October 17, 2017

Essential Practices: Praying the Psalms

Geth Choir Psalms

Essential Practices
One: Praying the Psalms

It seems to me that there are some essential practices that attend our faith as Christians.

By saying that, I do not wish to imply, or get into an argument about, whether they are obligatory or not. In some senses I think they are, and in others not. All I’m saying is, let’s not get into a fight about: Chaplain Mike says we have to do these things to be Christians, or good Christians. Can we please just skip the whole grace vs. demand/faith vs. works debate this time around?

I use the word essential because I find that these practices signify something of the essence of following Jesus. They go to the heart of “walking in newness of life.” They are also time-tested practices that have found an honored place in the history of God’s people.

For this reason, I did not find them, at least in the way I will present them, to be emphasized within the revivalistic, doctrinaire evangelicalism of most of my adult life. Thankfully, some evangelicals have begun to speak more about them now, but not before a whole flock of us left to find these practices available and organically integrated in more historic expressions of the faith.

The first essential practice I’d like to talk about is praying the Psalms.

The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is “young.” In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel. Their adoration was intensified by the ineffable accents of new discovery: for the Psalms are the songs of men who knew who God was. If we are to pray well, we too must discover the Lord to whom we speak, and if we use the Psalms in our prayer we will stand a better chance of sharing in the discovery which lies hidden in their words for all generations. For God has willed to make Himself known to us in the mystery of the Psalms.

• Thomas Merton
Praying the Psalms

Elsewhere, I have expounded on my understanding of the meaning and significance of the Book of Psalms. Here’s a brief review:

Psalms contains the prayers of the king and the kingdom. Put together in five “books” like the Torah of Moses, the Book of Psalms is the Torah of God’s Messiah. The first part of the book is filled with the psalms of David, the king, whose prayers represent the laments and praises of the ideal King (Messiah), who is introduced to the reader in Psalm 2. The psalms of David expose us to the heart, mind, and spirit of our King. The book also focuses upon the divine promise of restoring God’s divine Kingdom in the world, by which all nations and all creation will be renewed. It is one of the places in the Bible where Jesus and the Kingdom are most apparent. To pray the Psalms is to learn what it means to pray, “May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

Praying the psalms can be as easy as reading them aloud, directing the words toward God. But I think they are even more effective when sung or chanted.

My church hymnal is one resource for which I, as a Lutheran, am grateful, and one of the best parts of our hymnal is that it includes the psalms. All 150 of them are there, with instructions and markings for chanting them. Any individual, group, or church would find great benefit in praying them in this fashion regularly.

I also discovered a wonderful site called SING: A Resource for Singing the Psalms. This online metrical psalm-book was put together by Dr. Timothy Tennent and Mrs. Julie Tennent from Asbury Seminary. The great feature of this site is that it gives you a variety of hymn tunes to use when singing the psalms. Here is a screen shot of Psalm 1, as it appears there:

Psalm 1 shot

Mrs. Tennent has arranged these psalms to fit with many familiar and accessible tunes. For example, the five tunes above are the tunes for (1) Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, (2) Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, (3) Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, (4) Come, Thou Fount, and (5) Brethren, We Have Met to Worship (from Sacred Harp).

There are excellent indices, and even the ability to download tunes. I encourage you to make use of this fine and edifying resource.

However we go about it, it is an essential part of our faith to pray the Psalms.

Comments

  1. I’m awake early in the morning to be ready to go to church and serve Matins, which includes two kathismata (3 psalms each), a bit called simply “the 6 psalms”, and “the praises” which is another two psalms. There’s another two snuck into the beginning of the service. Sixteen psalms later, I’ll have called it a wonderful start to the morning.

    So to say I’m a proponent of psalm chanting would be pretty accurate. 😉

    That said, though, I don’t think you can drop the Psalms wholesale into any tradition or theology as essential. Psalms is a HARD book, full of not just lament, but also imprecation and prayers that end on a nigh-hopeless note. It details a history of people’s prayers who struggled with their part of the elephant that day.

