[A series of retreat meditations.]
‘Praise the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me praise his holy name.’ (Psalm. 103.1)
The psalms are absolutely central to our worship as Catholic Christians, just as they were and are central to Jewish worship and, for that matter, to the worship of traditional Protestants. The Psalter is the original and basic hymnal of both the Synagogue and also of the Church. In this study I will refer on occasion to a complete commentary on the Psalter by Saint Augustine of Hippo called the Expositions on the Book of Psalms, which is available both in print and on-line. Saint Augustine produced a complete and lengthy commentary upon the psalms because in his day, as in ours, the psalms were in constant use in the worship of the Church. Frequently in the course of his commentary Augustine refers to the singing or chanting of a particular psalm that his congregation has just heard (e.g. on Ps. 87:1). While some of his commentary was dictated to secretaries, much of it was given forth as sermons on something just sung in the liturgy (see preface to his commentary on Psalm 119). Augustine’s people knew and sang the psalms and wanted to understand what they meant. So too we know and say, and sometimes sing, the psalms constantly in the liturgy and need to learn what they mean. I suppose that most of us know Psalm 23 by heart. If you grew up in a Morning Prayer parish as I did, you probably know Psalm 100, the Jubilate Deo. And think how often we use the Psalms in our public worship.
In the Missals a psalm verse or verses always occur in the introit and almost always in the gradual. The proper offertory sentence usually is from the psalms and the communion sentence often is. Since the introit often sets the theme or mood of the particular Mass, from this use alone the psalms have gained great importance in our rite. I have an old German hymnal that once belonged to a late parishioner, Anita Steinbeck Callahan. The Sundays of the Church year in that Lutheran hymnal are given their names from the medieval Latin introits, which is to say usually from a psalm verse.
The traditional monastic offices have the psalms at their heart. In the full breviary office of the Western Church there generally were usually nine psalms in the office of Mattins, four (plus a canticle) at Lauds, five at Vespers, three each at Terce, Sext, None, and Compline, and three or four at Prime, for a total of 33 or 34 psalms every day. The Psalter in theory at least was said through once a week in the old breviaries. (Psalm 119 was divided into sections and treated as several psalms, which is why the 150 psalms might be said through in theory in a week, even though seven times 33 is many more than 150.)
Even in the simpler office of the Prayer Book, which most Anglican Catholics use, the Psalter traditionally is said through once a month. This constant repetition of the psalms embeds them in our memory and consciousness, so that they become part of our spiritual furniture, if you will. Father Cotterell and I used to play a game of quotation capping with the psalms: I’d begin a psalm verse and he’d complete it. Those who say the Prayer Book Office faithfully usually can play this game too. If I say, ‘Kiss the son’ then you would add ‘lest he be angry’. If I say, ‘For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west’ then you would say ‘nor yet from the south’. The psalms have this familiar quality for priests and religious and for anyone who says the daily Offices. If we are fortunate enough to be in a musical parish that sings the introit or the office psalms, then the familiarity of repetition is reinforced by music; for, as St. Augustine says, ‘He who sings, prays twice.’
So, the psalms are central to our worship, both in the Mass and in the daily Office. We might go on to consider the role of the psalms in other liturgical offices, but I trust I have made my point already. We praise God in the words of the psalms. We thank God in the words of the psalms. We call upon God in the words of the psalms. We confess our sins in the words of the psalms. To understand the psalms is to understand the worship of the Church. To appreciate the Psalter is to help ‘the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (Col. 3.16), as St. Paul prays for the Colossians.
Often the most important things are the things we do not think about, the things we take for granted. I read some years ago a very perceptive little essay by a Roman Catholic priest, a former Anglican named Hugh Barbour, which noted that the centrality of the Psalter to worship was something that used to unite Christians of almost all Churches and sorts. Roman Catholic clergy and religious read through the Psalter regularly in the Breviary offices. But Anglicans did too in Morning and Evening Prayer, and Scots Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed worship also centered on psalm singing. Likewise other Protestants made liberal use of the Psalter in their worship. Most Christians probably had more than one psalm committed to memory.
Barbour, however, went on to note that the Psalter has without much notice mostly disappeared from worship. The rise of liturgical informality in public worship, the growth of entertainment worship and of non-traditional Church music, and the general decline of Scriptural knowledge and memorization, have all gravely diminished the place of the psalms in the thoughts and hearts of Christians. The process has been underway for decades. Consider, for instance, that in the English Prayer Books the whole Psalter is to be said through once a month. But as early as 1928 the American Prayer Book permits instead a much less extensive use of the Psalms, which converts the psalm portion of Morning and Evening Prayer from its traditional place as the core of those Offices into a sort of third lesson preceding the lesson from elsewhere in the Old Testament. And such abbreviation and diminishment has gone much further in most Christian traditions than it has in ours. In this study I would like to help explain why the Psalter should retain its traditional, central place despite this general tendency of our day.
