John Gayford explores the spirituality of the Psalms
For over three thousand years Psalms have inspired spiritually both Jews and later Christians. Psalms have a dimension of prayer for individuals and collectively. They speak to the soul and from the soul in the depths of despair (the dark night of the soul) and to praise God. The full range of human emotions is experienced including anger, fear, joy, pleasure, hope, desire, regret, thanks and praise. As such they have exercised profound and lasting influence on the liturgical tradition and spirituality of both Jews and Christians and do so because they give voice to the whole gambit of religious experience. Spirituality is a recognition of a dimension in the world and within oneself other than the physical.
Psalms were called the hymns of the Second Temple where they were developed and used, some being assigned to special festivals. Biblical psalms were written 1000 – 200 BC with possible additions later, and are lyrical poetry: shared by other near east religions not noted for their rhyme but typified by construction around ideas and for word stresses. In the case of Biblical Psalms there was parallelism of various types where a verse is answered by the next verse which either says the same thing in a different way or adds to the previous verse or even corrects it. This is best demonstrated when the psalms are used by two voices; either two sides of a choir, two people reciting their office together, or by a leader answered by others.
Clearly psalms were used in the prayers of Our Blessed Lord as he commended himself to the Father and passed this mode of prayer to his followers. Even from the Cross Jesus cries “My God my God, why have you forsaken me” (St. Matthew 27:40/St. Mark 15:34) from Psalm 2:2, and “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46) from Psalm 31:6.
St. Basil (330-379) wrote several homilies on the psalms in which he said the psalms gave prophesies of the future, recalled history, legislated for life, suggesting rules of action; in a word, psalms are a common storehouse of good doctrines. Verses of a Psalm can be the calm of souls, an arbiter of peace; still the stormy waves of thought, soften the angry spirit, and sober the intemperate. They can put demons to flight: summon angels to our aid; be a weapon in the midst of alarms by night, or rest from the toils of day; and comfort for the aged. They are the voice of the Church and gladden festivals; they create godly sorrow and call forth tears even from a stony heart. A Psalm is the employment of angels, a heavenly converse and spiritual incense with promises of glory and revelations of mysteries. St. Basil’s contribution has been augmented by others and used as an introduction to the Psalms. The addition of the Gloria Patri at the end of a psalm was introduced by Cassian (c.350-435). St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) speaks of the well-established practice of meeting together to sing Psalms. He even encourages those who have made little progress in liturgy but have learned the psalms by heart with claims that all liturgy contained psalms. He envisaged all taking part; young and old voices, male and female but this was not only limited to those present; the dead and the living joined together. To him the voices of prophets, saints and the company of heaven also took part in singing of the Psalm. The longest of the works of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), his Enarrationes in Psalmos (Exploration of the Psalms) written between 392 and 418 and shows his great devotion to the Psalms. He wrote and preached on all the Psalms in this multi-layered work in which he revealed his skills as a preacher, interpreter, philosopher and theologian with great command of Scripture. He projects the psalms as the mystery of Christ finding a prophetic fulfilment; totus Christus (the whole Christ). Where the meaning is obscure he uses allegory and gives it Christian meaning. In his reflection he says “how my love for you, my God, was kindled in the Psalms”. St. Jerome (c. 342-420) claims that the singing was universal in the Church and went on to say those working in the fields sang psalms as they worked. When men and women become monks and nuns the singing of Psalms forms the larger part of their religious exercise in the canonical offices of the night and day. St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) arranged for the Psalms to be sung on a weekly rota for his monks but St Ambrose had arranged for the Psalms to be sung over a fortnight. Eastern Churches can be quoted as hearing the voice of God in the Psalms and advises they are sung or recited on a weekly rota but twice a week in Lent. The Book of Common Prayer and the more recent Roman breviary arrange the psalms over a month, but the latter includes Old Testament canticles at Lauds and New Testament canticles at Vespers with some repetition of psalms on Sundays. Many holy men like St. Patrick and Alcuin of York recited the psalms on a daily basis. Vows were made that if a person recovered from a serious illness they would recite the Psalms daily for the rest of their lives in addition to the usual Canonical Offices. Knowledge of the Psalms by heart was required of those wanting to take Holy Orders, perhaps not always applied, but the Second Council of Nicaea in AD. 587 made it obligatory for Bishops.
