St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church
Commentary on Psalm 118 - St. Theophan (of Vysha) the Recluse

On conversations

“With my lips have I declared all the judgments of Thy mouth.” (Ps 118:13)

This is the fourth house for God’s commandments in our nature, the spoken word, for it is the housing for thought and feeling.  Since everything inside the Prophet is already preoccupied with God’s commandments, the lips utter only what is inside; no matter what he talks about, it turns out, to be about God’s commandments.  “…Have I declared” – I have proclaimed, I am proclaiming, and I shall proclaim.  I am such that I am constantly proclaiming and cannot speak about anything else but Thy judgments, and concerning all other matters, I think in the same spirit.

The Prophet speaks here of a matter that has already been established in him, giving us a lesson as to our speech upon meeting one another, in our conversations.  If in the Old Testament divine matters so strongly preoccupied the God-fearing soul, should they not much more so take up that of a Christian, when God has shown an incomparably greater and more tangible nearness to us in the incarnation of the Word of God and in the sending of the Holy Spirit, Whose power is acting in us according to the faith of the believers?

But is this actually so? Let something happen slightly unusual in our daily or civic life, and there is no end to the talk; everyone talks about it even though it does not affect us at all.  Yet the wonderful matter of salvation , arranged for us by God and meant to work in each of us, does not engage us at all.  Purposely walk through a whole city, and you will never hear a word about it; if you try to start a conversation about it, they will try to change the subject.  Therefore, if we were to be judged by the sure principle that the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart, one might think that in our heart there is a complete vacuum, and that the things of God have taken no root and left no trace.  After all this, then, what does our baptism mean?  What do fasting, confession and communion of the Holy Mysteries, so often repeated, mean? What do visits to the churches of God and all the prayers mean?  You feel ashamed: it’s not done usually!  And yet, here is a king, busy ruling a people, always surrounded by the highest society, who is not ashamed to speak of the things of God, not ashamed to declare the judgments of his mouth. If God was not ashamed to declare His judgments for our own good, how can we be ashamed to pronounce them? Some person of some slight prominence will say something of little importance and we deem it an honor to quote it in our conversation; yet what God has uttered with His mouth might humiliate us if we were to repeat it!  Have we not actually gotten to the point where God-fearing people are afraid to talk of God’s judgment in our presence, so as not to cast pearls before…?

In fact, there cannot be any topic, richer, more consoling, more edifying for discussion than the judgments of God’s mouth, that is, all that God has deigned to tell us, to do for us, and establish among us for our salvation.

The acts of Christ the Savior and the holy apostles, the destinies of the Church, the lives of men famous among Christians for their teachings and deeds, the ways of God’s Providence, the many instances where God’s hand was visible in the lives of every one of us – these are the themes for discussion among Christians!  And how much strength could be derived from this for the well-being of each person in particular, and then of society as a whole!

Nothing is taken so lightly as the word; and yet, our conversations always leave traces of themselves, in both the speaker and the listener.  They are the seeds of a whole series of thoughts from which develop intentions and finally acts.  They are the lever which starts the movement of all relations between people.  Good conversations create, build, strengthen in all that is good; bad conversations upset and weaken all that is good and lay the way for evil.  And empty talk, though empty, does not remain without fruit; it empties the soul, and what is an empty soul good for?  After this, the warning of the Apostle is clear, not to grieve by a corrupt communication the Holy Spirit, by Whom we were sealed in the day of redemption.

On reading Scripture

“On Thy commandments will I ponder and I will understand Thy ways.” (Ps 118:15)

The best time for this (reading the Scripture) is either in the morning or evening, and the way to achieve it is with prayer.  Begin with prayer, continue in a prayerful mood and finish it with prayer.  The guardian angel will find a way to put into your mind exactly what you need and what suits your particular circumstances.

…Take a verse, dwell in it with all your attention, and subdivide it into possible meanings.  This is the first thing to do.  Among the thoughts that arise, find aspects that might influence the heart and attract it.  This is the second thing to do. Then extract from them lessons for yourself and apply them to your life, aiming to act a certain way here, and another there.  This way, the verse will pass through your entire soul with its content and having left, will come to life at the right time.

This is the only fruitful God-seeking meditation – not hasty, of course, but yielding more than any long reading and thinking.  Some might say, “Will you be able to read and consider very much that way?” Not much but, in a different way, very much!  One verse might take two tries, and other might take a week.  But what is acquired this way becomes an integral and continually inspiring possession of the spirit.  One verse will give so much light and warmth that it will comfort the spirit for many a day.

“On Thy statues will I meditate; I will not forget Thy words.” (Ps 118:16)

Through this last practice (to intentionally choose passages of the Holy Scriptures for memorizing and then repeating them in our minds), the commandments having already occupied all the faculties of the soul, shall occupy the memory and sanctify it.  The blessing from this is indescribable!  One of the elders said that it is difficult for one living in the world to attain calming of thoughts, because he sees much evil that, remaining in his memory, constantly crowds his attention, even when he comes home and sits alone.  There is no need even to mention what a crush of thoughts there are in the minds of those who live in the world!  St. Macarios compares their state of mind to grains of wheat shaken and tossed through a sieve.  Those who settle down and start to walk the way of the commandments disengage themselves from purely worldly things, but suffer much from thoughts, especially in the beginning.  Thoughts let them neither pray, nor read, nor meditate; they always distract them from doing what is right.  How can we escape this?  There is no better way than to use good memories to dislodge evil ones.  How much the memorizing of passages of the Holy Scriptures helps in such a case is beyond words.  The same thing happens to the soul as to a poor fruit when it is sugared.  The sugar penetrates its pores, making it sweeter and protecting it from spoiling.  Similarly the soul, saturated with the memorized words of God, rejects the corruption of shameless and empty thoughts and is filled to sweetness with the memory of things divine.

Perhaps hereby is solved the problem of the calming of thoughts in general: perhaps this matter consists entirely in substituting good and salutary thoughts for bad and empty ones, since thoughts about the good never produce confusion or darkening  of the mind or heart, but only edification and a good frame of mind.  If we accept this, then here is a rule for beginners as to how to deal with evil thoughts: Memorize as many passages of the Scriptures as possible as quickly as possible, in particular the words and deeds of Christ the Savior, and repeat them often.