Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus

For my summer course, “The Patristic and Medieval Interpretation of the Psalter”, we read Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus. Marcellinus is probably a monk, perhaps a Deacon in Alexandria, who is undergoing some sort of sickness and wants to use his time to study the Psalms. Like Calvin’s comment that the Psalms are the “anatomy of all parts of the soul”,  Athanasius believes that “within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul.” The individual books of the Bible, says Athanasius, bear their own individual fruit. The Psalter is a garden that contains the fruits of all the other books. Not only this, the benefit of the Psalter is that one can appropriate the words contained therein as their own prayer. He writes that while “in other books of Scripture we read or hear words of holy men belonging only to them”, the Psalter becomes the prayer of the individual who reads it.

This appropriation acts as a mirror for the individual. In my course on St. Ephrem last semester we talked about how Ephrem sees a mirror not just as an object that reflects, but an object that makes visible things that could not be seen otherwise. Athanasius seems to hold a similar view. The Psalter reflects our inner state when we chant the Psalms. The chanting allows for us to see into our soul and to correct the faults found therein. This finding and correcting is the thrust of Athanasius’ letter. While Athanasius groups the Psalms together for Marcellinus’ benefit, he doesn’t engage in in a lot of “exegesis” in the modern sense. Rather, he uses the Psalter as a medicine cabinet or pharmacy from which he can prescribe certain Psalms for certain afflictions of one’s soul. If Marcellinus is struggling with hatred, he can read a certain set of Psalms. If Marcellinus meets individuals who deny the deity of Christ, he can read them other Psalms.

The letter is a great little read and it engages the Psalms in interesting ways. I’m looking forward to the rest of this class knowing that we’re reading such great stuff.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus

  1. A little over a year ago in a class on the Greek Fathers I read this and greatly enjoyed his thoughts on the Psalms.

  2. Joshua McManaway

    Hey Brian, thanks for the comment. It’s great, isn’t it? We read through Ambrose’s commentary on Psalm 1 today and it seems like he knows Athanasius. For Ambrose too the Psalms serve as a medicine cabinet, though he doesn’t give the lists of groups as Athanasius does. I really like the idea of looking to the Psalms as a ‘school for beginners’ and a place for the virtuoso ascetics. It’s one of the great equalizers of the Church’s life and liturgy.

  3. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.15.2011) | Near Emmaus

  4. MJ

    I’ve been fond of this text since I found it tucked in the back of my SVS Press copy of On the Incarnation. What else do you get to read in this course?

    • Joshua McManaway

      As far as primary texts go, we’ve read several bits out of Augustine’s “Expositions of the Psalms”, some Ambrose (whom I really like), some Cassiodorus (who has proven himself to be far more than just a ‘compiler’), Aquinas, and Richard Rolle. Alongside that we’re reading some secondary stuff, but my favorite part of the class is just reading these great examples of Patristic exegesis.

  5. Peter

    Hi. I’m actually working on this letter at the moment. Could you direct me to the source for St Ephrem’s observations concerning ‘mirrors’? It’s really very interesting. Thanks.

    • Joshua McManaway

      The comment was one made by my professor. I’m not sure there’s necessarily a source on this. It’s just his observation after having read Ephrem for a long time.

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