Reading the Psalms: Griffiths, Lewis & Merton

Reading the Psalms:
Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis and Bede Griffiths

( by Ron Dart)

I

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Bede Griffiths
(1906-1993) are, probably, three of the most significant Christian
writers of the 20th century. Lewis held Merton in high regard and Lewis-
Griffiths had a decades long friendship. Merton thought Lewis was a
superb writer and many were his affinities with Griffiths. Each of these
men have their loyal followers and, sadly so, some of the disciples know
little of how each of the men respected one another. Lewis was a lay
Anglican, but he would have read the Psalms once a month as a result
of living through Anglican Morning and Evening Prayers, whereas
Griffiths and Merton were monks, hence each would have read the
Psalms once a week in the Divine Offices. This means that each of the
men was thoroughly acquainted with the Psalms and the dilemmas
raised by their confessional nature.

The fact that Lewis, Griffiths and Merton meditatively internalized the
Psalms meant that they had to, in their faith journey, ponder how to
read the Psalter, some psalms being quite uplifting in their vision and
description of the inner journey, others being quite graphic in their
vindictive attitudes, some being quite noble in their political vision,
others being quite warrior like and tribal. It was, therefore, in the
reading of the Psalms, in a regular way, that Lewis, Griffiths and
Merton, as they attempted to interpret and make sense of their faith
journey, struggled with how to read the Psalms. It was in this inner
pondering of faith experience of the various writers of the Psalms and
Lewis’, Griffiths’ and Merton’s understanding of their Christian journey
that, inevitably so, nudged each of the men to write a book on the
Psalms.

Merton was the first to write a book on the Psalms, dedicated to Jean
Danielou (who he considered a spiritual father of sorts). Bread in the
Wilderness was published in 1953, and although Merton, wrongly so, I
think, thought it one of his “fair” books (it should, perhaps, be in the
category of “good” or “better”), the missive reflects the younger
Merton engaging the Psalms in a nuanced manner. Lewis published
Reflections on the Psalms in 1961, and it is dedicated to one of the
finest 20th century Anglican theologians, Austin Farrer, and his wife,
Katharine Farrer. Roland Ropers edited for Griffiths his more
controversial Psalms for Christian Prayer that was published after
Griffiths’ death in 1995, although there is a fine “Introduction” by
Griffiths written, obviously, before his death in 1993.

Lewis, Griffiths and Merton each approached and read the Psalms in
different ways, and the purpose of this short essay is to examine how
their approach is different and the difference it makes.

II

Merton and the Psalms

Merton was younger than Lewis and Griffiths, but his commitment to
the Cistercian journey in 1941 and the fact his initial Abbot encouraged
him to write meant that Merton threaded together, throughout all his
monastic life, the external structure of the monastic journey (which
meant reading the Psalms once a week), his internal appropriation of
the Psalms and his attempt to articulate the relationship between the
Psalms, personal experience and contemplation. The sheer success of
Merton’s Seven Story Mountain in 1948 made it abundantly clear that
Merton had writing gifts that needed to be encouraged (both for
Merton’s sake and the monastery). Merton had lived the Divine Office
for almost ten years before he wrote Bread in the Wilderness. The book
was ready to go to print in 1950, but because of contractual conflicts, it
did not leave the publishing tarmac until 1953. But, Bread in the
Wilderness reflects and embodies significant aspects of the monastic
and contemplative approach to reading the Psalms. The book does
have its limitations and weak points, but, for the most part, there is
much substance and depth in it that is worth the heeding. There is a
regrettable tendency, amongst some Merton scholars, of the more
liberal left bent, to see the Merton of the 1960s as the real and mature
Merton—this approach tends to negate the fact that Merton had
significant commitments to the traditional monastic way of seeing and
being, and his read of the Psalms in Bread in the Wilderness has
something quite perennial about it (at the core). Merton lived with
many a tension, and one of the tensions was between the classical and
modern, and he had the judicious wisdom to say sic et non to both.
The original publication by New Directions publishing in 1953 of Bread
in the Wilderness had, on the front cover, the graphic and not to be
forgotten head of “this terrible masterpiece” of the Le Devot Christ that
hangs in the chapel beside the Cathedral of Perpignan in Southern
France. It is a gruesome carving of the suffering Christ still on the cross,
and each section of Bread in the Wilderness highlights different parts of
the crucifix. The 1954 edition of Bread in the Wilderness (London: Hollis
& Carter) has a more benign front cover with seeds in the soil rising to
mature form, but Le Devot Christ is included in the main content of the
book. Merton had, obviously, wanted to make it clear that the Psalms
were not meant to be merely literature, but, as his introductory
passage from Mark 8:4 indicates, “bread in the wilderness”– -Le Devot
Christ is the Christ ever on the cross, then and now, the cross and the
wilderness being at one. It was then, for Merton, the intimate
connection between the daily readings of the Psalms, Le Devot Christ,
various notions of wilderness in soul and society from which the Psalms
as bread in the wilderness had to be set and seen. In short, wilderness
and a being still on the cross are the context within which the Psalms
could be best read.

