Let the Praise of God be on their Lips and a Two-edged Sword in their Hands
At the beginning of Lent, we hosted what may become our annual Men’s Lenten Retreat with the Desert Fathers. The conferences for the retreat were based on a writing in the Philokalia titled “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India” by St. John of Karpathos. In these texts, which were addressed to monks who were tempted to despair and even give up their monastic vocation, St. John of Karpathos encouraged his spiritual sons in the way of perseverance and trust in God’s mercy. But he also reminded them of the tools that were at their disposal in their combats with the enemy. There were two paragraphs in particular that caught my attention. In paragraph seven, he says:
“Why does Christ accept praise from the mouths of the faithful who are ‘little children in regard to evil’ (1 Cor. 14:20; cf. Matt. 21:16)? It is because through such praise He destroys the ‘enemy and avenger’ (Ps. 8:2), who tyrannizes us harshly; for the devil is an enemy of holiness and an avenger in the cause of evil. By praising the Lord with simplicity of heart we overthrow and destroy the schemes of this enemy for ‘in the fullness of Thy glory Thou hast crushed the enemy’ (Exod. 15:7).
Then, in paragraph fifty-one, he speaks similarly:
“The enemy lurks like a lion in his den; he lays in our path hidden traps and snares, in the form of impure and blasphemous thoughts. But if we continue wakeful, we can lay for him traps and snares and ambuscades that are far more effective and terrible. Prayer, the recitation of Psalms and the keeping of vigils, humility, service to others and acts of compassion, thankfulness, attentive listening to the words of Scripture – all these are a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare.”
For St. John of Karpathos, praise is one of the most, if not the most, effective weapon that we have in overthrowing and destroying the schemes of the enemy in our lives. According to him, when we take up prayer, psalmody, and attentive listening to sacred Scripture – all of which are essential to the Liturgy of the Hours! – these become a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash, and a snare. The prayer and praise of the faithful are, in other words, indispensible weapons in our fight against the devil.
There is a Psalm that I have always struggled with since I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours. It is Psalm 149. We pray it at least once a month in Sunday Morning Prayer (Week I of the Psalter) and then on every solemnity (for which we use the Psalms from Sunday Week I). The first two-thirds of this Psalm is beautiful, inviting us to “sing a new song the Lord,” rejoice in our maker, and even praise the name of the Lord with dancing. It continues, telling us that “the Lord takes delight in his people” and “crowns the poor with salvation.” Lastly, the psalmist calls the faithful to “rejoice in their glory, shout for joy and take their rest.”
But then it takes a sudden turn, proclaiming,
“Let the praise of God be on their lips
and a two-edged sword in their hand,
to deal out vengeance to the nations
and punishment on all the peoples;
to bind their kings in chains
and their nobles in fetters of iron;
to carry out the sentence pre-ordained;
this honor is for all his faithful.”
I’ve always prayed this thinking that the praise of God on the lips of the faithful and the two-edged sword in their hand were two altogether different things. But then after reading St. John of Karpathos, I had the thought that perhaps the praise of God that the Psalmist mentions is at once on the lips of the faithful and a two-edged sword in their hand and that the rebellious nations, peoples, kings, and nobles are types of Satan, his legion of demons, and those who willingly serve him and his purposes in the world.
In understanding the Psalm this way, we come to see that when the faithful lift up their hearts (Sursum cora), give thanks to the Lord their God (Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro), and offer Him the praise that is meet and just (Dignum et justum est), they are taking up the most effective weapon for their warfare, which is not against flesh and blood, but against “the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12).”
When we take this into consideration with the profound truth that the Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of Christ Himself which He has shared with His Church, thus being unequaled in its title to power and degree of effectiveness, we realize that to not pray the Liturgy of the Hours at least in part puts us at a serious disadvantage in the spiritual battle.
But to state it more positively, every time we take up the prayer of the Church we take up one of the greatest weapons at our disposal. To pray the Liturgy of the Hours is to enter into battle wielding a two-edged sword that deals out vengeance against our true enemies, punishes them for their wickedness, binds them in chains and fetters of iron, and carries out the sentence that was announced from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ – “it is finished.”
As St. John of Karpathos would put it, when we offer the praises of God in the Liturgy of the Hours, we overthrow and destroy the schemes of the enemy for our praise of God is nothing less than a deadly trap, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare for them.