8 January 2010

The Psalter

S Gregory the Great once refused to consecrate a man to the episcopate because of a certain inadequacy on the candidate's part; indeed, the same specific inadequacy would prevent the great S Gennadius Patriarch of Constantinople from ordaining any clerk. Such pontifical intransigence received conciliar endorsement: from Nicea II, not to mention Toledo VIII (653) and Oviedo (1050).

The inadequacy alleged? Not being able to repeat the entire Psalter by heart. And evidence survives, from throughout the first Christian millennium, from Palestine in the East (where S Jerome says that the common people sang them 'like pop songs' as they went about their labours) to the 'Celtic' West (S Patrick recited the Psalter daily), among all Christian classes, of the popularity of the Psalter and the ubiquity of its use both within and outside the Liturgy.

We are amazed at such feats of memory; and it is very useful for us all - but particularly academics, who can be so very narrow-minded - to recall the capacity of the memory in societies basically oral (this point pretty well subverts most of the 'New Testament Scholarship' of the twentieth century, from the Great Synoptic Non-Problem onwards). But I wish to make different points.

This use of the Psalter drives home the importance in the Christian life of being soaked, saturated in texts, so that they are part of one's being. That is why the cheerful twentieth century passion for 'Liturgical Reform', of the most radical kind, was so misplaced. And liturgical scholars need to be rather quicker at spotting echoes of the psalms in euchological texts. It is only in my seventh decade that I have become really aware how very many of the collects in the Latin Sacramentaries have a verse from a psalm as their starting-point.

But - most important of all - we need to recover a sense of the Christological meaning that Tradition sees in so many psalms*. They are not dusty old Jewish texts whose prominence in traditional worship is an embarrassment**. In some, we speak of Christ or to Him; in others, Christ Himself prays to the Father and we are incorporated into His Prayer.


*It is notorious that the first psalm in the book is taken Christologically by the Tradition; which is why modern 'translations' which obscure this are so reprehensible. 'Blessed is the Man' says the Hebrew, using the word which refers to the masculine human (ish). But the heretics render 'Blessed are they'. Curiously, when it is a matter of the Foolish Man saying in his heart that there is no God, heretical 'translators' sometimes lose their enthusiasm for gender-free language ... even though in this case there is no Hebrew justification for 'man'!
**There is a well-worn story of a Tractarian Vicar explaining to a recalcitrant yokel that the Psalter was the Early Church's Hymn Book, to be told that this was a very fine reason why we should be so glad of the demise of the Early Church.


Anonymous said...

By means of return to this extraordinary standard (Psalter memorization and indoctrination), we will need to travel the path of the old, classical, traditional Latin Mass (OCTLM). If it was good enough for S. Gregory the Great, it’s good enough for me.

GOR said...

While I would tremble at the prospect of trying to memorize the complete Psalter, I do decry the tendency in recent decades to run down memorization as an aid in learning. The ability to rattle off a Shakespearean soliloquy, a sonnet or three, and even the Latin verbs that take the Dative, is not to be under rated.

But while practice may make perfect, I find it more difficult with advancing years (I’m approaching your decade, Father!). And though I can still recite The Seven Ages of Man from decades ago, more recent happenings are harder to recall.

Now, where did I put those darn car keys…?

Joshua said...

If one read the Psalter daily, one would soon have it by heart!

(Even once a week, and it's good how familiar the old Psalms become.)

I think of St Bernard, who was so soaked in the Scriptures that his writings are entirely penetrated by them - a wonderful state to which to aspire.

Gengulphus said...

Joshua said...
If one read the Psalter daily, one would soon have it by heart…
I think of St Bernard…

St Bernard also has to his credit the feat of wresting from the devil, slightly unsportingly, that handful of verses which contain within themselves the virtue and power of the entire Psalter and which, recited daily, preserve the user from the power of the evil one, and from eternal damnation.

Robert Parsons made a setting of this most efficacious devotion, and whilst I would naturally shrink from proposing any kind of 'short cut', its specific denunciation by Thomas Cranmer in his Homily of Good Works, might well be a sufficient recommendation.


Illumina oculos meos,
ne umquam obdormiam in morte;
nequando dicat inimicus meus:
prævalui adversus eum.
In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum;
redemisti me, Domine Deus veritatis.
Locutus sum in lingua mea:
Notum fac mihi, Domine, finem meum,
et numerum dierum meorum quis est,
ut sciam quid desit mihi.
Dirupisti vincula mea:
tibi sacrificabo hostiam laudis,
et nomen Domini invocabo.
Periit fuga a me,
et non est qui requirat animam meam.
Clamavi ad te, Domine; dixi:
Tu es spes mea,
portio mea in terra viventium.
Fac mecum signum in bonum,
ut videant qui oderunt me,
et confundantur :
quoniam tu, Domine, adjuvisti me,
et consolatus es me.
Signatum est super nos lumen vultus tui
Domine: dedisti laetitiam in corde meo.

V Ostende nobis Domine misericordiam tuam.
R Et salutare tuum da nobis.

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus qui Ezechiae Regi Judae tecum lacrimis veniam postulanti in te sperantium pretendisti concede mihi tantum vitae spacium quo ad mensuram ut omnia peccata mea valeam deplorare et ut veniam et gratiam merear consequi. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.