Bread in the Wilderness is divided into five main sections with a
“Prologue” and “Epilogue” acting as bookends to the substance of the
text. There is a sense in which Merton is offering the reader a literary
and literate way to read the Psalms that nourishes the soul and society
in the wilderness of time. The five sections clarify, in an incisive
manner, how to read the Psalms from within a classical monastic
context that also has a perennial and non-monastic appeal to it. Each of
the five sections walk the attentive read deeper into ways and means
of, in a more mature manner, internalizing the Psalms: 1) Psalms and
Contemplation, 2) Poetry, Symbolism and Typology, 3) Sacramenta
Scripturarum, 4) The Perfect Law of Liberty and 5) The Shadow of Thy
Wings. Each of these five main sections are then broken down into
smaller areas worth the pondering. Merton does not flinch from facing
into the difficult psalms and offering interpretations of them, but he is
equally committed to understand how to read them in a meditative and
contemplative manner, given the fact monks recite the full Psalter once
a week. Needless to say, such a formal approach within the monastic
tradition can, if not careful, become merely formality and the
existential meaning of the Psalms can be missed. Bread in the
Wilderness is, in its unique and uncanny way, a contemplative
exegetical, philosophical, theological, ecclesial and public
hermeneutical portal into the Psalms beginning with tragedy and
suffering as a given in the all too human journey. Needless to say, such
an approach, when rightly understood, avoids the pitfalls of a sort of
thin devotionalism and deadening formalism. The task of knowing how
to read religious literature is, probably, more important than, simply,
just reading it. Bread in the Wilderness offers a wise and discerning
“how”, hence, in some ways, the reason this packed missive is more
than a “Fair” book in Merton’s ranking of his published writings.
Bread in the Wilderness, as I mentioned above, is, in some senses,
Merton’s layered summing up of his nuanced approach, drawn from
the classical Christian and monastic ethos, of how to read the Psalms,
now almost ten years being a monk and living what he is writing about.

There can be no doubt that the themes of wilderness, the crucified and
suffering Christ, the Christ who is still, in some ways, still on the cross
will remain with Merton throughout the 1950s until his death in 1968.
There is, then, the obvious sense that Merton reads the Psalms in a
Christocentric manner that is immersed in the most painful aspects of
the human journey but in which hope and healing, transformation and
liberty are essential to such a pilgrimage.

If Merton embraced and accepted all the Psalms and offered a nuanced
way to read them, how was Lewis’ approach similar yet different?

III

C.S. Lewis: Reading the Psalms

There has been a historic tendency to ignore Lewis’ admiration for
Merton and Merton’s respect for Lewis. I have touched on their mutual
honouring of one another in my article, “C.S. Lewis and Thomas
Merton: Soul Friends” (Crux: A Quarterly Journal of Christian Thought
and Opinion published by Regent College: Summer 2014, Vol. 50, No.2)
—if only the followers of Lewis and Merton were as gracious and
generous as their teachers. Lewis was a catholic Anglican who, true to
the Prayer Book, would have traversed the Psalms once a month in
Morning and Evening Prayers. This means, in Lewis’ many reads of the
Psalms (12 times a years) he would have had to make sense of both the
appeal of the finest and most contemplative psalms and some of the
most vindictive, violent and war like psalms Were all of the psalms to
be read and inwardly digested with equal authority or was there a more
complex way of reading the psalms? Obviously, Merton and Lewis
leaned towards the latter approach, both being literary men with
contemplative bents and leanings (Merton more focused in such a
path and vocation than Lewis) yet their method in making sense of the
Psalms somewhat different. The turn and publication by Lewis in his
read of the Psalms emerges in Reflections on the Psalms, published in
1961 (reflecting, in some ways, Lewis’ decades long ponderings on how
to read the Psalms. The fact Reflections on the Psalms is dedicated to
Austin and Katharine Farrer (Austin being a significant Anglican Divine
and theologian who only in the last few years is being given his rightful
due) speaks much about the Lewis-Farrer relationship that delved deep
and deeper into exegesis, theology, philosophy, ecclesiology and public
life. Needless to say, Farrer held Lewis in high regard as a theologian
and exegete (something that is often ignored in Lewis studies).

