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  • Writer's pictureJohn Mortensen

Watering the Mountains: The Commentary on the Psalms

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

It is with great joy that we announce our forthcoming translation of Thomas Aquinas‘s Commentary on the Psalms, available for pre-order here, in a new translation by Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP and Sr. Maria Veritas Marks, OP.

St. Thomas‘s prologue to this work highlights the crowning character of the Psalms within the canon of Scripture. Like any good student of Aristotle, he begins by analyzing the four causes of the book of Psalms: “namely, the matter, the mode or form, the goal, and the agent. The matter is universal, since, while individual books of the canonical Scriptures contain particular matter, this book contains the general matter of the whole of the theology.” The Psalms present a totality in several respects, notably, “all the things that pertain to faith in the Incarnation are related so plainly in this work that it seems to be a Gospel rather than a prophecy.”

However, the mode or form of the work represents its own plenitude. While other books of the Bible take the form of narrative, admonition, or commands, the Psalms take the form of song or prayer, “since everything said in the other books in the modes already mentioned is also here, in the mode of praise and prayer.” And that, in turn, shows us the goal of this book, which is prayer, “the lifting of up of the mind to God.” The goal of the Psalms, Aquinas remarks, is to unite the reader‘s mind with God. Thus we have a text whose proximate goal coincides with the ultimate goal of our lives.

Scholars believe that the Psalms may have been the subject of Thomas‘s last lectures before his death, probably given in the fall of 1273. While it seems surprising that it had taken him so long to comment on a book that is so central to the Christian life, there is a certain fittingness in his scaling this summit in the last weeks before his own personal ascent.

And speaking of summits, our Volume 29: Commentary on the Psalms also includes St. Thomas‘s two inaugural lectures, Rigans montes (Watering the mountains) and Hic est liber (Here is the book), translated by John R. Gilhooly. These two commentaries from the very beginning of Thomas‘s career sprang from a charmingly human episode in the saint‘s life, which should offer great encouragement and consolation to all of us academics about to embark on a new semester.

In Rigans montes, we get a glimpse of Thomas Aquinas‘s “littleness.” Since he is the smartest person we‘ve ever encountered, we might assume that he was the smartest person he knew as well. But this well- testified account from his life reveals how the brightest mind could co-exist with the deepest humility. When the chancellor of the University of Paris gave Thomas the license to teach and ordered him to prepare an inaugural lecture, he was apparently horrified. An exception had been made to the University statutes to promote Aquinas two or three years before he reached the required age, the Holy Father had been involved, and evidently Thomas felt that more qualified candidates had been passed over to award him this distinction. At a loss for a topic to speak on, Thomas spent a tearful night in prayer, when an elderly Dominican friar appeared to him in a vision (St. Dominic, anyone?). The friar encouraged him and suggested Psalm 103 (104): 13 as the subject of his lecture: Watering the mountains from your upper rooms, the earth shall be filled with the fruit of your works.

The theme of this lecture is how God allows his wisdom to trickle down to each person through a series of intermediaries. Jean-Pierre Torrell summarizes Aquinas‘s commentary:

Thus wisdom is communicated first by spreading into the intelligence of the doctors—mountains are the symbol for them here. Then, by their ministry, wisdom bathes the intelligence of their hearers in waves of celestial light. (Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, 1996, pp. 52-53)

This month, as students begin a new semester, religious education programs start up again, and the U.S. celebrates Catholic schools week around St. Thomas‘s feast day (January 28), the final paragraphs of Rigans montes should inspire and console us in our climbing. Aquinas‘s closing thoughts bring this intellectual giant down to the level of all of us wayfarers in the spiritual life, especially those of us who bear the responsibility for instructing others:

“But even though no one by himself, of himself, is sufficient for such ministry, he can hope to have sufficiency from God: not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God  (2 Cor 3:5). But he should ask God:  if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men abundantly, and does not upbraid, and it will be given him (Jas 1:5). Let us pray. That Christ may grant it to us. Amen.”

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