    Psalms as I experienced it growing up evangelical was grazed over for the good sounding bits, and someone coming from that background is going to be suprised by how much negativity towards God and man are encapsulated in them.

    With such a rocky life experience, I benefitted from reading the psalms in their wholeness a lot, but I feel like I couldn’t pray them properly until I had a framework to process what all those verses about enemies and whatnot meant in our context.

    • C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms talks about the same difficulties, Tokah — with no resolution or advice, ultimately. You’re right, they are sometimes disturbing when read in their entirety. I like what Merton says about them being “young.”

    • Thank you Tokah. Last year I began each day with reading the Moravian Daily Text, which includes reading thru the Psalms in one year. I had never read the Psalms in its entirety before and was surprised by the amount of vengeance in them. But ultimately praise, devotion and surrender fill my heart in reading the Psalms.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > prayers that end on a nigh-hopeless note

      Which is a wonderful relief. Making a space for despair is an essential step in creating a quarantine for despair; before it just spills over into everything.

      > someone coming from that background is going to be suprised by how
      > much negativity towards God and man are encapsulated in them

      Certainly. And they may be refreshed by the scriptural legitimization of what they have known and been feeling for a long time. When you actually Love someone, rather than wanting to own them, you give them space to be grieved, angry, pissed off, hurt, melancholy, and even to despair.

      Psalms is one of the texts which punches back the hardest and most clearly against the Shiny-Happy-Hopeful-Envelope with which we often try to constrain Scripture. Without Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Hosea, Job, and Nehemiah I would have pitched The Bible a long time ago – texts which get at best gingerly picked over by most Pastors, if not ignored all together – but which create a connection to a world I recognize.

      • “Which is a wonderful relief. Making a space for despair is an essential step in creating a quarantine for despair; before it just spills over into everything.”

        This.

  2. Christiane says:

    BEAUTIFUL post!

    am sharing an article I found by Kathleen Norris, this:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/july15/6t818a.html

    I do not understand why the Psalms are not a regular part of evangelical worship. The Psalms, as I understand it, were Our Lord’s prayer book. And I did find this interesting quote in the Norris article:
    ” As I began to immerse myself in monastic liturgy, I found that I was also immersed in poetry and was grateful to find that the poetic nature of the psalms, their constant movement between the mundane and the exalted, means, as British Benedictine Sebastian Moore has said, that “God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology,” and also that the images of the psalms, “rough-hewn from earthy experience, [are] absolutely different from formal prayer.”

    If the Psalms are ‘absolutely different from formal prayer’, as suggested by Brother Sebastian, then it would make sense that the Psalms would be more attractive to evangelical people for worship than the more formal creeds and prayers embraced by many in the Body of Christ. I would think that evangelical preachers wanting to engage in some form of worship that is more in line with the Bible itself might find the Psalter a good place to begin.

  3. Just yesterday a piece I wrote for the North American Anglican went live that is titled “A Case for Singing the Psalms: Reclaiming our Musical Heritage.” A lack of psalm singing is relatively new for most Christian traditions.

    http://northamanglican.com/a-case-for-singing-the-psalms/

  4. CM, have you seen the new Concordia Psalter? I don’t recall which Lutheran group published it. I’ve heard good things about it, but haven’t test driven it myself.

    Regarding the Tennents’ project, I’ve recently rediscovered metrical psalm singing. Last week we did a small a cappella mid-week Eucharist for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Usually in those services I’ll use plainchant psalms in lieu of the processional and recessional hymns, but this time I wanted to experiment with metrical psalms, so I chose Psalm 1 and Psalm 67 from the 1650 Scottish Psalter (it fits very well with the Tudor English in our edition of the Book of Common Prayer), and set them to the tunes of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Rise up, O Men of God,” respectively. It was a lot of fun, though a bit more work up front on my part to get the handouts written and printed.

    • We’ve relied primarily, and nearly exclusively, on metrical Psalms my first couple years at this church, in order to get our people in the habit of singing them by using something familiar. I received all sorts of comments about it, mostly surprise about what the Psalms actually said.

