Psalms


If we keep vigil in church, David comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Saint John Chrysostom, quoted by Father Lazarus Moore, Orthodox Psalter

A few months ago I discovered Father Lazarus Moore’s translation of the Psalter, which is available online here. (It’s available in Word somewhere too, but I can’t find it now). Apart from being a highly recommended translation of the Septuagint Psalter (the esteemed Esteban Vázquez praises it here as “at once laconic and lyrical”), it also has an introductory essay on the Psalms that is one of the best things I remember reading on them. In it Father Lazarus discusses not only the nature, content, and theology of the Psalms, but also their use and impact as the prayer book of the Church. Here are some rather pithy snippets that suggest the riches to be found in this article and the themes it raises:

The songs of Israel find their full meaning only in the New Adam. …

The eternal Spirit transforms history into theology. …

We need to learn afresh the Christian use of the Psalter. …

The Church never merely studied the Psalms. …

Orthodox theology as a unity of knowledge is a means to an end that transcends all knowledge. The end is union with God. The Psalms sum up the whole salvation history and theology of the Old Covenant. The lights and shadows of the total panorama are all here. …

The meaning of the events lies in man’s meeting with God. …

The light that judges us, transfigures and saves us. …

The Psalms are the Bible in miniature. By a kind of divine tom-tom they drum into our consciousness the truth that we meet God in the world of persons, things and events. Here and now we are to pass through the visible and transient to the invisible and true. Yet the initiative always rests with God. …

The Psalms were the utterances of both David and Christ. …

A striking and mysterious figure looms larger and larger, and gradually takes shape, as we read and re-read the Psalms. He is the Son of God, appointed King on Zion to rule the nations (Ps. 2). … different facets of the same face and person are sprinkled throughout the Psalter, and we need them all to get the full portrait. …

We are at the same time in the wilderness and in the Promised Land. …

The Psalms teach us to enlarge our hearts or consciousness to embrace all mankind. …

…the cross is the key to the Psalms, as it is the key to the Kingdom. …

The Psalter is the expression of the heart of the true man. It is the prophetic portrait of the mind and heart of the coming Saviour. …

One of the images that struck me most in this essay was the comparison of the Psalms to “a kind of divine tom-tom.” I suspect that many of us were brought up expecting religious texts to be clear-cut and to easily and immediately reveal their meaning. I have heard many people saying that that they dislike the Psalms because they are dark or violent or do not express what they are feeling. The Church’s discipline of praying the Psalter – the whole Psalter and not only the bits that we pick and choose – confronts us with a range human realities and does not allow us to escape into our own subjective preferences at any given moment. But it also hold before us a reality that cannot be reduced to any one set meaning; it presents a range of voices and many layers, which, over the years, yield their meaning to us. But this is no simply cerebral meaning – praying the Psalms is a also a physical act, an act that involves our whole person and in which we immerse ourselves, allowing ourselves to be shaped and ultimately transformed by them. As Father Lazarus writes:

People talk of haunted houses. The Psalter is a house of prayer haunted by the Spirit of Christ Who inspired the Psalms. Used aright, they cannot fail to lift us above and beyond ourselves. They confront us with God and we find ourselves haunted by His presence and gradually brought face to face with Him. They bring our hearts and minds into the presence of the living God. They fill our minds with His truth in order to unite us with His love. The saints and fathers of the Church, like the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, were haunted by the living reality of the Redeemer revealed to the world in the Psalter. He is the Word of God hidden in these ‘words of God’. As you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will be drenched with the Holy Spirit as the trees are drenched with the rain (Ps. 103:16), you will be rapt in God and penetrated from time to time with vivid intuitions of His action, your mind and heart will be purified.

Postscript: I had been thinking about this text for some time. But yesterday I happened to listen to a lecture by James K.A. Smith entitled Redeeming Ritual: Penance Takes Practice and realized that it was quite applicable to the praying of the Psalter. While what he says shouldn’t be anything new for Orthodox Christians, he does articulate well what we may take for granted and which I suspect goes rather against the grain for some Protestants, or at least for some of the rather glib things many people say about ritual.

I was delighted this week when The Kathisma Psalter with Nine Canticles arrived from Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery. It has taken me a long time to get to ordering a Septuagint Psalter – and switching translations of psalms or prayers that one is familiar with is not so simple – but I have been using their little Manual of the Hours and appreciating it, so thought that this was a good step forward. It is also the first time that I have actually prayed the Septuagint Psalms (at least privately) and I have actually been quite surprised at things that suddenly appear out of nowhere!

The only trouble is that I will have to do something about the binding!

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.