In addition to their place in our worship, the psalms on the literal level contain and illustrate a huge range of human religious emotions. The psalms are so appealing to many of us because they display the same kind of religious moods and feelings and attitudes and experiences that we ourselves are subject to, from the most sublime exaltation to the deepest despair; from abandoned adoration of God to something very close to anger with him; from the surest confidence to the most abysmal fear; from gratitude and thanksgiving to whining and complaining. Sometimes these shifts in mood are obscured for traditional Anglicans by the uniformly beautiful and elevated language of our 16th century Psalter. But the shifts are there nonetheless.
One of the most important things to note about the psalms is that they are a kind of mirror of living faith. The one thing that does not shift in the psalms is belief in God. The psalmist often is many things: he is angry, he is frightened, he is sad, he is penitent, he complains, he moans, he blusters. Many of the psalms seem to say, in effect: ‘Look, God, haven’t you read Deuteronomy lately? You’re not supposed to let bad things happen to me. I’ve been good. So, what’s going on here? Let’s get on the ball.’ That’s not really much of an exaggeration, you know. ‘Look well if there be any way of wickedness in me’ (139.24): the clear implication is that there is no wickedness in the speaker. Sometimes the psalms speak with deep penitence, but often they speak in these tones of injured innocence: ‘Up, Lord; let not man have the upper hand’ (2.19). We often find this sort of passage in the psalms, with its exhortation directed at God, as if he were liable to forget our needs if we don’t regularly jog his memory. The psalmist in fact frequently strikes me as the sort of person who, while willing to serve God, mainly wishes to do so in an advisory capacity. But whatever the surface complaint and whatever the shifting mood of the speaker, the psalms rest on a deep and abiding belief that God is indeed real and active, even if he seems inscrutably willing to let his people suffer from the works of the ungodly. The psalmist may be angry with God; he may doubt that God cares for him: but he never doubts that God exists and that God matters very much indeed.
While these various shifts in mood may amuse us, they undoubtedly are deeply human. We bargain and negotiate with God as much as does the psalmist. We too complain when things do not seem to go our way. We too have ups and downs in our life with God. The psalms are a kind of mirror held up to our spiritual faces. In them we see, as I have said, almost the full range of religious feelings. As with all good mirrors, the psalms show us unattractive things as well as lovely. To meditate upon the psalms is to meditate upon ourselves before God. Or perhaps I should say, to meditate upon the psalms is to meditate upon God as the one with whom we have to deal, before whom we stand in all of our human weakness and folly and pride, and yet also before whom we stand in Christ in redeemed human dignity and faith and hope and love. We do well to meditate upon the psalms.
I have said that psalms mirror ‘almost’ the full range of religious feeling. The exception, of course, is atheism. The psalmist knows that some people do not believe in God, but he just does not understand such disbelief. The identical Psalms 14 and 53 begin, ‘The fool hath said in his heart: “There is no God.”’ While the psalmist knows that there are such atheists, he can only dismiss them as ‘fools’ – he does not understand such disbelief from within. Atheism is not a real option for the psalmist. But then the hymn book of the Church is hardly the place we would expect to find an analysis of disbelief.
Finally, I have chosen the psalms for consideration because of the importance they have for our Lord and for the New Testament. The psalms are quoted in the New Testament over 70 times, more than any other Old Testament book, including Isaiah. When our Lord debates with the Pharisees about the messiah, he stumps them with a psalm:
How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?’ (Matt. 22.24)
When our Lord enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he is greeted with the messianic proclamation of Psalm 118: ‘Blessed be he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.’ When he hangs upon the cross, a psalm is on his lips: ‘My God, my God…why hast thou forsaken me?’ (22.1) This sounds like a cry of despair to many modern Christians, but only because they are not steeped enough in the psalms. For when someone who knows the psalms thoroughly hears our Lord begin Psalm 22, he cannot help but recall the entire psalm, which begins near despair but ends in triumphant confidence. Here as always we cannot understand our Lord apart from the Old Testament; and no part of the Old Testament is more important in this regard than the psalms. If we are to understand our Lord, then we must understand the book with which he worshipped and from which he most quoted.
So, the psalms are central to our worship as Christians; they are mirrors of our own struggles and lives as Christians; and they are keys to the mind of our Lord. For these reasons I hope we can profit from considering the psalms carefully.