A Surprising Beatitude

Dashing the Little Ones upon the Rock

In a 2007 class on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesuit Fr. James Swetnam passed along to us two words of wisdom from German Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias. The first word: read a chapter of New Testament Greek every day. Indeed, very wise advice! The second, and I can still hear Fr. Swetnam’s voice: “Don’t be afraid to kill your children.” With nervous laughter and curious glances, the class of theology students seemed suspended in judgment.

Notwithstanding the value of reading the Greek New Testament, this second word may be even wiser advice. And no one need fear for the well-being of my daughters. Swetnam was speaking of the ideas. Those are the “children” that must be killed. Never be so attached to an idea that it becomes impossible to cast it aside altogether. “This is very salutary advice,” he explained. “It’s hard to do. No matter what idea comes to you, some German in the mid-1800s has already thought of it.” In other words, true academic humility would help keep us from indulging the illusory thought that we had it all figured out.

All academics are tempted to pursue innovation. Innovation is job security. But at the root of the illusory thought that “there is no one who has yet seen things quite so clearly as I” is the vice of vainglory. What Swetnam and Jeremias described was in accord with the monastic notion of the struggle against vainglory. I would wager that the spirit of the advice could be traced back to a couple of verses from Psalm 137, one of those stumbling blocks found in the Psalter that have sent many readers tumbling.

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Ps 137:8–9 [RSV-CE])

In other words, blessed is the one who renders payback upon Babylon. Blessed the one who even violently slays her children. These are not the beatitudes we rehearsed when we were children. These are vivid and disturbing images. What are we to make of them?

Psalm 137 is one of the imprecatory psalms, a psalm that prays for curses. Rather than casting such Scriptures aside as unfitting — after all, it is impossible that the divinely inspired text would be unfitting — the words of Paul offer the interpretative key. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). Indeed, Christian antiquity turned to allegorical readings of the letter (to gramma) of texts like Psalm 137 in order to discover the Spirit (to pneuma) hidden beneath. Certainly this text is not to be interpreted as though a bloodthirsty war party should cast little children to a gruesome end upon the rocks. The practice of Christian allegory provides an alternative reading that draws forth a meaning hidden — and intended — by the divine author.

I would go a step further and argue that this Psalm is especially apropos of today’s Church crisis. In 1735, Benjamin Franklin wrote concerning house fires that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” No doubt we have something of our own house fire with the present sexual-abuse crisis and cover-up. We watch and pray now while the firefighters do their work. Although we trust in the indestructibility of the Church, we also have a responsibility to consider prevention. The work of diocesan officials over the past two decades to develop and implement abuse awareness programs is both praiseworthy and worthwhile. The practice of creating safe environments and establishing appropriate boundaries no doubt ushers in a consciousness that reduces the probability of abuse. At the same time, a training program is not a truly sufficient answer for prevention. Avoidance only works to the extent that one is capable of avoiding an exterior threat. But what if while we have our eyes to the horizon, the threat to the Church’s future comes from within the self? Would we recognize it?

The front line is the interior life. If we look closely at Psalm 137, therein lies the “ounce of prevention.” We have excluded the verses of this Psalm from the liturgy, and so we have forgotten that we must dash the little ones of Babylon upon the Rock. The Bible is no mere life manual. We must allow ourselves to be vexed by the difficult passages of Scripture in order to discern the Spirit beneath the letter. If the Church is to save her little ones, she has to dash Babylon’s little ones. What is the difference between the children?

When we think of the “little ones” in Scripture, our minds are drawn to Matthew 18, when Jesus said, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). It is a most pertinent passage for predators to reflect upon at length. These “little ones” are the ones that have been dashed to the ground in Pennsylvania, in Germany, in Chile, and in all the places where victims have been exploited. These are the little ones we must protect at all costs, lest we find ourselves with a share in the millstone.

So who are the “little ones” who must be dashed upon the Rock? They are not really children at all. They are the thoughts — or, in the Church’s monastic tradition, the logismoi, synonymous with the capital vices or the passions. And the reason the Church’s “little ones” were dashed was because the evil “thoughts” of Babylon were unleashed in the uninhibited playground of so many unguarded minds.

