Crispin Harrison CR considers the value of the Psalms

Sing Pray Live
Tom Wright
SPCK, 200pp, pbk
978 0281069897, £6.99

Christians in Gaza must find it difficult to use the Psalms particularly because they glorify Israel and ask God to destroy her enemies. In ancient times Gaza was in Philistine territory. Others also find the Psalms difficult because they are often bloodthirsty, not just the so-called cursing Psalms but many others appointed for use in public worship.

From the beginning Christians, following their Jewish practices both in individual and community worship, prayed the Psalms. Jesus himself used the Psalms in prayer to his Father. The foundation of daily Morning and Evening Prayer is psalmody and monks and nuns developed this with additional, shorter offices punctuating the day. ‘Seven times a day do I praise Thee,’ says Psalm 119.164. Most monks and nuns now observe fewer offices and some communities sing the Psalms to plainsong in Latin.

The Rule of St Benedict arranged the 150 Psalms of the Psalter to be recited each week. Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer reduced this to each month and since Vatican II Roman Catholics also follow a monthly arrangement of psalmody with the addition of Canticles from the Old and New Testament. Anglican cathedrals and colleges still observe the traditional daily prayers of the Church and attract many to hear the Psalms sung to Anglican chant. Our author says he was deeply influenced by, and benefited from, this tradition. Religious communities regard daily Mass and the Opus Dei as their chief work and encourage others to join them in spirit when they cannot be present. All ordained clergy, both Catholic and Anglican, are obliged to say the Daily Office.

Professor Tom Wright is concerned to encourage a wider use of the Psalms in prayer. Singing choruses or religious songs is no substitute for the rich diet of the Psalms. ‘To worship without using the Psalms’, he writes, ‘is to risk planting seeds that will never take root’. His book enthusiastically explains why this is so.

The Psalms assume that ‘the one creator God, having made the world, remained in active and dynamic relation with it. God has promised to return to his people at the end of their long, sad years of desolation and misery to dwell in their midst and to set up his sovereign rule on earth as in heaven. Christians believe that in Jesus of Nazareth and in the power of the Spirit at work in their lives, God has done exactly that’.

The heart of the book is the three mentally-demanding chapters that examine what the Psalms reveal about time, space and matter/creation. Wright quotes at length many Psalms to show how these lovely poems stand at the intersections of different layers of time and especially God’s time and ours. The Psalms that celebrate the installation and victory of the king remind us that our God-given vocation is to be stewards of creation and that we have been chosen to rescue the world from the plight into which it has fallen. We fail in this and yet hope springs eternal because God has not abandoned us.

The chapter entitled ‘Where God dwells’ is especially splendid. The Psalms claim that Jerusalem is God’s city and the temple his dwelling place. Yet we can hear Sir Hubert Parry’s setting of Psalm 122 and imagine that ‘Jerusalem and its palaces’ refers to the church we are in at the time. When Solomon’s temple was destroyed the exiles in Babylon learnt to regard the Torah as the place where God’s presence is to be found. Thus God is present to the faithful wherever they are. Christians recall that Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple but he was referring to his own body. So we believe God is truly to be found in Jesus, who is himself, true God from God.

‘The Psalms relish the sheer physicality of creation, its stuff and substance’. An environmentalist will find in the Psalms plenty of grounds for joy. ‘God creates that which is not God out of generous love in order that he may then in the end fill it, flood it, drench it, with his love and his glory’. Wright believes that we are invited to stand at the intersection of creation as it has been created and as it will be flooded, saturated with God’s love and glory. As part of creation humans share this destiny. ‘The Psalms are God-given ways by which those who use them in worship can enjoy this new time, can inhabit this new space, and can begin to celebrate this new matter’.

Tom Wright convincingly makes the amazing claim that the Psalms change those who sing them. They inform the mind and heart in ways which imperceptibly transform soul and body.

We will let him have the final word: ‘As you sing the Psalms, pray the Psalms and ponder the Psalms, you will find yourself drawn into a world in which certain things make sense that would not otherwise do so. In particular you will be drawn into the world where God and Jesus make sense in a way they would not otherwise do’. ND