Denis the Carthusian’s Commentary on the Psalms

Beatus Vir (Denis the Carthusian’s Commentary on the Psalms): Vol. 1 (Psalms 1-25); trans. Andrew M Greenwell (Arouca Press, 2020)

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this commentary along with my daily psalm reading (at least while I was in the first 25). Denis (1402-1471) lived and worked as part of the Carthusian order. I had never heard of him before this book but discovered in the helpful introduction that he was the most prolific writer of the Middle Ages, producing about 4 times as much writing as Augustine! He wrote commentary on every book of the Bible, and his writings were widely and warmly received. According to the introduction, Denis’s writings were central to academic study for the century following his death with a common saying being, “He who reads Denis leaves nothing unread.” However, this is the first time any of his commentary on the psalms have been translated into English. Grenwell said Denis started his commentary writing with the Psalms because he saw “them as the fulcrum as it were, or perhaps better, the corpus callosum—that thick, connective, communicative Scriptural tissue—between the Old and New Testaments.” (xxiv)

Now, why did I, an evangelical Protestant deeply rooted in the Reformation, enjoy this commentary by 15th century Roman Catholic theologian? Well, of course there were things I differed with and I would not recommend this as a starting place for beginners. The place of works in salvation is concerning, though I don’t claim to understand the nuances of Denis’s thoughts on this topic. What I appreciated so much was his use of the psalms. He did not get bogged down in so much that commentaries do today, but unabashedly read the psalms as the word of God for the people of God. His voluminous knowledge of Scripture was apparent as he connected a psalm to texts in both testaments. Even if, in the end, I doubted the texts should go together I was convicted by his awareness of texts. Readers today with our access to searching capabilities of digital resources can easily forget that these authors of the past must largely draw merely from their own memories.

Denis typically examines each psalm as the voice of Jesus, the voice of the church together, and the voice of the individual believer. He uses different terminology, but that is the gist. Because of the purpose of the psalter, I think this is the right way to go. As a result, even when I would discard some of his interpretations he was helpful in stirring me to pray and praise with each psalm. I find myself eager for the next volumes. This commentary embodies the spirit of this quote form Paul Claudel which is included in the introduction: ‘Let us read the Holy Writ, but let us read it as did the Fathers who showed us the best way of profiting by it; let us read it kneeling! Let us read it, not critically with the foolish curiosity that leads only to vanity, but with the eagerness of a famished heart!’” (xxxii)

We are indebted to Arouca Press and Andrew Greenwell for undertaking this project. Despite his comments to the contrary, Greenwell does have a way with words that makes this translation enjoyable to read. He very often includes the Latin in parentheses to allow the reader to consider nuances. The numbering of the psalms follows the Vulgate, with which Denis was working, so it is different from that of our English Bibles (though a parenthetical numbering system is provided to help the English reader).

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