Alder Bench

29 July 2013

Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany

Dwelling in the Psalms

Part 1

 

INTRODUCTION

The Book of Common Prayer introduces the Psalter by saying “it is a body of liturgical poetry, designed for vocal, congregational use, whether by singing or reading.” And in the Anglican tradition, there has long been an expectation that clergy would say the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, and that this discipline would also be followed by devout laity as much as possible. Yet I think if we are candid, it is a discipline that is likely practiced only by a minority, whether lay or clerical. I can only confess that, having once known the riches of the monastic community praying and chanting the prayers and psalms day after day, season after season, I frankly found it nigh on impossible to say the offices on my own. They were designed for corporate, congregational prayer, and that was no longer an option for me on a daily basis.

Yet always, my heart hungered for what I knew was truly food for the soul. And so after years—nay, decades!—of praying in an unstructured, irregular manner, I found myself returning once again to a more traditional practice. Perhaps my own interior silence had deepened sufficiently to sustain a richer feast of psalms, readings, and canticles.

As a result, this arrangement of the Psalms is the fruit of an effort to find a way of praying the Psalms that is in accordance with the practice of the ancient Church, and that is also coherent with the life-style of the solitary anchorite or hermit. (Perhaps it may also be useful for others who pray alone, or even in community.)

Praying the Psalms in solitude is very different than praying them in a congregation or a monastic community. In solitude, one does not have the support of other voices, other souls—except, of course, for the presence of the Communion of Saints, who are even now and unto the ages lifting their voices in praise to the Holy Trinity.

The life of a vowed anchorite or hermit is also a life dedicated to silence and simplicity. As such, the traditional breviaries and lectionaries may be found cumbersome, and unduly complicated, often impinging upon the deep silence of contemplative prayer.

This arrangement, then, is significantly simplified. The cycle of Psalms is spread over a four-week cycle. In addition, rather than the ancient tradition of seven daily offices, and the more contemporary tradition of four offices a day, this Psalter is divided between Matins and Vespers. Some may choose to add a period of intercession at noon day, and the traditional late-evening office of Compline may more easily be recited by memory while preparing for sleep.

A few comments about the distribution:

For generations, lectionaries have distributed the scripture readings to reflect to some extent the season of the liturgy (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter….and less so for “ordinary time”). Yet I have been unable to find any tradition (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican) that does the same to a significant degree with the Psalms. By and large, the Psalms most often seem to have been prayed in a roughly numerical order, whether on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly cycle, with occasional variations to be found. If anyone knows of other types of ‘thematic’ lectionaries for the psalms, I hope you will let me know!

The only thing I have found which is close to a thematic (non-seasonal) distribution was that developed by Bonnell Spencer, OHC, in A Monastic Breviary, used by the Order of the Holy Cross and the Order of St. Helena. Fr. Spencer introduced the Psalter by saying,

In determining the assignment of [the psalms], the effort was made, not only to fit them to the time of day, but also to give certain days of the week a special tone. Thus worship and thanksgiving characterize the psalms selected for Sunday, and also for Thursday because of its association with the Eucharist and the Ascension. Friday, and to a lesser extent Wednesday, have been treated as penitential. The Incarnation and the part taken in it by the Virgin Mother are associated with Saturday.  A Monastic Breviary (Holy Cross Publications, 1976)

However, the more I have immersed myself in the ancient patristic tradition of ascetical practice, and discovered therein a clear path for the journey of the soul, I found the traditional psalm distribution to be jarring and seemingly without any reflection of this spiritual path. So at last, building on these studies, I began to examine the traditional stages of the mystical path as a context for praying the Psalms.

In the Western Church, we have traditionally identified three stages: Purification (or Purgation); Illumination; and Union. These designations found their roots in the teaching of the early church (3rd-7th centuries), especially in such masters of the life of the soul as Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius of Ponticus, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor. They identified similar stages, but more often used terms such as the Practical Life, Contemplation, and Theosis (or Divinization). Further, contemplation was often seen as having two stages within it, the earliest being contemplation of the created order, and the more advanced being contemplation of the ‘intelligibles’ or the ‘Heavenly Jerusalem.’ Only after passing through these stages, would the soul come to the fullness of the ‘likeness’ of God, or theosis, or union.

I have adapted these stages under the headings of “Faithful Living”, “Contemplative Living”, and “Holy Dwelling.” While using this understanding of the mystical path, rather than simply reciting the psalms in numbered sequence, I have arranged them—to the degree possible—to reflect the journey of the soul through the stages according to various themes reflecting the experiences and emphases of each stage.

Psalm Stages & Themes

WEEKDAYSTAGESTHEMES
SUNDAYHoly DwellingResurrection / Theosis
MONDAYFaithful LivingCreation / Salvation History
TUESDAYFaithful LivingPassions / Discipleship
WEDNESDAYFaithful LivingPurification / Repentance
THURSDAYContemplative LivingIllumination / Wisdom
FRIDAYContemplative LivingSacrifice / Redemption
SATURDAYHoly DwellingIncarnation / Virtue

 Such a distribution of the Psalms supports the soul by each week emphasizing the different stages of the mystical journey. Of course, not every psalm fits neatly into these categories, and someone else might determine a very different distribution. I was also constrained by an effort to approximate the number of verses for each office, coming up with an overall average of 44 verses for each of the 56 offices in a four-week cycle.

Although traditional practice is to begin each week with Saturday Vespers, I have chosen to use our more modern calendar by beginning with Sunday. However, it would be simple to adjust this system to the more traditional, simply by moving Saturday Vespers to the beginning of each week.

What about the ‘imprecatory’ verses? Our modern sensibility finds them very objectionable, indeed. Some lectionaries omit them entirely. And yet, does that not simply impose our own sensibilities upon what has for millennia been part of the prayer of faithful people, Jew and Christian alike? As hard as some of these verses are to pray, it seems to me they must be retained. We may not wish to think of ‘dashing little ones’ heads against the rocks’ (Ps. 137), but there are people out there who do just that, and perhaps our prayer can bring them—and our own unruly passions—into the transforming presence of God. It is also worth noting that the ancient tradition was to see some of these verses as directed against the assault of demonic and evil forces, a reality which must be encountered by any soul who prays for very long.

One other note: Psalm 95 is not included here because it is used every day at the beginning of Matins. The translation used is that of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

In the coming days, I will continue these posts on the psalms, with a slightly fuller explanation of each stage, and with a chart of the psalms assigned to each office and day within each stage.

Susan Creighton+

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 2

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 3

Dwelling in the Psalms, Part 4

 

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