittish signifies belonging to Gath. It probably denotes either a musical instrument or a kind of music derived from Gath, where David sojourned for a time during the persecution of Saul, 1 Samuel 27:1-7. The word Gath also signifies in Hebrew a winepress. Hence not a few have supposed that it denotes either an instrument or a melody used in the vintage. It is prefixed to Psalm 8:1-9; 81:1- 16; 84:1-12, all of which requires an animated strain of music.The Gittith and Uggav Play Again in Tulsa, from the Jewish Daily Forward: http://forward.com/articles/119659/the-gittith-and-uggav-play-again-in-t...

George, if the real goal is to increase a desire for God, I'm not sure that "building up our character" is that important, and I would think that nutritional benefits are irrelevant.

Desire for God cannot be just some abstract ideal floating in the ether of our consciousness and having to existential affect on our conduct. Of course my desire God includes a desire for a happy (not stress free, not suffering free) life. Of course my desire for God includes a desire to lead a more holy, integrated life.Build up character, grow in holiness, increase in wisdom.....pick you term, but it seems to me that grace needs to build on these natural virtues and they are related.I think reframing Lent and "penitential" practices is a good idea. We may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when these disciplines were relaxed. I am not saying go back to the quasi masochistic ways that Lent was sometimes presented to us. I am saying that there are positive health benefits to these practices such as fasting and that is not irrelevant.We should be thinking of the spirit AND body both at the same time given that we are composite beings. The body is a big part of who we are and we should be doing what we can to take care of it. And I speak as someone who has not always done that (smoke, drink, eat excessive sweets, etc.)

All the fasting and the methodology for "growth in holiness" seem like a way for people to try to control their religious lives, but Jesus didn't advise people to fast or to work to attain some holiness goal - he met them where they were, flaws and all.

Crystal: Yes, Jesus met people where they were, flaws and all. But did he leave them there, or did he call them on? "Repent and believe the Gospel." "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees..." "You have heard that it was said of old, but I say to you..." "Go and sin no more." "If you wish to be perfect, ..." Etc.

Fr. K,Yes, you're right. - I didn't think of that. I guess I was thinking of ascetic practices like fasting, which George mentioned.

George, I agree that there are positive health benefits to practices such as fasting. You write that it is relevant (to increasing our desire for God)., because we are composite beings, spirit and body. I am curious as to what you mean. How does one follow from the other?Do you actually get something out of fasting? I do it during Lent, on some years, because I am an obedient Catholic, but I don't really understand the point and haven't felt I got anything out of it. There are people who go to Mass by obligation, and it's an empty ritual for them: on the years when I fast, that's how fasting is for me. What am I missing?

Claire:In all the years of fasting, I received no benefit. I understood the whole fasting from meat on Friday and I have tried fasting for pious reasons (bread and water on Friday's) when I was younger but, honestly, I really never got the concept.However, when I flipped it as intermittent fasting in the context of an overall direction in health, nutrition and exercise in the last two years, I have noticed a lot of differences in terms of less food craving, greater clarity, more energy.So, I concluded that this basic cognitive flip of fasting in the context of an overall diet, dramatically changed my appreciation of fasting as a religious practice. Granted, I don't feel like I am actually depriving myself, even though I am in a certain sense. But this serves a greater good that i can actually relate to and feel.From a spiritual point of view though fasting from desire for revenge and all of that makes much more sense and although difficult, I can, also, perceive the benefits of such a practice.

The virtuous here, once again are those who do not love the earth, having nothing in this life to delight or "possess" them. And the coolly practical final admonition to "continue to desire what you can possess forever," while no doubt sound spiritual advice, sounds a bit like what one might hear from a financial advisor.

I've never fasted in the Catholic fashion but I'm a vegetarian and haven't eaten meat or fish for years. I don't do it because I "hate the world" - I do it because I love animals :)

"From a spiritual point of view though fasting from desire for revenge and all of that makes much more sense"George D. --"for revenge and all of that"? What does this mean?

I wonder if what's supposed to happen is a version of sublimation: you're hungry for food, you don't allow yourself to eat, you get more and more hungry for food, and then your hunger for forbidden food would become hunger for God. That transformation is also supposed to unleash some energy.Maybe the Friday fasting is too mild to allow that kind of experience. (For religious and clergy, even if refraining from sexual urges might lead a few to an increased urge for God, I doubt that a milder rule of the form "no sex on Fridays" would accomplish much in that regard!)

For me, food can be a source of sin, because I tend to eat too much, and I take a lot of pleasure in food. I find food to be very sensual. I don't claim that delight in sensuality is all bad all the time, but there is a line that can be crossed from moderate to immoderate, and the latter can actually be sinful, istm. For me, fasting (which I don't take to extremes) can be a sort of corrective.I believe that one strand of the spirituality of fasting is that it represents a sort of purification of the body. To me, this makes sense as a way of standing resolute against the sort of immoderation to which I am tempted. When I was an undergraduate at Loyola, the university made a big deal every fall of Hunger Week. As part of those activities, students were urged to fast for a day, voluntarily not spending the points on their meal plan. This was urged as a way to be in solidarity with those who really are hungry. That solidarity may be another "angle" to the spirituality of fasting.

Augustine is not talking about solidarity. But maybe a sort of purification of the person.

Here is a link to the apostolic constitution with which, in February 1966, Pope Paul VI changed the universal legislation with regard to fast and abstinence. It begins with an exposition of the role of such penitential discipline in the Scriptures and in our tradition. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/apost_constitutions/documents/... here is one of Pope Benedict's messages for Lent:http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/lent/documents/h... was surprised to find that there is no article trying to explain the spiritual meaning of fasting in the New Catholic Encyclopedia whose articles focus on the practice or discipline.

Anne:Fasting from: revenge, bitterness, anger, hostility, enmity, envy, recrimination, vitriol, malice, animosity, rancour, gossip, backbiting, maliciousness, hatred, contempt, detestation, ill will...et al.

Thank you, George D. I had misread what you said.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.