      Concordia Psalter is from the LCMS, put out by Concordia Publishing House. It’s just a pointed ESV text with basic chanting tones, and prayers for meditation following each Psalm. Maybe useful for home devotional use (for people who actually chant at home?) but I don’t imagine many churches will put it in the pews.

      • Fr. Isaac says:

        Which metrical psalter?

        • I have dozens of them. I typically pull from whichever has the best translation fitting a tune we know well. “A New Metrical Psalter” by Christopher Webber (an Episcopalian) is first rate. “Psalms for All Season” is very helpful, as many of their more contemporary paraphrases are covered by a CCLI License. “The Psalms for Worship” are outstanding, as long as you stay within the 5 annual copyright freebies. “Psalter 1912” is available online as a .pdf and completely within the public domain. Where these sources don’t cover me, I dig through multiple reformed hymnals and psalters, which include Isaac Watts’ more loose paraphrase, The Presbyterian Hymnal (1991), The CRC’s Psalter Hymnal, The Psalms and Hymns of Reformed Worship, the Trinity Hymnal, and “Cantus Christi,” put out by the CREC. And a half dozen or so online resources.

          But generally those first four usually have it covered, especially with Webber’s update, since he made his collection to cover the Revised Common Lectionary.

  5. How timely. I will be using a new resource for Lent entitled “Soundtrack: A Forty Day Playlist Through the Psalms” that is based upon the Tennent’s work. For information on this devotional guide by J.D. Walt, visit seedbed.com

  6. “it is an essential part of our faith to pray the Psalms.”

    I barely have time to read the bible. I guess I’m screwed.

    • Also, I get praying some Psalms, but how can I pray the “Look at how much I love you God and look at how much my enemies suck and how much better I am than they are” Psalms?

      • Just as it is. Acknowledge that you have enemies, people you don’t like, that you feel you are better than, etc. Acknowledge, pray that, and ask that you love them and be better than that.

        Denying reality does no one any good. Live in the discomfort.

        • Oh I live there. In the land of resentment and contempt for fellow believers. Thank you Stuart I will try.

      • Don’t forget the “enemies” within. As Fr Isaac commented above, the Greek Fathers saw many of the psalms as being fulfilled in Christ – not just the ones we have usually associated with him as Evangelicals. But they, and from the beginning of monasticism in the 200s the wise monastics, taught an interpretation that was about seeing all those imprecatory passages as what to do to fight the tendencies within ourselves that lead us toward sin/death/inhumanity. Better to “dash them on the rocks” while they are small than let them grow into something that damages other people.

        This is one example of how the early Christians looked for the Spiritual Meaning underneath the “literal” text. It’s not denying the history, or the emotions, of the Jewish people who wrote the Psalms; it accepts those things, and at the same time doesn’t stop there – because to stop there would be to leave Christ’s redemption out of those passages.

        Joel, find a small psalter and just keep it in your pocket – when you have a minute, open it up and read/pray.

        Dana

        Dana

        • Thank you Dana. I’m killing myself with resentment. I’m isolating myself because I know God sees I it drives me further into isolation. I need to find a psalter rather than bitch on blogs. Thank you. 🙁

          • Dana Ames says:

            -hug-

            D.

          • Dana Ames says:

            One more thing. I have found that persistent gratitude is very helpful for taking the teeth out of resentment. Thank God for whatever you honestly can. Over time, as you calm down, try to “move” that gratitude closer to the person/thing that is chafing.

            Gratitude is a powerful remedy for so much that ails us.

            more hugs-
            Dana

          • JoelG:

            One other thing to keep in mind is that semblance of self-righteousness that seems to come across in some of the psalms, disappears once you dig a little deeper. For example, consider David, who committed such terrible crimes by sleeping with Bathsheba and offing her husband. Here’s a man who was *not* perfect and *knew* he wasn’t perfect, and yet is pleading with God to have mercy on him and guide him. Psalm 51 is the textbook example, but Psalm 25 is another good example as well.

