The Church Father Athanasius (c.293-373) wrote a spectacular letter to a friend, Marcellinus, who was using the “leisure” of his prolonged sickness to study the Psalms. In giving advice on how to read and interpret the Psalms, Athanasius says four things of key importance: (1) all the Psalms speak of the themes treated in all the other books of Scripture; (2) the Psalms speak of Christ, his incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension; (3) the Psalms “have but one voice in the Holy Spirit”; and (4) the Psalms speak to every part of your own life, for “besides all these things, you learn about yourself.” Here’s a taste:
You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills. Obviously, therefore, the only thing that matters is for each writer to hold fast unyieldingly the grace he personally has received and so fulfil perfectly his individual mission. And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill… In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.
The whole letter is well worth a read: find it here.
We should on no account wear ourselves out with anxiety over our bodily needs. With our whole soul let us trust in God: as one of the Fathers has said, ‘Entrust yourself to the Lord, and all will be entrusted to you.’ ‘Show restraint and moderation,’ writes the Apostle Peter, ‘and be watchful in prayer… casting all your care upon God, since he cares for you’ (1 Pet. 4:7, 5:7). But if you still feel uncertainty, doubting whether he really cares about providing for you, think of the spider and compare it with a human being. Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect: ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3:10)… Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering according to its fancy, always hard at work—nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps. 113:5-6), extends his providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.
One who is enslaved to greed may perhaps object: ‘I eat a great deal, and since this involves me in heavy expenses, I am inevitably tied up with all kinds of worldly business.’ Such a person should think of the huge whales that feed in the Atlantic Ocean: God gives them plenty to eat and they never starve, although each of them swallows daily more fish than a highly populated city would consume. ‘All things wait upon You, to give them their food at the proper time’ (Ps. 104:27). It is God who provides food both for those who eat much and for those who eat little. Bearing this in mind, anyone among you who has a capacious appetite should in the future set his faith entirely in God, freeing his intellect from all worldly distractions and anxieties. ‘Be no longer faithless, but have faith’ (John 20:27). (John of Karpathos, “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India,” §§47-8; in Philokalia, vol. 1, 308-9)
I think the journeying overseas bit is my favourite.
In the middle of discussing why the Holy Spirit shows up in these visible forms–the dove at Jesus’ baptism, the tongues of fire at Pentecost–Aquinas makes an interesting comment on the role of the Pentecost phenomena:
“To the Apostles, the mission [of the Spirit at Pentecost] took the form of a mighty wind, as a sign of their power as ministers of the sacraments; so the words, ‘Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them;’ it also took the form of tongues as of fire in evidence of their teaching office; thus, ‘They began to speak with diverse tongues.’” (Summa Theologiae, Ia, Q43, A7, ad. 6)
The first explanation is interesting enough: the mighty wind is a sign of the offering of forgiveness, forgiveness is like a great wind pushing back on the sin of the world through the Church. But the second I find more interesting: the tongues of fire signify the teaching office–the “officium doctrinae”–of the apostles.
This is of course a stretch, but what if part of the force of the rise of Pentecostalism is the Spirit’s giving of a new teaching in the Church? Do Pentecostals have any share in the apostolic teaching office by virtue of their unique share in the Spirit of Pentecost? Is the typical Pentecostal anti-intellectualism a denial of the fullness of that which the Spirit wishes to give to the Church through the revival? As a reading of St. Thomas this is not possible, but it still gives me cause for hope, for prayer.