This reading is nothing new. Consider, for example, Origen of Alexandria’s interpretation of Psalm 137, the standard Patristic interpretation of this Psalm. He writes,

“Blessed is the one who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,” who seizes, namely, the little ones of Babylon, which are understood to be nothing else but these “evil thoughts” that confound and disturb our heart. For this is what Babylon means. While these thoughts are still small and are just beginning, they must be seized and dashed against that “rock” who is “Christ” (1 Cor 10:4), and, by his order, they must be slain, so that nothing in us “may remain to draw breath” (Jos 11:11). Therefore, just as on that occasion it was a blessed thing to seize and dash the little ones of Babylon against the rock and to destroy evil thoughts immediately when they are first beginning, so also now it should be considered a blessed and perfect thing if “nothing is left behind” in us that could “draw breath” after the manner of the heathen.1

In addition to Origen, who issues the same interpretation repeatedly in his writings, Ambrose and Jerome usher this interpretative tradition into the West. They too echo the notion of dashing the evil thoughts upon the rock of Christ.2 Choking babies is not typical Christian imagery, but in his Expositions on the Psalms, Augustine says just that. “What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. . . . When lust is born, before evil habit gives it strength against you, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. . . . Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ.” The difficulty for the soul comes when the thoughts are not dashed when they are “little ones.” They then mature into strong and overpowering adults. No good comes from this growth, as Augustine says, because the babes will practice what they learned from their parents, “avarice, robbery, daily lying, the worship of various idols and devils, the unlawful remedies of enchantments and amulets.”3

The Fathers of the Church knew that temptations first arise in all subtlety. These “thoughts” or vices were nourished interiorly, and the interior proceeds to the exterior. In the abusers, lustful desires were first thought, then sought. The one who lays down resistance to lustful thoughts will inevitably seek them out, then act upon them in more and more brazen ways, whether upon children or upon those under his authority. A similar thing happens with mass murderers. Something starts as a thought, grows into a fantasy, matures into a plan, and in the end is executed. Family and friends of sex abusers and serial killers often say the same thing: “He seemed so normal.” But when these things come to light, a window is opened into the interior darkness that has descended upon a soul.

Those who have fallen into grave sexual sin as are described in the various testimonies that have come to light have spiritually wounded the wrong children, the little ones of Matthew 18, rather than the little ones of Psalm 137. They loosed their passions upon children and vulnerable adults because they did not react with vigor against a vulnerable internal evil when they had the chance. A slothful Christian does not engage the interior battle against temptation; he remains obstinate to the need for repentance because he believes that mercy dispenses with justice.

Everyone alive in the West today has grown up with much of the same perverse culture that encourages free reign being given to the thoughts. It is Babylon’s culture, not that of the Church. But she must root it out. One of the most effective solutions and reasons for confidence today is that seminaries have abandoned harmful curricula and have instituted healthy approaches to formation. Psychological evaluations, human formation, and spiritual formation also work to form future priests and deacons who will protect the young. As mentioned, dioceses have come a long way toward creating the types of safe environments and appropriate boundaries that do not lend themselves to the occasion of sexual abuse and predation. Nevertheless, though such measures are a significant part of the answer, they are not a sufficient answer for prevention. The predatory mind is always at work scheming new ways into those environments.

We can stand aghast at the evils perpetrated against our brothers and sisters in Christ, but do the babes of Babylon grow secretly within us? While keeping two vigilant eyes on the horizon in order to protect young people from intimidation and exploitation, each of us must turn the most perceptive eye — the mind’s eye — inward. The Church Fathers, especially the Desert Fathers, recognized the relentlessness of the “demon of fornication” to tempt to sexual sin. But laity too must recognize the ways in which the thoughts work on us if we are to do our part to keep the Church safe. We all have to dash Babylon’s little ones against the Rock. It is the kind of vigilance that requires the humility of living in the fallen state, a realism that recognizes that the interior proceeds to the exterior. The secret thoughts and desires of today — maybe not today or tomorrow — will someday manifest themselves.

In the unhindered self, there is always a dangerous potential to harm others. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mk 7:21–23). Before they grew into strong and malicious adults, how did we treat the children of Babylon when they were babes? Christ’s children will want to know.

In the case of those who, though abusers, continued in positions of power — or, in the case of those who gave them cover — the thoughts of pride and vainglory have reached full maturation. Pope St. Gregory the Great in his famous commentary on Job, the Moralia, wrote about how pride, the queen of all vices, overcomes the heart and hands it over to the capital vices, which “reason” with it. Vainglory — seeking the empty praise of men, the highest ranking vice under pride in Gregory’s arrangement — reasons with the conquered heart in this way: “You have been influential, surpassing many in power, and you ought to strive for greater things still. You are strong in order to benefit many more also.”4 Is this not the thought — standing so firmly opposed to accountability — that has fueled the concern for one’s reputation and work over that of providing healing for victims?