In the middle ages the Psalter was better known than the Gospels. Children were taught to read and write from the Psalms. Calligraphy was practiced and developed from the Psalms. Every monastic novice and cleric had to learn the Palms by heart. Monks recited the psalter in their offices every week. The Psalter was “the knowledge” to start clerics on their trade and was their tool of work. Often when a monk died as a mark of respect his brothers would recite the entire psalter. When monks were on a journey or working in the fields or engaged in a domestic task together rather than chat to each other or remain silent they would recite the psalter together.
Both Luther and Calvin held the Psalms in high esteem and thought that they represented the Bible in miniature. Luther said the voice of Christ speaks in the Psalms, and that the words of the Psalms were not just to be read but lived; they are a mirror of the soul.
There always have been people who gain some spiritual benefit from hearing Psalms sung in Latin in a monastic setting even if they do not understand the Latin. With time and perseverance they may learn how to pronounce the Latin words but they may still have no understanding of the meaning but the spiritual experience continues and may become enhanced with use. Finally the Latin has meaning and hopefully the spiritual experience further increases. By the 13th century Books of Hours were being produced mainly for wealthy women. Many of these books have survived and have elaborate illustrations and contain selections of psalmody in the form of simple offices or at least in group selections of Psalms like the Penitential Psalms.
The Divine Office of the Roman Rite contains aides to increase the spiritual value of the recitation of the psalms. There is a heading (from the Hebrew) which is there to show the original intention of the psalm, and a line from Scripture or from patristic writings to help with Christian interpretation; these are included to help meditation but are not read aloud. Antiphons are used at the beginning and end of each psalm which may change with a festival and are there to aid in interpretation. More contentious is the inclusion of ‘psalm prayers’ or collects at the end of each psalm or at the division in longer psalms. A supplement of psalm prayers was promised but has never materialised for the Roman Office. These prayers have a long history and may go back to Egeria on her visit to Jerusalem. They were used in monastic practice in Egypt but also have been popular in Spain and can be traced to other areas as far back as the late 8th century but there is no evidence that they were used liturgically with the possible exception of Spain. There are Anglican Franciscan versions available. Use seems intended for private devotion, each insertion gives a prayerful summary of the Psalm with its principle use directed at private meditation. Alternatively, a pause for meditation is often recommended before progressing to the next psalm or canticle of the Office.
The battle to keep the psalms fresh and spiritual regrettably gets worse with age and repetition and it is all too easy for the mind to wander. This may provide at least consideration of confession for lack of concentration. Each individual brings their own spirituality to the psalms. Sharing the office with another person, each saying alternate verses, and changing round may help; and it can also be of advantage if there is an occasional additional or different respondent.
Imprecatory or vindictive verses occur in psalms where the psalmist pronounces a curse over the enemies of God and of God’s people. Verses like this are often left out of a psalm in liturgical worship. There are many examples but one will have to suffice. Psalm 110 which for those using the Roman Breviary every Sunday evening at Vespers hardly notice that verse 6 [He will execute judgment among the nations filling them with corpses] is missed but the Book of Common Prayer has no such reservation for Morning Prayer of the 23rd Day of the Month, although Common Worship softens the wording. Nevertheless these verses show that the Psalms contain the full depth of human emotion.
The Psalms are lyrical poetry and spiritual jewels of the Old Testament, the words did not need to be changed. The Church adopted them for Christian worship with enriched meaning, by Christian experience of a New Covenant. They were recited by Jesus; his mother the Virgin Mary modelled the Magnificat on them as did his early followers. God is praised and thanked in unveiling his secrets to those who turn to him in prayer. Faith became more ardent after the Last Supper with the Cross and Resurrection teaching mankind the infinite love of God. By adding a Trinitarian doxology the Church shows our fully Christian adoption of the Psalms. The hopes of the psalmists have been fulfilled by the Messiah who came to summon all to praise Almighty God.
By giving us a feeling of communion with God, the Psalms can lead us on the path of true piety. On the road we have sorrow for sins and a search for perfection, walking in darkness guided by God’s lamp of faith. The Psalms frequently challenge our faith but at the same time enrich our understanding; a path of spiritual development for many.
Suggested Further Reading
Davidson, R. Psalms in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Hastings, A. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2000.
Duffy, E. The Psalms and Lay Piety in Royal Books and Holy Bones: Essays in Medieval Christianity. Bloomsbury Continuum. London. 2018.
Hayward, S. Psalms New SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, edited by Sheldrake, P. SCM Press London 2005.
Kirkpatrick, A.F. The Book of Psalms. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge 1939.