            For me, the biggest challenge of them all is Psalm 119. Ostensibly, at first glance it seems like a moralist’s self-righteous love letter to the Law (“Oh, how I love your law!”; v. 97). But scratch the surface even of this monolithic psalm, and you get pleas like this: “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (v. 25); “Let my plea come before you; deliver me according to your word” (v 170). It’s more like an interplay where the psalmist is striving to live according to God’s teaching (and “Law” in Hebrew is really an all-encompassing word, meaning “Teaching”) and pleading that he is, yet crying out for help at the same time. (In a word, pretty conflicted! 🙂 )

          • Thank you Dana and Stefan. Hugs to you both. You have given wise direction, help and understanding. I will chew on these for some time. And go buy a Psalter. Imonk has become the only “church” I find help in and I’m grateful.

      • I’ve been reading a psalm to lead-off every adult Sunday school class for a couple of years now. We’ve made it through them all and are now to Psalm 45 the second time around. I’ll be honest, there are times many of us laugh at the bipolar nature of David and his melodramatic writings. “You love me, You are awesome, now slay all those wicked people who are out to get me, You love me, You are awesome” is pretty typical pattern.

        That said, some of his language and sentiments, along with that of the other writers of the psalms, is pure beauty and poetry. And you gotta admire the blunt honesty prevalent in many of them. (Psalm 44 comes to mind.)

        • lol I love that you can laugh at them. I confess I’m a little bipolar about things, including God, so I can relate. 🙂

      • Two more thoughts on approaching imprecatory psalms, in addition to the many other helpful contributions given above:
        1. Remember, first and foremost, that the true enemies of the Christian are sin, death, and the devil. Our struggls is not with flesh and blood, even if we often feel like it is.
        2. Pray these prayers from the position of Christ. Christ, as the one truly innocent human being, had enemies who hated him without just cause. We pray against the enemies of Christ. Which creates a tension with a Christ who gives his life for the forgiveness of his enemies. But before we get there, we must recognize that the state of being Christ’s enemy is being an enemy of love. And thus we turn the enemies of love over to love Himself: Instead of taking matters into our own hands, we commend vengeance into the hands of the one we know would prefer to give forgiveness instead.

  7. In the recurring Battle Between Evangelicals and Liturgicals fought here yesterday at the Monastery, it seemed to me the bottom line was effective worship depends on whether it is being done mindfully or mindlessly, and that neither side holds the winning hand. I would say the same applies to today’s topic.

    Thank you for all mentions and resources for chanting the Psalms as opposed to reciting them. I believe these are two separate actions taking part in two separate parts of the brain and of the mind, but again requiring mindfulness and intent. Seems to me the near perfect vehicle for ecumenical spiritual communion, not only for Romans, Easterns, and Protestants, but if kept pure, for those of good will from Mormon and Jewish wings, possibly even Muslim as well. Not so sure about Baptists.

    Any recommendations for simple CD’s or other media to listen to chanting in action to see what it sounds like rather than reading a description? Not necessarily a thousand voice choir knocking you to your knees, but more like what you might hear in a good practicing church or monastery so you could do this yourself.

    • Dana Ames says:

      Charlie,

      Gregorian style is beautiful, but hard to learn. Farther East, there are “only” eight melodies, but they have a lot of variations depending on the day of the week and the liturgical season. Most monastic chant is done with text in languages that don’t have the same cadences as English. Because of this, unless you’re used to singing the style and/or can read the notes, good monastic chant is not particularly easy to copy.

      The best thing for a regular person to do is to first find an English translation of the Psalms you like reading out loud. Then you can experiment with chanting and find what works for you. The most basic chant is done by staying on one note that is comfortable for you in your vocal range. After a while as you get more familiar with matching the syllables of the words to that one note, you can begin to match the cadences of the language by doing little “pick-up” notes, one or two, that match the beginnings of the sentences/phrases when they have that sound. You can raise your pitch by one or two steps for words like God, Lord, Most High, etc. Typically at the end of the phrase or sentence, the pitch dips a whole or half step then comes back up to the starting pitch. At the end of the whole Psalm, the chanter usually does a little cadence that signifies the end. I usually sing “1 – 2 – flat 7 – 1” if 1 signifies the home pitch, the first note of your scale; 2 would be a whole step above, and flat 7 would be a whole step below, then back to “home”. But you can find what feels comfortable for you.