Reflections on the Psalms is divided in twelve short chapters with
Appendix I– Selected Psalms and Appendix II—Psalms discussed or
mentioned as a finale of sorts. Each chapter tends to be more
discursive than Merton’s approach, but the major theses are reflected
upon is suggestive detail. There is a sense in which each chapter needs
to be read a few times and meditatively reflected upon at various
levels. The chapter headings speak for themselves: 1) Introduction, 2)
“Judgement” in the Psalms, 3) The Cursings, 4) Death in the Psalms, 5)
“The Fair Beauty of the Lord”, 6) “Sweeter than Honey”, 7) Connivance,
8) Nature, 9) A Word about Praising, 10) Second Meanings, 11)
Scripture, 12) Second Meanings in the Psalms.

Lewis, like Merton, and unlike Griffiths, accepted the fullness of the
Psalter. This meant Lewis and Merton had to deal with many of the
vindictive, enemy, battle cry, nationalist psalms which seemed so
contrary to the teachings of Christ in the New Testament. Merton
tended to look into some psalms but, true to form (which I will discuss
later) gave them a Christological, allegorical or typological
interpretation (rather than a merely literal). Lewis, being a Medieval-
Renaissance scholar, acknowledged these reads, but he was also
interested on understanding the literal, historic and root experiences of
such psalms. “Judgment” in the Psalms (II) and “The Cursings” (III)
probes the reasons why such psalms are in Scripture. What were the
varied historic experiences of the Jewish writers that would legitimate
some of the ethnic and nationalist, vindictive and judgmental psalms
that are included in the Psalms? It is these questions raised by Lewis
(not, of course, legitimating such attitudes or actions) that makes Lewis’
more layered historic literalism worth many a read: II-III are must reads
in Reflections on the Psalms on an approach to the problematic psalms
that both embraces all the psalms and does so without, initially, going
down the allegorical, typological or Christological route. This does not
mean, though, that Lewis ignores this approach. But, in II-III, he
ponders, ways of why some psalmists had such a dualistic worldview
(something which Griffiths engages in quite a different way).

Bread in the Wilderness is, in many ways, committed to understanding
the relationship between the contemplative, poetry, symbolism,
typology and the Sacramenta Scripturarum. Such an approach to
reading the Psalms is, obviously, quite different from a literal,
grammatical, historic and linguistic approach. The final section of
Reflections on the Psalms has many an affinity with Merton. Lewis and
Merton were both immersed in the classical catholic vision. Lewis calls
his approach, “Second Meanings” (X), “Scripture” (XI) and “Second
Meanings in the Psalms” (XII). Needless to say, Lewis, like Merton,
attempted to avoid the reductionism of, on the one hand, the reading
of the Psalms, to the literal and historical, and, on the other hand, an
irresponsible allegorizing of the Psalms. This more nuanced and refined
via media of sorts, recognized the Psalms could be read at a variety of
levels, and the second meanings could illuminate the journey of the
soul in a way the first order meanings could not (which did not mean
the literal-historic approach should be denied at a certain level). Lewis
delves into more depth and detail in chapters X-XII on how and why
second meanings are more significant than does Merton, although
both, from different angles, reach some similar conclusions (Merton
somewhat more, obviously, monastic and Roman Catholic than Lewis
might be). But, both men, drawing from a Classical and Medieval
approach to Scripture (Lewis more grounded the Renaissance tradition
than Merton) hold high the integration and prioritizing of the literal,
allegorical, typological and Christological read of the Psalms, Lewis,
perhaps, more willing to engage some of the higher-lower criticism and
historic reasons for the nationalist and battle cry psalms. It was this
ongoing tension that needed to be held together for a more
appropriate reading of the Psalms that Lewis and Merton, from
different approaches, agreed upon. It is in this sense that Bread in the
Wilderness and Reflections on the Psalms need to be read together, the
former more contemplative and monastic in focus, the latter more
discursive and analytical in tendency, although both books share much
in common. It should be noted that chapters in X-XII in Reflections on
the Psalms reveals, in many ways, Lewis’ broader Biblical and exegetical
hermeneutic.

