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  • "As I read, I was set on fire":On the Psalms in Augustine's Confessions
  • Jeffrey S. Lehman (bio)

If the psalm prays, you pray; if it laments, you lament; if it exults, you rejoice; if it hopes, you hope; if it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.

Enarrationes in Psalmos 1

The presence of the Book of Psalms in St. Augustine's Confessions is extensive and unmistakable; from the opening lines, citations of or allusions to individual psalms occur on virtually every page. Given the ubiquity of such references, readers have long recognized the fundamental importance of the Psalms for understanding Augustine's unique project. Woven throughout the whole, the Psalms are constitutive of the underlying literary and theological integrity of Confessions, providing what one scholar has called a "veritable support structure for the entire work."2

Exactly what part do the psalms play in Confessions? To answer this question I will begin with another work of Augustine, his Enarrationes in Psalmos (Expositions of the Psalms). Begun in a.d. 392 and not completed until circa 418, Enarrationes is undoubtedly the longest and probably the least read of Augustine's major works. Even so, [End Page 160] time spent with Enarrationes yields valuable insights for the reader of Augustine's Confessions. Not only did Augustine write Confessions while working on Enarrationes—that is, from 397 to 401—but the two works also have a great deal in common in terms of their essential content and message. Where they do differ, it is typically by way of complementarity rather than contradiction. Once the way is prepared by our examination of Enarrationes, we will turn to Confessions and spend the bulk of our time considering just how central the psalms are to Augustine's confessional masterpiece.

Examining Enarrationes3

The Significance of Augustine's Commentaries on the Psalms

Composed over a period of nearly thirty years, Enarrationes is a rich and varied tapestry of Augustine's homiletic commentaries on all 150 psalms.4 As a faithful pastor of his ecclesial flock, Augustine "preached, wrote, and dictated his way verse-by-verse" through the entire Psalter.5 Why spend so much time and effort on the Psalms? First of all, the Psalms had profound personal significance for Augustine throughout his journey as a Catholic, from the early days at Cassiciacum in September 386 to the very end of his life in August 430. Reading the psalms at Cassiciacum, Augustine tells us he was "set on fire" with love for God (Confessions, IX.11). And as his biographer, Possidius, tells us, in his final days Augustine chose to be alone on his deathbed with a copy of the penitential psalms.6 Putting this beginning and end together with the years he spent meditating and preaching on the psalms, it is not hyperbole to say that Augustine spent his converted life in the psalms: reading them, ruminating on them, and ultimately embodying them through prayer.7

In a certain way, the centrality of the psalms for Augustine mirrors their centrality in the liturgical life of the entire Church. From very early on, the Psalter was widely regarded among Catholics as the "prayer book of the Church."8 As is still the case today, in Augustine's [End Page 161] time the reading or chanting of psalms was an essential part of the Mass, being one of the three standard elements of the Liturgy of the Word.9 In addition to their place in the Mass, the psalms were also an integral component of the then primitive form of Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, the liturgical prayers of faithful Catholics throughout each day.10 In Enarrationes, Augustine bears witness to the common custom (and perhaps his own practice) of praying the psalms at least four times per day as a way of heeding the exhortation of Psalm 50:14: "Offer to God a sacrifice of praise."11

With all this in mind, it is not surprising to find that patristic exegetes produced more commentaries on the Psalter than on any other biblical book,12 among which Augustine's Enarrationes has preeminence. To begin with, "In terms of its...


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