Singing the Psalms

Neo-Gothic Pulpit, St. Columba’s Free Church of Scotland

One of the things I like about the church I currently attend is its tradition of Psalm-singing. A cappella Psalm-singing. I have long been appreciative of the use of Psalms in worship. Worshipping regularly with Anglicans for over 27 years, the Psalms have always had a place in the weekly liturgy, whether Morning/Evening Prayer or Eucharist, whether BCP or BAS. The Psalms were there. Being recited alternately between a leader and the congregation.

This tradition of Psalm-praying is good. Is, indeed, very good. But what the Free Church of Scotland gives us is, I believe, a different sort of engagement with the Psalms. On a retreat with some fellow Anglicans once, the theme was the Psalms. We were reminded that the Psalms are God’s Prayerbook. This is a very Anglican way of putting it. In fact, however, the Psalms are God’s hymn book.

The singing of Psalms is not unique to the Wee Frees and related Presbyterians. The Eastern Orthodox sing them. Anglo-Catholic choirs sing them to Renaissance settings. Some Anglicans sing or chant them together as a group (though most do not). St. Athanasius, in his ‘Letter to Marcellinus’ appended to the end of the SVS translation of On the Incarnation (until Fr. Behr’s supplants it, at least) recommends singing Psalms. So does the Anglican William Law in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Indeed, Law says that you should sing or chant them as part of your personal devotions every day. If no one can hear, it doesn’t matter. If someone can, good. Remind them of their own duty to pray. (That’s the sort of advice Law likes to give.)

Singing or chanting is not quite the same experience as simply speaking. Athanasius envisages the reader entering into the voice and persona of the Psalmist through singing the Psalms. In so doing, we take up these prayers as our own. The Psalms are not simply occasional poetry for a single person to pour out his heart to God. They are songs to be sung by us all, connecting the individual with the community, the living with the dead, humans with angels, Christians with Jews.

The Psalms are worth getting to know.

So I find it a most excellent thing to sing two or three Psalms a cappella each Sunday morning or evening (depends on the week). I like to belt songs out, so the fact that usually they are set to old hymn tunes works in my favour. Rather than passively receiving the words of Scripture or the prayers, I am putting myself into them, worshipping God in spirit indeed.

And when Colin R is behind me and a little to one side, I can sing the bass part (still no good at finding harmonies solo — one reason it was good to sit with Philip S at Little T!). The harmonies of a hundred or more voices lifted up in song with no organ, no piano, no guitar, nothing. It is a beautiful thing. When the church is packed to bursting at the joint services with Edinburgh’s other Free Churches — oh, the power and might of those voices lifted up in harmony with one accord! The beauty of it. This is a church against which the gates of Hades cannot prevail, indeed!

Because there is power in God’s word written. Power in faithful hearts joined together in worship. Power in the beauty of God’s presence whenever we come before Him.

Power in the simple beauty of human voices singing harmony.

This is a beauty I appreciate in Gregorian Chant or the wonderful concert of Byzantine Christmas Hymns I attended in December. There is a different beauty in Renaissance polyphony, in the Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio or in Mozart’s Requiem. I do not wish to play down that beauty. I enjoy it immensely and find the wonder and beauty of a well-rehearsed choir or organ as at St. Mary’s Cathedral or Old St. Paul’s can bring me well-nigh to ecstasy or that Buddhist ideal of being in the moment. When I first listened to Striggio’s forty-part Renaissance glory, I almost cried.

But this beauty of around 100 Wee Free voices on a Sunday is wonderful in its own right. The beauty of simplicity in an old-fashioned but moderately unadorned sanctuary as we join together in song, aided by nothing but what God has given us. Our naked voices approach the Almighty as our souls ought — no hiding, no vain pretense, no embellishment. Just the beauty of the wonderful gift already given.

So sing a Psalm this Sunday! (Even sing one right now!)

A Lenten Psalm: Psalm 51

Eleison me Kyrie

One of the most popular Psalms of all time (right up there with 23 and bits of 119) is Psalm 51, Miserere mei. If you were at an Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of this holy season of Lent, you probably recited this Psalm, or at least heard it sung in Renaissance Latin polyphony by a beautiful choir (as I did).

The popularity of Psalm 51 is visible beyond worldwide Ash Wednesday services. It was part of the Daily Office in the mediaeval British Use of Sarum at both Lauds and Vespers. I have heard it sung at Eastern Orthodox Vespers on more than one occasion. Psalm 51’s presence in the Daily Office of the western church is no surprise, given that Benedict lists it explicitly as part of Sunday Matins (ch. 12). If one were to scour liturgical books, Psalm 51 would be one of those items that crops up fairly often.

The cause of Psalm 51’s popularity is given by St. Athanasius (d. 373) in his very interesting Letter to Marcellinus:

It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 51 …

But suppose now that you have sinned and, having been put to confusion, are repenting and begging for forgiveness, then you have the words of confession and repentance in Psalm 51. (Trans. ‘A religious of CSMV’, 1982 ed., pp. 105, 110)

This is what Psalms are for. They are for singing and for praying. They are for providing us with a biblical outlet for our spiritual lives. Psalm 51, written by King David after he had been confronted by Nathan the Prophet following the death of Uriah the Hittite and David’s adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, is a wondrously apt Psalm for repentance.

There are two great levellers in human experience — sin and grace. All Christians everywhere have felt the weight of their own sin at times. Even as grace lifts us up as children and heirs of God, sin brings us down to remind us that we are unworthy of this honour. And so time and again, we turn to Psalm 51 to lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness (as in the BCP collect for Ash Wednesday).

So let us all reflect upon the words of this Psalm. In 1662, you would have sung it or recited it in the words of Coverdale’s translation. If you know how to do a basic Anglican chant and you’re not in an office or a Postgrad study space, William Law encourages you to sing the Psalms aloud. Athanasius assures you that in singing you take up the role of the Psalmist more fully.

Here it is:

Psalm 51. Miserere mei, DeusHave mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness : according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
2. Wash me throughly from my wickedness : and cleanse me from my sin.
3. For I acknowledge my faults : and my sin is ever before me.
4. Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight : that thou mightest be justified in thy saying, and clear when thou art judged.
5. Behold, I was shapen in wickedness : and in sin hath my mother conceived me.
6. But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
7. Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean : thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8. Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness : that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9. Turn thy face from my sins : and put out all my misdeeds.
10. Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me.
11. Cast me not away from thy presence : and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
12. O give me the comfort of thy help again : and stablish me with thy free Spirit.
13. Then shall I teach thy ways unto the wicked : and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14. Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, thou that art the God of my health : and my tongue shall sing of thy righteousness.
15. Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord : and my mouth shall shew thy praise.
16. For thou desirest no sacrifice, else would I give it thee : but thou delightest not in burnt-offerings.
17. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit : a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
18. O be favourable and gracious unto Sion : build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifice of righteousness, with the burnt-offerings and oblations : then shall they offer young bullocks upon thine altar.

“… world without end.”

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.