Bede Griffiths’ had a more controversial approach to reading the
Psalms (more selective than comprehensive) that separates his
approach from Merton and Lewis.

IV

Bede Griffiths: Reading the Psalms

Griffiths, like Merton and Lewis, was acutely aware of the various ways
of reading the Psalms. There was, of course, the literal and historic
level, then, in ascending order, the allegorical culminating in the
Christological. But, Griffiths was enough of a modern person to linger at
the literal and historic level of the Psalms, and he was taken by the
beauty and suggestive wisdom of some psalms and appalled by many
other psalms. How were the 150 psalms to be read through a
Christocentric lens, given the fact Christ could be generous to the other,
called for forgiveness, a loving of the enemy, chose to suffer violence
than inflict it and he certainly leaned in a more dovish than hawkish
direction, whereas many psalms which were about war, violence, a
destroying of the enemy, God blessing the slaughter of other nations
and the Jews being God’s chosen and elect people? Griffiths approach
to dealing with these obvious disparities was quite different from that
of Merton and Lewis.

Griffiths in the “Introduction” to Psalms for Christian Prayer suggested
there were two at odds traditions within the Jewish heritage. There was
the “dualist” heritage in which the Jews were a special and holy people
(set apart by a holy God) and anything which threatened to undermine
such a unique position was seen as the opponent, enemy and had to be
destroyed. In short, there was a right-wrong mentality and some of the
Jewish psalmist saw themselves, their nation and God as in the right
and those who differed with them as in the wrong. Such a simplistic
“dualism” played quite nicely into the aggressive and violent psalms
that led, in practice, to a tragic treatment of the other. But, within the
Biblical tradition, there was the “universalist” tendency. Such a pathway
led to justice, peacemaking, reconciliation, forgiveness and grace towards
the other. There are, of course, many psalms that embody and reflect this
more “universalist” and, in many ways, prophetic and Christological approach.

Merton and Lewis accepted the 150 Psalms as a canonical and
integrated whole, whereas Griffiths, in a way that set him at odds with
others, argued that the psalms that reflected a more “dualistic”
worldview were dated– -psalms that legitimated war and violence were
not worth the reading or meditating upon. This meant a sort of purging
had to take place within the Psalms that would, when complete, reflect
the more “universalist” ethos of both Jewish prophetic thought and a
more Christological read. Psalms for Christian Prayer, to the chagrin of
many, deletes 55 psalms and presents to the reader the more perennial
psalms that are, obviously, of a more “universalist” bent.
Was this the best way to deal with the layered and complex nature of
the Psalms? Obviously, this was not the path taken by Merton and
Lewis, although both men shared Griffiths’ concerns about the more
“dualistic” psalms. Lewis attempted to explain why such a way of
thinking emerged and occurred in the psalms, critiqued such a way of
doing confessional poetry but retained the 150 Psalms. Merton did not
go to the same lengths as Lewis in dissecting and differing with the
“dualistic” psalms, but Bread in the Wilderness would certainly have
many an affinity with Lewis and Griffiths. The question, then, became
how to interpret and what should be done with the Zeus, Odin and
Jupiter like psalms? There could be no doubt that each of the psalms
were not to be held with the same reverence and dignity. And, many
did not reflect a more enlightened notion of God, the faith journey and
nationhood. Were all psalms, in a sense, equally inspired, or were many
psalms included as a way of seeing how the faith journey could go
askew and others aright? Such an approach, necessarily, even at the
literal and historic level, raises needful questions about higher and
lower texts and higher and lower ways of reading such poetry.

The fact Griffiths in Psalms for Christian Prayer chose to delete what he
thought “dualistic” psalms and create a psalter of “universalist” psalms
has its boosters and knockers. Was this sanitizing of the text the best
and most appropriate path to take or was the Merton-Lewis approach
the more mature? I suspect, in time, Griffiths’ well intentioned
approach will wane while the more comprehensive read of Merton and
Lewis will wax well and survive the test of the decades. Needless to say,
the sensitive reader need not embrace the “dualistic” psalms but in the
reading of them insights can be offered on how many interpret their
faith journey with God and in community. The nationalist and dualist
attitude does ever linger and such psalms do reflect a way of seeing
faith. The more prophetic Jewish way and Christian Christocentric
approach, though, does take the reader through a different world and
into a starkly different ethos of faith, community and politics. There is a
sense in the Psalms that two different types of faith can take hold and
root, and depending on the seeds planted, a different tree and fruit will
appear. This is, perhaps, the genius of the Psalms– -we are offered two
paths– — dualism or universalism– -both paths take the committed to
different destinations and graphically different consequences. Each
must choose and, in the end, each must live with the consequences of
such choices.

