Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby noting that psalmody, prayer and meditation have been a regular part of spiritual discipline from time immemorial. However, he argues in this section that the distinction between them is insufficiently appreciated today.
The distinction between psalmody and prayer that is evidently presupposed … and which is a matter of course in the writings of the early Fathers, appears strange to the modern reader. Are not psalmody and prayer one and the same, so that one can rightly speak of the “prayer from psalms” or of “praying the psalms”? And is not the Psalter the “prayer book of the Church”, which took it over from the synagogue? The Fathers would have answered: Yes and no. “Psalmody is not yet praying”, for the two belong to different (not separate) orders. (42)
The psalms are first of all Scripture and form prophetic word of God to humanity that “opens a prospect on to Christ and his Church” whereas prayer is our speaking (or singing) to God, a dialogue with God. While the Psalter includes this sort of prayer or praise addressed to God, it also includes other genres, including those that appear “to the modern reader as the exact opposite of Christian prayer!” (44)
In order to appropriate the Psalter and make it our own, we need “zeal in practicing ‘meditation’.” (44)
By “meditation” (μελέτη) the Fathers (and the psalmist himself) understood a constant repetition of certain verses or entire passages of Sacred Scripture sotto voce (in an undertone), with the goal of grasping their hidden spiritual sense. (44)
This hidden meaning of Scripture is revealed to praying Christians only when the Lord Himself opens their eyes.
Biblical “meditation”, then, has to do mainly with the objective facts of salvation history, in which God reveals himself, his “Name”. “Reflection” upon the enigmatic history of the Chosen People or on one’s own destiny, in which this history is repeated, is thus never an end in itself, but should always lead to “being mindful” of God himself, and thus also to “prayer” in the strict sense. For in prayer, man responds to this salvific action of Go, whether it be in petitions, hymns or praise. (46-47)
Thus psalmody, prayer and meditation are both different and intertwined and are part of a dynamic process.
The “spiritualization” of this Old Testament word of God – in the Holy Spirit
opening its horizons towards Christ and his Church – must not be done through toned-down translations and certainly not, as has become the custom today, through omissions! Only inspired “meditation” is capable of accomplishing this “spiritualization”, which is of course necessary for the Scriptures of the Old Testament in general. The Christian finds the key to such an opening up towards Christ and his Church in the “typological” manner in which the New Testament – and subsequently the Fathers of the Church – read the Old Testament word of God. (48)
I must confess that this section, and particularly the distinction that Father Gabriel draws between psalmody and prayer, has made me just slightly uncomfortable. Much of what he says is true and very helpful. It is also clear that he was – at least partly – writing in the context of current (or recent) Catholic issues around the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, although I have not seen anything to indicate and that the fact that he originally wrote this book as a Catholic makes it anything less than Orthodox, and my disquiet now does not have anything to do with that. Rather my disquiet is rooted in wondering whether his exclusion of the Psalms from constituting “true prayer” does not represent a particularly Evagrian view of the patristic heritage. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not anti-Evagrius (okay, it seems difficult to deny that his cosmological speculations were of dubious orthodoxy, but his teaching on spiritual life is helpful and has clearly been received in the tradition) but I seem to remember other patristic references to praying the psalms and wonder if there is not a broader tradition that Father Gabriel is downplaying. I don’t have the resources (or the time) at present to look this up further, but I think also of the idea (found in Saint Augustine) that the prayer of the psalms is the prayer of Christ himself.
Of course, these differing perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and so I will keep an open mind to see how this develops in the rest of the book.