C. S. Lewis wrote his Reflections on the Psalms, and he is no exception, since many spiritual writers have done the same. Yet for years I appreciated the Psalms as Hebrew poetry and also appreciated what they could tell me about the theology of the royal court of Judah as well as post-exilic theology (since some of the Psalms are among the last parts of the canonical Hebrew Scriptures written), but I did not appreciate them personally. I am not a Judean king, I do not worship before a burnt offering in the First or Second Temples, and I do not think that anyone is out to kill me. So how could these songs speak to me? Then everything changed.
What changed? First, I became faithful to the Daily Office, that is Morning and Evening Prayer, and, if one does that, one is saying multiple Psalms daily – depending on how long they are, from two or three to six or seven. The Psalms became part of my rhythm of life. Second, I learned to read the Psalms with the Church Fathers. I had always read them using historical-critical methodology, trying to get the original meaning, but that reading strategy was not the strategy of the Fathers. They read the Psalms from the perspective of the Church (the renewed Israel), from the perspective of Jesus the Anointed King as the king of the Psalms, from the perspective of citizens of the new Jerusalem, from the perspective of the physical enemies of Israel often being the spiritual enemies of the Church and their souls, and from the perspective of the themselves as princes and princesses with Jesus the Anointed King. This reading strategy became my strategy, except, of course, in the academic exegetical world. Third, I began to notice how those in the Benedictine tradition (that sang the Psalms weekly, feeling themselves sluggards because they recognized that the Desert Fathers and Mothers sang all 150 or 151 daily), or the later Benedictine-influenced tradition that sings them monthly, tended to start to ooze Psalms – phrases from the Psalms came out naturally in their writings (look at the writings of St. Francis of Assisi, for instance). I realized I needed to live in the Psalms so that they would sink so deeply into me that they would ooze out, so to speak. Fourth, I noticed how the liturgy of the church is full of phrases from the Psalms. Many versicles and responses, many calls to worship, to give but two examples, come from the Psalms. Finally, I noticed that the contemplative tradition apparently started with meditation on a single verse from the Psalms, “O God, make sped to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.” (If you want the explanation of that, look in the writings of John Cassian.) This was the prayer phrase used for meditation before the Jesus Prayer was developed. This was the phrase that helped countless monastics have a deep experience of union with God.
As a result, I started to read the Psalms differently. I read them as part of my continuity with Israel, worshipping in the spiritual temple, indeed, but in continuity with those who worshipped in the physical temples. I started to read them slowly, letting their rhythm sink and spiritual meaning sink in as I read (the Grail Psalter is a good rhythmic translation, but there are others as well). I started to listen to monastic choirs sing the Psalms, and I noticed how it seemed to calm me and sink into my soul. And, having had a little instruction from the Benedictines who live in Beaumont, I started to sing (or chant) them myself. I do not pretend to be great or even good at this – it is for my soul, not for an audience (although sung evensong at Our Lady of Walsingham, which occurs on a monthly basis, or in places like St. Paul’s, London, or Trinity Chapel, Cambridge is a wonderful aesthetic as well as spiritual experience).
This summer my wife has left for a 5 week trip to Canada, visiting each of our children for 10 or 12 days. I am alone in the house. I am not lonely, for I chose to turn this into solitude. I chose to do the best I could to keep at least 6 of the canonical hours, so my day begins and ends with singing Psalms, as well as prayer and scripture reading. And, since no one is in the house, I chant or sing those Psalms in full voice with all my heart. Oh, yes, I am busy, and sometimes i just cannot get in every one of those “stop times” to sing a Psalm. But I get them in most days. And my soul has been fed. While I am chanting them to God (who cares no one hoot for the quality of my voice, but cares very much for the quality of my heart), I am discovering that my spirit is energized, my soul is fed.
I used not to appreciate the Psalms personally, but now that has changed. If you, perhaps, are one who would like such a change, I would encourage you to, first, start to keep at least the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer according to some liturgical tradition. And I would encourage you to read one of the Church Fathers on the Psalms, and see how they apply them to their souls. Do not expect change to come quickly – it takes years for a child to mature into a man or woman – but it will come, bit by bit. And if you, like me, enjoy them most when chanting, you can do it softly (as I do in my office at HBU), or, if your voice is like mine, you can pick times when no one but God is around, and just sing your heart out. I promise not to try to listen in.
PS. Yes, I know that the chant for Psalm 110 is mirror imaged, but right now that was the best I could do.