V

Reading the Psalms:

Merton, Lewis and Griffiths

Bede Griffiths, drawing from St. Benedict, in his “Introduction” to
Psalms for Christian Prayer, stated that although Benedict arranged for
the Psalms to be meditatively chanted in a week, he felt this was a
compromise– — the “holy fathers were wont to recite in a single day
what we tepid monks may only sing in a week”. There can be no doubt,
within the monastic and Anglican Prayer Book, the Psalms were read
more often and consistently than any other book in the Bible. The
question then became, in such frequent reading, given the diverse
nature of the Psalms, was this: how are the Psalms to be read? Should
the more vindictive, enemy oriented, war like psalms be included in the
Psalter? If so, what did this say about the nature of God and the
spirituality of the Jews (as the chosen people)? Should many of the
more graphic and raw psalms be viewed in a more descriptive rather
than prescriptive manner, hence more a reflection of the varied
seasons of the faith journey? Merton recognized that the literal
approach had some merit, but he was quick to read the psalms in a
more literary, typological, allegorical and Christological manner. Lewis
probed the literal read deeper and further than Merton, but in his
chapters in “Second Meanings”, he has much affinity with Merton.

Merton and Lewis did, though, accept the 150 Psalms as the
confessional tradition that they faithfully used, although their
exegetical approach was layered and nuanced. Griffiths, Merton and
Lewis all agreed there were troubling psalms, but their approach was
different. Griffiths lingered longer at the literal level (he was, obviously,
aware of the allegorical sense), but he thought the more descriptive
and “dualist” psalms did not reflect a mature and healthy spirituality,
hence they needed to be weeded from the Psalms– -only 95 of the 150
Psalms remained after Griffith’s pruning.

Which approach to reading the Psalms is the best? Merton, Lewis and
Griffiths equally agreed that there were many ennobling and laudatory
psalms. They equally agreed there were troubling psalms. The question
then was what was to be done with the troubling psalms? Griffiths took
the more extreme approach, Lewis and Merton the more moderate
pathway. How would Griffiths, if he had entered into dialogue with
Merton and Lewis on this issue have engaged them? Why would Lewis
and Merton differ with Griffiths’ approach and would Griffiths’ have
heeded, heard them and changed his mind? There can be no doubt,
though, knowing how to read the Psalms is, probably, more important
than merely reading the Psalms.

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One thought on “Reading the Psalms: Griffiths, Lewis & Merton

  1. “Sourceology”

    Thanks so much for author Ron Dart’s reflection on the Psalms from the viewpoint of C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Bede Griffith. I was glad to know of his work, of which I was ignorant. I am also glad to be reminded to look once again at the Psalms.

    I am moved by the Psalms that share its writer’s struggle and sense of separation from his God or Lord, for example those of Psalms 22 and 142. I think every sincere seeker encounters that kind of separation or estrangement somewhere on his or her faith journey if it is a real one. I certainly don’t think such sentiments should be called “confessional” writing or prayers at all. I think we should drop that kind of academic or scholarly language and be free to share what we experience on our faith journey as sacred sharing with our faith brothers and sisters.

    As I looked over the Psalms once again I noticed that while Christological issues are certainly present, insight in the area of non-dual Gnostic spirituality is lacking. Instead, the perception of an individual’s dualistic separation and estrangement from the Deity seems to dominate. Jesus’s direct illumination or knowledge as expressed in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas, for example, is not part of the Psalms. I think it is time to introduce a “Sourceological” aspect to the faith journey.

    This is a time, maybe the first in later Western society, when each of us may experience her or his non-separation from the God, Godhead or Supreme Source. I think this is the next step for Christianity and one of the reasons Father Bede emigrated to India in the first place. For myself, I have to be careful not to go too deeply into the analytical, academic or scholarly orientation on my interfaith journey. Those analytic aspects of the mind distract me from the simple unity of the Most Sacred and myself. We are one.

    Thank you once again for sharing this mailing of the Golden String.

    Richard Simonelli

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