Friday, August 19, 2011

The Place of the Psalms in the Church

Along with the Our Father, the psalms are the gold standard of Christian prayer.  For by means of the powerful Word of God, they rehearse and celebrate the judgements of the Lord, which, as we pray in the 19th Psalm, are "more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold."  Pope Benedict XVI is right when he says that the Psalter is "the prayer book par excellence;" in this he echoes the Christian wisdom of all ages.  The Blessed Reformer writes:
The Psalter ought to be a dear and beloved book, if only because it promises Christ's death and resurrection so clearly, and so typifies His kingdom and the conditions and nature of all Christendom that it might well be called the little Bible.  It puts everything that is in all the Bible most beautifully and briefly, and is made an Enchiridion, or handbook, so that I have a notion that the Holy Ghost wanted to take the trouble to compile a short Bible and example-book of all Christendom, or of all saints.  
Unfortunately, however, the modern Church's knowledge of these truths about the Psalms is more theoretical than real.  That is because the modern Church's knowledge of the Psalms is more theoretical than real.  To really know a thing is to know it for oneself, to experience it, to come to relate to it personally, to appropriate it and be able to make it one's own confession.  In a sense, we get a picture of this type of knowledge from what Moses teaches us about the world's proto-marriage.  Adam and Eve shamelessly expose themselves to each other.  The man cleaves to his Eve; they enter into an essentially one flesh union.  In short, Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bare him offspring, for such knowledge is too wonderful not to have a fruitful result.  Life itself is affirmed, and perpetuated.  As with the first Adam, so with the Second, the New Man, Christ our Lord, Whose holy Bride, the Church, is made from the elements taken from His pierced side.  He takes her to Himself, plants His seed, His Word, in her, as He does with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the result of this union is that new life is conceived.  In fact, the New Man Himself comes forth and rises in the lives of each of her members.  The Church in this way comes to recognize her true identity in light of being known by her Lord.  She is blessed among women, for unlike others, He will not on the last day say to her, I know you not (Luke 13).  Christ both knows her, and knows whence she is, for she is flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone.  And far from being an absentee husband, whom we hope to finally meet only in heaven, we might say that by means of His law He exercises Himself in the Church day and night.  The result is that He is the tree of life, planted by the waters of Baptism, that will bring forth His fruit in due season (Psalm 1).        

To be sure, there are Christians who know the psalms in this intimate and fruitful way, but as a whole, as a body, the Church of our age knows the psalter about as well as it knows the beauty of the Athanasian Creed (another churchly tragedy, to which we must devote a separate rant), which is to say, hardly not at all.  Each generation must take on this heritage anew and open it up for itself.  Unfortunately, for the present age the heritage of the Psalms is essentially a closed book.  We can open it up again, but that will take real work, and real initiative.  Sadly, too many seminary instructors and administrators are training men to go out and be precisely the type of pastors who do not take initiative, but are content with the practices that are in place.

Yet we could start heading down the right road by taking some very simple steps.  First, by making sure that our people are hearing and singing the Psalms in our public worship.  This is vital.  The degree to which the Psalms are part of a church's liturgical life (whether it be none at all, or minimally, or moderately, or extremely fully and vibrantly) is at once both a sign of how important the Psalms are to a church and an indicator of how much the people will be inspired to use and love the Psalms in their own lives.  In other words, public worship patterns and practices relate dynamically with the Christian's devotional practices.  You cannot simply encourage people, in a parish newsletter column, to pray the Psalms.  If you want the people to have more than a theoretical love of the Psalms, they must see, hear, and experience the praying of the Psalms together as a church.  The natural result will be that it will begin to take deep root in their hearts.

