The Psalter: Words for a pilgrim’s journey

Of all the books in the Old Testament, the collection of writings that we call the Psalms is possibly the most poetic narrative of the journey of the Hebrew people.

There are many references in the Gospels where Jesus quotes the Psalms, possible the most well-known were the words from Psalm 22 uttered from the Cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

The Psalter, the name given to the Book of Psalms, has permeated Christian liturgy ever since.

When the earliest Christian monastic communities were formed their liturgical pattern of prayer was shaped round the psalms and to this day their primacy of place within the lives of monks and nuns remains.

Prior to the Vatican Council, praying the Breviary was part of the daily commitment of the priest. It came about through with the emergence of medieval friars who could not carry the large community volumes of the psalms on their journeys of preaching. A smaller version was required. The text was, of course, in Latin.

Since the Council, the use of the English text of the Liturgy of the Hours began to be used by the laity, either individually or within parish prayer groups or similar gatherings.

The defined hours of monastic prayer concludes each day with Compline, the night prayer of the Church. I try when I can to join with the nearby community of Benedictine nuns for that simple, beautiful prayer. There were occasions when the abbey dog, a white standard poodle would wander into the chapel to join us. On one occasion it wandered around, not willing to settle, until that is we reached the last verse of the first psalm, psalm 4 ‘I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone make me dwell in safety’ . At that point the dog lay down and slept its way through the remainder of night prayer. Marvellous!

The Rule of St Benedict stresses the centrality of the psalms in monastic prayer. In Chapter 19 we find these words.

‘On the Manner of Saying the Divine Office

We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that “the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place” (Prov. 15:3). But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God. To that end let us be mindful always of the Prophet’s words, “Serve the Lord in fear” (Ps. 2:11 )
and again “Sing praises wisely” (Ps. 46[47]:8) and “In the sight of the Angels I will sing praise to You” (Ps. 137[138]:1). Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.’

Over the years there have been many collected texts of the psalms, from the early years through the illustrated MSS of the Medieval period to our present time. One text known as ‘the Bay Psalm Book’ has the distinction of being the first book in English, printed and published in America. That was in Massachusetts in 1641. A facsimile text was printed in 1903 and that is now available as a modern paperback.

The singing of Psalms- and indeed they are meant to be sung as is clear from psalm 136, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion !” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’, was greatly enhanced with the publication of the Grail Psalms. First published in 1966, this Psalter became very familiar in the English-speaking world, particularly when sung to the melodies of the Jesuit composer, Joseph Gelineau.

Every time we share the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Word contains a psalm where each verse has a response, reminiscent of the singing of alternate verses in choir by the monastic communities.

The psalms and the harp have become inextricably associated with each other. The words of psalm 136 make the point.

This weekend, on March 17th, we celebrate the feast of Patrick, patron of Ireland. Associated with Ireland is the Celtic harp, the symbol of a nation. Each of us on our Lenten journey, accompanied by the Book of Psalms, the poetic song-story of another people, has a path to follow. Let’s remember in all our modern difficulties that the psalms of David reflect the joys and sorrows, the pains and struggles of an ancient people. They have much to teach us and offer help for us in our prayer.


By Chris McDonnell