Monday, August 20, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(1)

(Re)learning to Pray the Psalms Liturgically

I. Introduction: why are the Psalms so difficult to pray liturgically?
All of us here probably know something about Bernstein’s wonderful piece, Chichester Psalms. For me, his lush neo-Romantic harmonies and vigorous rhythms are truly enchanting. Perhaps some of us here have even wondered, “Why can’t liturgy, or at least music in the liturgy, be like that?” Of course, one reason is obvious, it is a piece that requires all kinds of rehearsal time, professional instrumentalists of all sorts; in other words, it is work for musicians and not ‘work of the people’ as liturgy is supposed to be. Emblematic of the difference between, say, Bernstein and Palestrina, is the clever juxtaposition, in Chichester Psalms, of Psalms 23 and 2 in the second movement. Here, the ethereal, almost disembodied voice of a boy soprano, what I like to think of as Bernstein’s ‘inner child’ soars blissfully unaware of the raging nations, represented by the choir. This opposition, between soloist and choir, brings immediately to my mind the now traditional antagonism of liturgist and assembly. The liturgist tends to want to emote and hopes that others will follow, but ends up in some other world while the people “uselessly murmur.”
What I would like to propose to you this morning is that our difficulty in praying the Psalms stems from a misunderstanding of the Psalms as poetry instead of as the liturgical texts they are. I say ‘poetry’ in the specifically modern sense of a text composed which captures inner feelings and impressions, the deep thoughts of a noble subject set down, what Wordsworth called ‘emotion recalled in tranquillity’. I like to use modern poetry as a prelude to lectio and private prayer. It has a wonderfully centering effect and brings us in touch with our feelings. Let me give some stirring examples:
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

This is Wordsworth, contemplating London before sunrise and, more importantly perhaps, his reaction to it. Or how about some Gerard Manley Hopkins:
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With the tormenting mind tormenting yet.

Or T.S. Eliot:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Now these three excerpts have in common a great sublimity, a great perceptiveness. They also are all about the subject. These are wonderful texts to read aloud, alone, on a quiet fall afternoon. But imagine trying to get a hundred people to say them together. In any case, the feelings and moods aroused by modern art, in this case, poetry, are very gratifying, and certainly noble in their way. But when we turn to the Psalms, we often bring the same expectations to them as we do to Shelley or Keats. Then, when they refuse to yield up the desired affective results, we grow disillusioned and often turn to hymnody or some other texts more easily grasp by modern sensibilities.
Let me use Psalm 63 to illustrate further.
O God, you are my God, for you I long
For you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
Like a dry, weary land without water.

So far, so good. A love song for God. What monk could fail to be attracted by such overt expressions of longing for God? Of course, in the next line, things start to get a bit more complicated:
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
To see your strength and your glory.

If we take this sentence literally, we limit ourselves a bit as to what we are imagining when we are with God. In fact, it would seem that we have to go to the sanctuary, here qadesh, the Hebrew word denoting the place where the ark of the covenant is kept veiled in the temple’s inner sanctum. Now we tend automatically, without much thought, to gloss over such a restriction. Perhaps we just see the sanctuary with our mind’s eye as we pray in our room. Or perhaps we dispense with any concrete image at all, and I mean this quite seriously, we understand ‘gazing’ at God to mean a mere feeling of warmth at the thought of God’s presence, which we take for granted to be anywhere we want to pray. But this is going well beyond the text as it stands. The author of this Psalm is without question in the temple, probably the one official temple in Jerusalem, looking at a physical object. This particular space and the particular objects in that space represent to him nothing less than God’s strength and glory.
Keep in mind that I am not denying the validity of a spiritual sense in the Psalms. In other words, it is true that our bodies are temples, and so we can understand the sanctuary to be an inner reality of ourselves. But the Fathers of the Church also insist that the literal sense be clearly understood and never lost or contradicted or skipped over too quickly. In this case, for example, it is surely helpful to remember that being a living stone in the temple of God is a great privilege, a privilege won at a great price.

1 comment:

Roger said...

Just found this little piece on prayer that helped me a lot! Thought I would share.


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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