Posted December 19, 20003
Expositions of the Psalms: The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century
Editor: Boniface Ramsey
Translation and note by Maria Boulding, O.S.B.
New City Press, Hyde Park, New York, pp. 552
Excerpt from Book:
Exposition 1 of Psalm 118
Verse 1, The universal longing for happiness
From its very first verse, this psalm urges us to seek happiness. Yet there is no one who does not long for this. Is there anyone, has there ever been anyone, will there ever be anyone, who does not want to be happy? Surely not. But if that is the case, why should it be necessary to exhort us to seek something that the human spirit spontaneously desires? When someone exhorts another, he or she does so in order to arouse the will of the person addressed to desire whatever it is that the exhortation is recommending. Why, then, do we need to be invited to will something that we are incapable of not willing? Only because, though men and women all long for happiness, many do not know how to reach it.
The speaker in the psalm therefore teaches us: Happy are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. He seems to be saying, “I know what you want. You are seeking happiness. Very well then; if you want to be happy, be undefiled.” All desire the good, but few desire the only route to what they all want. But where will anyone keep clear of defilement, if not in the way? And what way is that, if not the law of the Lord? It is thus no superfluous reminder that we are given when the psalm says, Happy are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord, for our minds need to be urged on. To walk unstained in the way of the Lord’s law is a very good thing, though many are reluctant to attempt it; and the psalm shows how good it is by pointing out that people who do so are happy. For the sake of what everyone wants — happiness – they undertake what many do not want at all.
Happiness is so great a good tat both good people and bad people desire it. We can hardly be surprised that good people are good to gain happiness; what should surprise us is that bad people in their attempt to be happy are bad in their attempts to be happy. A person abandoned to his passions is corrupted and dishonored by self-indulgence, yet what such a person is looking for in this evil conduct is nothing else but happiness. He reckons himself unlucky if he does not experience pleasure and enjoyment in pursuing his lust, and he does not hesitate to boast of his happiness when he does manage to get fun out of it. Again, anyone on fire with avarice hoards wealth by any and every means only in order to be happy. One who thirsts to shed the blood of his enemies, one who is ambitious for power, one who sates his cruelty by destroying other people — each of these is looking for happiness in the midst of his foul deeds.
God’s voice calls these erring folk back to the right way, if only they can hear it; he calls back all who chase spurious happiness through misery all too real. Happy are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord, he says. He seems to be challenging them: “Where are you going? You are heading for perdition without knowing it. The road you are taking is not the way to where you long to be. You desire to be happy, but the paths along which you are running are wretched, and lead to wretchedness deeper still. Do not seek so great a good through bad conduct. If you want to attain it, come this way, travel by this route. You cannot give up your longing for happiness, but you can and must abandon the malice of your twisted ways. You are tiring yourselves out to no purpose by setting your course to a goal that defiles you.” They are not happy who are defiled in waywardness, and walk in the winding ways of the world, but happy are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.