Friday, February 27, 2015

you can say them as your own

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

If the faithful are keeping vigil in the church,
David is first, middle, and last.
If at dawn anyone wishes to sing hymns,
David is first, middle, and last.
In the holy monasteries, among the ranks of the heavenly warriors,
David is first, middle, and last.
In the convents of virgins, who are imitators of Mary,
David is first, middle, and last.
In the deserts, where men hold converse with God,
David is first, middle, and last.

(Attributed to St. John Chryrsostom)

I am glad to hear that we have many parishioners committed to reading the Psalter on a regular basis all through Great Lent.  In fact, I believe that for those of us who stay on schedule (one kathisma per day) each of us will get through the entire Psalter twice during the forty-day Lenten season (the Psalter is comprised of 150 psalms and is divided into twenty kathismata).  And as a parish, the entire Psalter will be read on a daily basis according to that same schedule for each group of psalter readers is comprised of twenty souls.  In fact, with two groups of twenty parishioners committed to this "parish project," that means the entire Psalter is read twice over on a daily basis!  The Psalter has been hailed as the Prayer Book of the Church, so it is fitting that we have embraced the psalms in such a manner.  I would like to encourage everyone involved to make this a priority as well as possible, and to work at fulfilling our stated goal. And, in addition, our Bible Study through Great Lent is focused on reading and discussing certain selected psalms in great detail and trying to discover how each particular psalm can impact our own lives today.

Tradition tells us that the Psalter was the work of King David, who had a gift for musical composition that combined so beautifully and powerfully with his relationship with God creating these unmatched hymns that we call psalms.  Although many of the psalms go back to King David, we now know that many others were written over the centuries-long history of ancient Israel.  There is also a great variety or "types" of psalms: lamentation, both individual and corporate; hymns of praise; royal psalms; liturgical psalms, historical psalms, etc.  These psalms clearly reflect the historical times in which they were written, with certain imagery that may seem strange to us today.  Therefore, a knowledge of the religious, cultural and social life of ancient Israel is very helpful in our understanding of the psalms.  However, as sacred Scripture, the psalms are certainly not limited to their historical settings.  St. Athanasius explains this well in his famous Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of the Psalms:

    Among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides
    the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in
    all their great variety the movements of the human soul. ...  You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes,
    its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.  Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can
    select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.  Prohibitions
    of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin.  Repentance,
    for example is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show how to set about repenting
    and with what words your penitence may be expressed.

    It is possible for us, therefore, to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul's state, together with precept and example
    for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life's occasions, words both of
    repentance and of thankfulness, so that we fall not into sin; for it is not for our actions only that we must give account before the
    Judge, but also for our every idle word.

    For I think that in the words of this book all human life in covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be
    found in man.  For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptations or under
    persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you
    want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the
    words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

Therefore, the key in chanting the words of the psalms for each of us, according to St. Athanasius, is that "you can say them as your own."  That can be termed not only "applying" the words of a given psalm to our life; but of "actualizing" those very words as if they are being said for the first time when offered with faith and a humble heart.  It was for this reason, perhaps, as well as for others, that in the early Church, not only bishops and presbyters, but also many of the faithful knew the entire Psalter by heart!

As an example, we can take Psalm 15 (Hebrew numbering) which has been classified as a "liturgical psalm" because it describes entering into the temple of a worshipping pilgrim.  There is a dialogue in this psalm between the pilgrim who asks of God:

    O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
    Who shall dwell on your holy mountain?     (15:1)

The response, possibly from one of the ministers of the temple, describes to the pilgrim  the quality of life that is necessary to enter the holy precincts of the Temple on the "holy mountain" (Of Zion):

    He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
      and speaks truth from his heart;
    who does not slander with his tongue,
       and does no evil to his friend,
       nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
    in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
       but who honors those who fear the Lord;
    who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
    who does not put out his money in interest,
       and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

    He who does these things will never be moved. (15:2-5)

This strikes me as a psalm that will make us aware of how we today enter the "temple" of the church, where we will worship the Lord and receive the Eucharist.  In what spirit do we arrive at church?  How much have we gossiped on the way to church or judged others?  Do we watch our own words?  Do we honor those who fear the Lord?  Do we look to our neighbor and refrain from slandering others that we worship with?  Psalm 15 challenges us today with precisely those words that speak to our souls  in the way that St. Athanasius discovered in his own use of the Psalter.

    For a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone.
    A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense.

    St. Basil the Great

The psalms as prophesying Christ will be the subject of a future meditation.

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