Re-post from elsewhere in 2008.
Back when I worshipped at St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church in Ottawa, I went on a retreat for young folks of the “College & Careers” variety. The talks were delivered by the excellent David Alexander on the theme of the Psalms. The Psalms, he reminded us, are prayers. They’re God’s Prayer Book. He recommended praying through the Psalms, saying that we could get through the whole Book of Psalms over two times in a whole year. He also led us through the Psalms, showing us many of the Messianic promises and foreshadowings that were fulfilled in Jesus.
I like the idea of praying the Psalms. This is in part related to praying the Gloria Patri — in psalmody, we join with Christians from throughout history, around the globe, and between traditions. The original monastic offices, as practised by the Desert Fathers and then more formalised through Cassian and Benedict, consisted of gathering to pray the Psalms together. The core of the worship of the monks as they gathered once or twice a week in Egypt or seven times a day in Italy was the Book of Psalms. Eastern Orthodox monks today have a service where they chant all the Psalms of David without stop.
Before the liturgies were organised and formalised, before the hymns were written and gathered, the faithful have had the Psalms to sing, worship, and pray with. The Psalms are like an ancient Jewish hymn book. We ought not to neglect them. Nor should we simply read them as we read the rest of the Bible. They were included in the Scriptures not simply because they reveal things about Almighty God but also because they teach us how to pray, aid us in prayer, give us words when we lack our own. Edith Humphrey, in Ecstasy and Intimacy, notes that Evelyn Underhill, a 20th-century English mystic, says that the Psalms and the Gospels are the foundational texts for Christian mysticism and spirituality.
The Gloria Patri makes the Psalms part of our prayer. We conclude the lessons with, “The word of the Lord,” or “Here endeth the lesson.” The Gospels when read aloud are closed with, “The Gospel of Christ.” But the Psalms are not concluded in such a manner when we use the Gloria Patri. Instead, they flow into our worship, for they were always intended to be prayers.
At the back of SVS Press’ translation of On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius is Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms. It is well worth a read for its insight into the Psalms as prophecy as well as prayer and how the Psalms lay out the entire spiritual life for us. In one passage, he writes:
In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the dongs there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and any one who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts. . . . The marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself. (pp. 104-105)
Through my own praying of the Psalms and reading about the Psalms and the Gloria Patri, I have come to appreciate this ancient practice of making the Psalms one’s own. And now I think I understand my brother‘s dislike of the Psalter as found in the Book of Alternative Services (BAS).
The BAS is the Anglican Church of Canada’s modern liturgy and is fast becoming the dominant liturgy in Canada. I grew up with it; it is not as bad as many say. I was nourished by its words and grew into a man of faith using this book at worship every Sunday. Nonetheless, it is a lesser book compared to the BCP.
This is one reason why.
While it does include the Gloria Patri after the versicles from the Psalms, the Gloria Patri is rendered optional for the actual Psalm of the day. If you turn to the Psalter in said book (pp. 705-909), you will note something following each Psalm: a Psalm prayer. These prayers render the Psalms into little Aesop’s Fables in prayer form. If the Psalm is chiefly a prayer or an act of worship, then a prayer based on the theme of the Psalm at hand or praying for one of the lessons of the Psalm is completely extraneous.
I’ve a feeling, though, that the Psalms are not used or understood in this way by many Anglicans. Celebrating Common Prayer, the Society of Saint Francis’ book of the divine office, does the same thing, although it keeps the Gloria Patri with the versicles and canticles. The Psalms are not our own hymns and prayers! They’re just there to teach us a lesson! And if they conflict with our worldview, we’ll just excise the uncomfortable bits from the lectionary.
We are to be a people of prayer, drawing from the deep well of Scripture and Tradition. The praying of the Psalms has the benefit of being both. Using the Gloria Patri helps ensure that we continue to pray the Psalms, not simply say the Psalms.
O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.