I suppose that most of our churches do include psalmody in their liturgical worshp.  Nevertheless, each church should strive to improve its own practice in this regard.  If the psalmody in your parish is limited to the Introit and the Gradual, then give your people opportunity for a larger dose of the Psalms.  This can be done both in terms of the Sunday Mass and in terms of the Divine Office.  Consider adding a Sunday Vespers, or a First Vespers on Saturday evening, or a Sunday Matins (or another morning office, like Lauds or Prime).  If the Psalmody in your parish is recited, then work toward having it chanted.  You think you are beyond learning to chant?  You are wrong.  You won't learn?  Then know that the chanting of the Psalms is not the sole realm of the pastor anyway.  See if there is anyone in your parish who either has musical skill, or who will learn, and let that person train a choir.  If there is already a completely full and vibrant use of the Psalms in the public worship of your church, then be sure to include the psalms in your preaching and teaching, and help train choirs and pastors of other parishes.  If you're an out of work deacon, at least blog on this important subject, and try to be an example for others.  Whatever you are doing, do more.  Whatever you are doing well, do it better.  In that way, you and your church will be part of the solution.  We cannot rest content until the Psalms once again enjoy the exalted status they had in the early Church.

To gain a taste of the place of the Psalms in the early Church, let us hear the witness of Saint John Chrysostom:
If we keep vigil in the Church, David comes first, last, and midst. If early in the morning we seek for the melody of hymns, first, last, and midst is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of the departed, if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last, and midst. O marvellous wonder! Many who have made but little progress in literature, nay, who have scarcely mastered its first principles, have the psalter by heart. Nor is it in cities and churches alone that at all times, through every age, David is illustrious; in the midst of the forum, in the wilderness, and uninhabitable land, he excites the praises of God. In monasteries, amongst those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, midst, and last. In the convents of virgins, where are the bands of them that imitate Mary; in the deserts, where are men crucified to this world, and having their conversation with God, first, midst, and last is he.
In the course of time the Psalms receded from common use.  We can be grateful, however, that in the Medieval Period they were at least preserved in the choirs of the cathedrals and monasteries.  And rigorous standards for Ordination included knowledge of the Psalms (though their enforcement was not always quite uniform).  As one account tells us:
S. Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the fifth age, refused to ordain any clerk who could not repeat “David” by heart. S. Gregory the Great declined to consecrate a Bishop who had not learnt the Psalter, and his refusal was enjoined on others by the Second Council of Nicaea. The Eighth Council of Toledo (653) orders that “none henceforth shall be promoted to any ecclesiastical dignity who do not perfectly know the whole Psalter, and in addition to that the usual Canticles and Hymns, and the Formula of Baptism.” In like manner the Council of Oviedo (1050) decrees that “the Archdeacon shall present such clerks for Ordination at the Ember seasons as know perfectly the whole Psalter, the Canticles, the Hymns, the Gospels, and the Collects.” So thoroughly did they carry out S. Augustine’s exhortation with respect to the Psalms.

So how well would today's Lutheran clergy stack up by those standards?  Before we point any fingers toward them, however, we should keep in mind that they are the product of our seminaries, which are the product of our age.  As I say, we can at least begin to improve matters by looking at where we are, and taking steps from there. 

It was disappointing to attend Mass at a church when I was out of town recently only to discover that there would be no Introit or Gradual.  It's not even that there was a slip up during the Mass; they were not included in the printed buletin, which means that a specific decision was made not to use them.  That's pretty pathetic.  To start using the Introits and Graduals would take about two minutes of homework during the week.  When the Church leaves off the liturgical praying of the Psalms, even if that is only an occasional fluke, it sends the message that the Psalms are not really all that important.  On the other hand, as we improve our practice, the people will take notice.  And our improved practice will bear much fruit. 

Let me add, as a final thought, that when I see that phrase, much fruit, I cannot help but think of the name of the great Saint Polycarp.  Polycarp was a Christian who knew the Word of God, and was bold to live that Word according to his vocation.  At the culmination of his life in this world, he was encouraged with the words, "Play the man, Polycarp. Be strong."  The Church needs a new generation of real men, not as the world defines it, but as only Christ can produce in those who will be conformed to His Word and His cross.  Praying the Psalms, for yourself, and for your people, will help set you in the right direction.

No comments: