Thou didst divide the sea through thy power : thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.
Thou smotest the heads of Leviathan in pieces: and gavest him to be meat for the people in the wilderness. (Ps. 74:13-14)
There were dragons at Evensong on Sunday past. It was not just a case of quaint, antiquainted language in the Coverdale Psalter. If the contemporary language Psalter was used, there too were dragons to be found:
It was you that divide the sea by your might: and shattered the heads of the dragons on the waters;
You alone crushed the heads of Leviathan: and gave him to the beasts of the desert for food.
What is the significance of such mythical beasts appearing in liturgy prayed during the 21st century? They are a vivid reminder of the mystery of evil, of its devouring nature, beyond our polite rationalisations. US Jesuit commentator, Fr. James Martin, has recently drawn attention to this:
In my life as a Jesuit priest, and especially as a spiritual director, I have seen people struggling with real-life evil. In the Spiritual Exercises, his classic manual on prayer, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, calls this force either the “evil spirit” or “the enemy of human nature.” Sophisticated readers may smile at this, but this is a real force, as real as the force that draws one to God. Moreover, there is a certain identifiable sameness about the way that the “enemy” works in people’s lives. I have seen this. And, after all, Ignatius’s comments reflect not only his own experience in prayer, but also his experience in helping others in the spiritual life. He was even able to describe some of the ways that the evil spirit works, and this also jibes with my experience: like a spoiled child (wanting to get his way); like a “false lover” (wanting us not to reveal our selfish motivations and plans); and like an “army commander” (attacking us at our weakest point).
And like a dragon.
Our polite rationalisations are exposed as empty, foolish deceits before the dragons - before IS throwing gay people from roofs and beheading Christians; the crushing, life-draining experience of drowning in debt; the pain inflicted and havoc wreaked by addictions to alcohol, gambling, pornography; the denial of dignity and life to others through racism, homophobia or the harvesting of organs through abortion.
Here be dragons. Consuming, violent, destructive, gorging on human misery.
But as Chesterton reminds us, we tell stories about dragons not to be frightened - but to hope:
Which is what we celebrated as Psalm 74 was said or sung at Evensong on Sunday past. In Augustine's words on the Psalm:
Dragons' heads, that is, demons' pride, wherewith the Gentiles were possessed, You have broken in pieces upon the water: for those persons whom they were possessing, You by Baptism have delivered.
What more after the heads of dragons? For those dragons have their chief, and he is himself the first great dragon. And concerning him what has He done that has wrought Salvation in the midst of the earth? Hear:
You have broken the head of the dragonOf what dragon? We understand by dragons all the demons that war under the devil: what single dragon then, whose head was broken, but the devil himself ought we to understand? What with him has He done?
You have broken the head of the dragon.That is, the beginning of sin. That head is the part which received the curse, to wit that the seed of Eve should mark the head of the serpent ... The beginning of all sin is pride. There has been broken therefore the head of the dragon, has been broken pride diabolical.
(This mosaic from Ravenna c. 6th century, depicts Christ in military dress, crushing the serpent.)