Pride is noteworthy among these evil thoughts. Gregory the Great taught that pride and lust worked together to ambush the soul. The chaste often fall into pride because they are repulsed by the sins of lust, whereas the unchaste fall into sexual sins because they are repulsed by the pride of the chaste. Fending off the spear, he argues, leaves one vulnerable to the unseen arrow, and vice versa. His message was for the “soldier of God” to recognize the battle well in advance before the weapons of war are in range. Without vigilance, any of the vices could work its way into our souls.

Many clergy and the laity alike have taken up acts of penance and repentance on behalf of those who lack the grace to repent. Others have been repulsed by the idea of doing penance for another’s sins. On this point, Augustine again is helpful.

I confess that all has been forgiven me, both the evil things which I did of my own accord and the things I failed to do under Thy guidance. Who is there among men who, considering his own weakness, dares to attribute his chastity and innocence to his own power, so as to love Thee less, as if he had less need of that mercy of Thine by which Thou forgivest sins to those who have been converted to Thee?5

In other words, if we see victims as other selves and we truly want to prevent future harm, it would serve potential victims well to see a painful truth that Augustine saw, that the only thing preventing the self from becoming an abuser is the providence of God. He forgives the sins one commits, and he forgives those we do not commit. The evil thoughts, the disordered desires with all manner of perversity, come for each one in turn. And only by God’s grace can one dash them.

What can be more this-worldly than the Church’s sex-abuse scandal (stumbling block, Greek: skandalon)? Its engineers have flaunted the full range of the passions, from the basest in the exercise of lust, to the gravest in pride’s enduring defiance before God’s judgment. And every aspect of it started in the toleration of pernicious thoughts. At the same time, despair is not an option. Belief calls on believers to have faith that our Rock is stronger and harder than any scandal of the worldly kingdom. Jesus himself points out his invincibility of “the stone rejected by the builders,” which has become the cornerstone of the whole edifice, a passage from the all-important Psalm 118 cited throughout the New Testament, read in the Church’s highest feast, Easter. Addressing the Pharisees, Christ said, “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him” (Mt 21:44). He is the “stone of offense,” the “rock of stumbling” (Is 8:14–15) that is set against all that is aligned with the kingdom of this world. Fortunately, there is a greater scandal to this world, the scandal of the unconquerable and life-giving Rock, eager to smite the offspring of Babylon — however mature they are — in order to save those of his bride.

  1. Origen of Alexandria, Hom 15 on Joshua, in Homilies on Joshua, trans. Barbara J. Bruce, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 105, eds. Thomas P. Halton and Cynthia White (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 144.
  2. In a homily on this Psalm, Jerome wrote, “The ‘little ones’ are evil thoughts. I saw a woman, for instance; I was filled with desire for her. If I do not at once cut off that sinful desire and take hold of it, as it were, by the foot and dash it against a rock until sensual passion abates, it will be too late afterwards when the smoldering fire has burst into flame. Happy the man who puts the knife instantly to sinful passion and smashes it against a rock! Now the Rock is Christ.” Homily 48 on Psalm 136 (137), in The Homilies of Saint Jerome (1–59 on the Psalms) vol. 1, trans. Marie Liguori Ewald, FOTC, vol. 48, ed. Hermigild Dressler (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1964), 359–60. See also, Jerome, Letter 22.6.

    In his work on repentance, Ambrose wrote, “He shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, who by his fear and his rebuke will break down all actions against reason, so as, if anyone is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot and deny himself that he may gain Christ.” Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Repentance 2.11.106, quoted in Psalms 51–150, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Quentin F. Wesselschmidt, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 380.

  3. Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Saint Augustine: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff, (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 632.
  4. Gregory the Great, Morals on the Book of Job, XXXI.45.90, my translation.
  5. Augustine, Confessions, II.7.15, trans. Vernon J. Bourke, FOTC, vol. 21, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1953).
Kevin M. Clarke About Kevin M. Clarke

Kevin M. Clarke, PhD, is a visiting assistant professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, where he teaches Sacred Scripture. He has a book out on the capital vices from Catholic University of America Press, The Seven Deadly Sins: Sayings of the Fathers of the Church.

Comments

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    Thank you for some important reflections on an ignored part of Ps 137.

    What I wondered after reading the whole article was the lack of reflection on idolatry. Is not idolatry, closely related to pride, the source of power, especially in religion. John Chrysostom is reported to have said: “A comprehended god is no god.” When I think I comprehend god, I become proud of my knowledge of good and evil. The certitude of my way makes me want others to follow me. Perhaps this is what keeps all of us from following the WAY of Jesus.

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