      The trick to learning how to do this is to actually do it – take some time every day for it. Don’t worry about “making mistakes” – all you’re doing is finding your own rhythm, and there is no “mistake” in that. If you’re consistent, it will start to fall into place, and you’ll get to the point where you’re hardly thinking about it at all.

      Dana

      • The difficulty of gregorian-style really depends on the resource. The traditional western plainsong psalm tones are also only eight (well, nine, if we count tonus peregrinas with a few variations in the endings. The basic tones are pretty simple and have a relatively small range. Just going through the psalter over the course of a month, I picked them up pretty well by the second time through, with a couple of exceptions. I’ve found that my parishioners follow those tones pretty easily, even when they don’t have the written notation in front of them. I’ve got a guide to basic plainchant for the psalms and the offices on our parish blog that includes the nine basic tones:

        https://allsaintsanglicanchurch.publishpath.com/prayer-book-catholicism-3-introduction-to-chanting-the-offices-12052015

        I also remember running across a web page back when I was first learning to use my psalter that had several ways to sing the psalms. The guy who made the page had a printout of the five or so most common plainchant tunes so that you could laminate it and put it in your bible.

      • Dana and Isaac both, thank you much. I have heard liturgical chanting so I know what that sounds like, and very much prefer it to spoken, but haven’t heard a Psalm as a congregation might sing it. I do think you receive it with a different part of your mind or soul that is closer to home. Reciting a spoken Psalm in unison as part of the congregational scriptures of the day doesn’t do a lot for me. I’ll poke around. That tip on getting St. Dunstan from the publisher is a good one. I’ve had it on my Amazon wish list for some time and couldn’t handle the pain of the price sticker.

        • Yeah, I’ve bought several copies directly from the publisher over the years, and it’s remained about $30 there. I like the soft-back with the soft plastic cover rather than the hardback. It’s more portable without reducing the type size. There are some folks at my parish with the hardback, and most of them wish they had bought the soft-back.

    • Charlie,

      I haven’t seen as much in terms of recording of plainchant psalms in English as I have in Latin. There’s all sorts in English for Anglican Chant and metrical psalms, though, much even on YouTube.

      My favorite resource for chanting the psalms is the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter. That’s how I learned to chant, and I use it just about every day with my family or parish. If you get it, buy it from the publisher, not Amazon. Amazon charges about 3x the cover price for some reason.

  8. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do — they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, girls, my mates, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music. As a result, the Book of Psalms always felt open to me and led me to the poetry of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the book of John…My religion could not be fiction, but it had to transcend facts. It could be mystical, but not mythical.

    – the Irish Prophet Bono

    http://www.atu2.com/news/psalm-like-it-hot.html

  9. Dana Ames says:

    Here is a quote from St Basil the Great:

    Any part of Scriptures you like to choose is inspired by God. The Holy Spirit composed the Scriptures so that in them, as in a pharmacy open to all souls, we might each of us be able to find the medicine suited to our own particular illness. Thus, the teaching of the Prophets is one thing, and that of the historical books another. And again, the Law has one meaning and the advice we read in the book of Proverbs has a different one.

    But the Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behavior to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cases. It heals the old wounds of the soul and gives relief to recent ones. It cures the illnesses and preserves the health of the soul.

    Every Psalm brings peace, soothes the internal conflicts, calms the rough waves of evil thoughts, dissolves anger, corrects and moderates profligacy. Every Psalm preserves friendship and reconciles those who are separated. Who could actually regard as an enemy the person beside whom they have raised a song to the one God?

    Every Psalm anticipates the anguish of the night and gives rest after the efforts of the day. It is safety for babes, beauty for the young, comfort for the aged, adornment for women.

    Every Psalm is the voice of the Church.

