“The rock was Christ”: St Benedict and C.S. Lewis on Psalm 137

St Benedict, by Fra AngelicoThe Rule of St Benedict is traditionally divided into daily readings, running through the full Rule three times a year. The cycle has just restarted, and the reading for 5 May covers part of the Prologue, in which St Benedict asks the question posed in Psalm 15:

But let us ask the Lord, with the Prophet, “Lord, who shall dwell in Your tent, or who shall rest upon Your holy mountain?”

After quoting the answer given to this question in the psalm, Benedict continues:

This is the one who, under any temptation from the malicious devil, has brought him to naught by casting him and his temptation from the sight of his heart; and who has laid hold of his thoughts while they were still young and dashed them against Christ.

The words I’ve emphasised are what leapt out at me. They are a clear allusion to one of the most shocking passages in the entire Bible, the closing verses of Psalm 137:

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

C.S. Lewis discusses this verse in his book Reflections on the Psalms. “Of the cursing Psalms I suppose most of us make our own moral allegories,” he suggests, and continues:

From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting, them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”. Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done.

I don’t know whether Lewis derived this idea from St Benedict, but what impresses me about St Benedict’s statement is how – inspired, no doubt, by St Paul’s statement that “the rock was Christ” – he goes beyond what could become moralistic self-effort to make a statement that is profoundly Christ-centred. The way to deal with our sinful thoughts and temptations, for Benedict, is not simply to “knock the little bastards’ brains out”, but to knock them out against Christ; that is, by faith.

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2 thoughts on ““The rock was Christ”: St Benedict and C.S. Lewis on Psalm 137”

  1. I like the Christological spin on this; and yet at the same time it always feels a bit artificial to me to pretend the psalm is saying something so completely different from what seems to be its obvious meaning. (Clearly this is a bigger stretch in some cases than in others, and I’m not opposed to Christological readings of the psalms per se.) Moreover, call me a squishy liberal, but I’m not sure how edifying it is to think of our sins as being like little babies whose brains need to be dashed out.

  2. Hi Lee, thanks for this.

    I don’t think this is a matter of “pretend[ing]” the psalm is saying something so completely different from what seems to be its obvious meaning”. It’s more a case of: “Can we make anything useful of those verses, given the complete inapplicability to us of their primary meaning?” In other words, it’s more an example of the poetical and imaginative application of Scripture, rather than of exegesis. Equally, it shouldn’t be pressed too far or too hard: a reason for preferring Benedict’s passing allusion to Lewis’s more lurid unpacking.

    Another reason for preferring Benedict to Lewis here is that his dynamic is outward-looking, to Christ. I can imagine that for some people, Lewis’s approach could become rather inward-looking and destructive, a self-flagellating self-hatred; or, at least, a gritted-teeth attempt to withstand temptation under our own steam, which is doomed to failure.

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