I guess in any line of work one invited to lead will now and then gather the team and ask: what do we imagine we are doing? If you take someone who might really rather be reading the ancients reading the Bible and put him in that position in your publishing company, you might get something like this—more of a daydream, perhaps, than a useful business talk . . .
Blessed is that person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on God’s law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. Everything that person does prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish
A Publisher’s Daydream on Psalm 1
Here we work on books, and the book of books is the Bible, and St. Athanasius says that the book of Psalms sums up every other book of the Bible. The first psalm tells us how and why to read the other Psalms, and by extension the whole Bible, and by further extrapolation any other book that draws upon the Bible. So we do well to read this psalm as we sit down to think about our work.
Blessedness, like immortality, belongs to God alone. It is proper to eternity, not history, and does not come naturally to us, caught up as we are in mortal change and chance. And yet our psalm begins asrei ha-ish, “blessed the human being.” This Psalm will tell how mere humans may share the blessedness proper to God alone, how we may share the life divine.
The way to blessedness is the law of the Lord, the torah-instruction of the one whom Moses saw from the bush and on the mountain. Those who would be blessed must delight in this instruction, recite and ponder it by day and night. This instruction appears as such in the five books of Moses, but also in the prophets and the writings, and again also in the gospels and epistles. The torah shows us how to live. So the NRSV pluralizes, “Blessed are those who. . . .” All the moral exhortation of the whole torah applies to the plural us.
In our work-life together at this press, then, let us not become idolaters through loving God with less than our whole heart, mind, and strength. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves. Let us not take from them what is theirs, or even desire to take it. Let us not commit murder through angry thoughts. Let us remember that a cord of three strands is not easily snapped, and so let us find ways to weave ourselves into such a cord rather than work as isolated threads, readily tangled and easily broken. Let us not sit in the seat of the scornful, affronting God by sarcastically rending the flesh of God’s children. Let us be neither suck-ups nor backbiters, but let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our speech direct, constructive, true.
Let us not sponsor literary prostitution.
It’s all there in the law of the Lord, and we know it well.
But to say we know is not enough.
Delighting in the law of the Lord in actual practice lies no more within our grasp than does the blessedness itself to which that law should lead. “Blessed are those?” Is that plural right? Is there, has there ever been, even one human being who so delighted in the torah as to live it day and night?
You can see where we are headed, no? St. Augustine’s comments on this Psalm begin: “De Domino nostro Iesu Christo . . . accipiendum est” (it must be received as referring to our Lord Jesus Christ). Augustine contrasts Jesus Christ, the lordly man, who did not turn away into the path of the ungodly, against that other man, the earthy one, Adam, who turned away. Christ is the blessed one.
St. Basil believed the blessed one could also be one of us in union with Christ. But noting the aorist-tense verbs in the Greek of Psalm 1:1, he said we can only speak these words of those now dead; until that point, how could you know they would not turn aside?
But can we gain some profit from this text while we yet live? How does our Lord’s achievement help us? How can we be united with it, and even with him?
Our psalmist has a fresh suggestion for us: to gain blessedness by delighting in the torah of the Lord, make like a tree and leave. That is, be planted by the river, draw nourishment from it, and put forth fruit and leaves.
What river? It can only be one, though it has many names. It flows through all of scripture because God is present to all times and places.
This is the river that flowed from the pristine garden of human innocence, dividing into four branches called Pishon and Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates—all now lost—the first two disappeared in mists of mythic memory, the latter pair still with us but defiled beyond despair with the blood of human and demonic violence.
But this is also the mystical river springing up invisibly, intangibly in the Holy City, which has no physical river! —of which the Psalmist nevertheless writes, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” and “The river of God is full of water.”
Regarding this river the prophet calls out, “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters.”
Of this river Jesus spoke, when on the last and greatest day of the feast of lights he stood in the temple and cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” St. John tells us he was speaking of the Spirit.
This is the river that John says flowed along with the blood from our Lord’s pierced side.
This is the river that Ezekiel sees flowing from beneath the threshold of the new temple, first just ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-high, then deep enough to swim in, then uncrossable, with trees growing along its banks, whose leaves will not wither, whose fruit will not fail; and the fruit is for food, and the leaves are for healing. When it flows into the great polluted sea, it turns it fresh and pure.
This is the river, then, from which arises the second and final great deluge, the ultimate paradoxical fulfillment of the promise of the rainbow, the flood of which the prophets said, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Every time we say, “Thy kingdom come,” we pray for the advent of this healing flood to overwhelm and sweeten the accumulated tears of the ages.
Augustine says this river is God’s own Wisdom, which put on human nature for our sake. Again, he says, the river is the Holy Spirit, sent to empower Christ’s mission to the world. We may infer: it is the divine life, the divine mystery flowing out, washing and watering and nourishing.
The torah is not God but comes from God and leads to God. The Bible, sacred book that it is, is not the very Wisdom of God; Christ is that. Nor is the Bible the Spirit. But it conveys the torah of God in a powerful if oft perplexing way, so that we ponder for a lifetime, turning it and turning it again, and when through the Spirit the Word speaks to us clearly we delight.
What of the books we publish here? Most of them grapple, directly or indirectly, with what the Bible says, and yet it’s all still ink on leaves, always at a remove—sometimes a great remove—from the divine realities to which the Bible points. We wouldn’t dare pretend that all, or even any, of the many-leafed books that we produce capture and bear the pure wisdom of God.
And yet . . . if we thought that we were only passing time and getting paid, or even if—more bold—our highest hope was to keep our feet from the path of the ungodly and our rear ends out of the seat of the scornful, if we could not aspire to be planted near the river, if we despaired of yielding one or two leaves for the healing of the nations, how long would we stay in these jobs? And when the great flood has washed away all our endeavors, will we not, you and I, consider it a precious grace, will we not call ourselves blessed, if we look back and see that, until that flood came, we occupied, and what we did this year, our daily grind—acquire, edit, design, proof, market, sell—contributed thirty, or sixty, or a hundred drops to the knowledge of the Lord on the earth?
We are not the river. Sometimes we lose awareness of our nexus with the river. But that’s how it is with a tree. The tree does not stand in the river. The tree would drown, or wash away. The tree is planted in the ground; its roots dig deep into the dirt. We and our authors all are deeply grounded in the dirt of human history and culture—archaeologists each one. We deal in artifacts and ruined memories, bits of evidence, fragments of arguments, conclusions named perhaps.
But the unseen river flows nearby, and irrigates the soil, and who can know what moist drops even now are being absorbed into the tips of roots, or carried up the cortex of the trunk, or extruded into fruit and leaves? And who knows where that fruit, and where those leaves, may fall?
A tree watered by that river must surely be a tree not of knowledge only but also, to some degree, of life.