    (translation by Thomas Spidik)

    Notice that for St Basil, “Scripture” is the Old Testament… also that singing the Psalms is most often done in the context of communal prayer.

    Dana

    • Well said!

      The communal aspect is very good. I’d been singing (well, chanting) the psalms for a couple of years by myself, with the occasional singing with the folks at the parish. Well, my wife has now been joining and it makes things even better, though it admittedly took a while to get used to the mutual deferring that goes with such things. A month or so ago, the four clergymen at the parish did an office with just us and chanted together. It was especially neat to have all men’s voices for a change; it added to the sense of brotherhood.

      • Dana Ames says:

        Fr Isaac,

        I think you would enjoy “The Grace of Incorruption” – it a compilation of essays by the late Dartmouth professor of literature, author and translator Donald Sheehan, all on the psalms. The book opened up so much for me, especially Ps 119 (118 LXX) – I have avoided it in the past, not because of the length, but because I felt like I was being battered over the head with exhortations to obey what the bible says… Shehan’s analysis on the basis of the Resurrection is astounding, made me want to even memorize the thing, as Stefan above. Sometimes I had to simply put the book down, because it was like drinking too much of the finest water at once – had to take time to really taste and absorb it. Do check into it.

        Dana

  10. There is really no richer wellspring of human emotion in the Bible than the Psalms, and they run the whole gamut of human existence (well, except maybe for romantic love: have to go to the Song of Solomon for that): history and philosophy; fear and anger; love and mercy; and of course, out of the depths of all the laments, the anticipation of a Saviour!

    I’ve found that memorizing one or two shorter ones have helped to internalize them as prayers: structured prayers that I can turn to when I’m anxious or distracted. I wanted to challenge myself and memorize Psalm 119 this year (see my reply to JoelG above), but it’s really a monster of a text, for all the obvious reasons. And frankly, God-breathed though it is, it’s not really adequate as a short, practical prayer.

  11. David Cornwell says:

    It is very good to see my seminary, Asbury, doing something like this. At its best Asbury has been a bridge linking the better parts of evangelical theology/practice to mainline churches, though mostly UMC. Under one president it drifted, in my opinion, too far to the theological right and became a divisive force in the UMC. However Dr. and Mrs Tennent are refreshing. Real renewal may come through correct worship, not politics.

    Both were students at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Dr Tennent was on the staff of this school, as well as holding many other positions. I wish them both well, and pray for their work.

  12. For a period of years I prayed the Daily Office using the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1979, both by myself and later with my wife. I’ve discontinued the practice for some years now: it just didn’t take, despite all the time I put into it, and I found myself more and more resentful as I tried to force myself through the practice day after day. So I stopped.

    I’m happy for all who find this practice meaningful and workable, and are able to join the many down through the ages who did as well. By all means try it, if you haven’t. But if it doesn’t work for you, remember this: It may indeed be an essential practice of the Church, but if it doesn’t work as your practice, that doesn’t make you a non-essential Christian.

    • This is very true. Keeping up with the daily office requires no insignificant effort. However, just because you can’t keep up with it completely doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from it. In my personal devotion, we use a very simplified form of the Daily Office that generally is much shorter, but still follows the same general form of psalm – reading – prayer.

      Every believer needs some form of private devotion or spiritual discipline, even if most of us don’t keep up with it very well at all. Find something that works, and allow resources like the BCP to guide you at least, I say. And there is something to be said for pushing through the resentment we often encounter when attempting a new discipline. I have occasionally found times of refreshment and peace when I’ve been able to push past it.

  13. The cat vomited–
    I kneel, paper towels in hand:
    Evening devotions.

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Sounds like you guys are rediscovering the Breviary and/or the Liturgy of the Hours.

  15. I really like the short book “Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer” by Eugene Peterson. Doesn’t get into chanting but talks about the Psalms as prayer book and addresses many of the issues commenters have–the difficulty of imprecatory psalms, the range of emotions, etc.

  16. Oh no! SING the Psalms is down!

    I was really enjoying that resource…