Psalms play a significant role in Christian worship.
As a cantor in the Roman Catholic church, even though I have led congregations in Responsorial Psalms during Mass for years, I struggle with making Psalms a meaningful part of my prayer life. Therefore, I am sharing the following notes on Praying with Psalms that I gathered during the process of promoting the last WHY@Breakfast presentation, from the brilliant presentation by Prof. Andrea Di Giovanni, and from questions and comments made by participants last Saturday. I hope these notes will help shed off years from others’ struggles in praying with Psalms.
Responsorial Psalm during Mass never got my attention as much as the other readings would. Readings from other books of the Bible often tell simple stories and lessons. One may easily mindlessly participate in singing the Responsorial Psalm, where the lines are taken from a few verses of a much longer Psalm, and feel that, perhaps, one is on a break between readings. As a cantor, I was told one time at a workshop, to always read the entire Psalm to get the full picture when preparing to lead the congregation into responding at Mass. That advice is helpful for me to make sense of the few lines that I proclaim at the Ambo. Still, praying with Psalms is not something that I embraced readily.
There were a few points I learned from the wisdom of Prof. Di Giovanni that I found most helpful to keep in mind. I would also like to add my interpretation on some of them here.
- Jesus and the early Christians used Psalms as the backbone of their prayers! In fact, Jesus’ last words on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from Mt 27:46 or “It is finished.” from Jn 19:30) came from the Psalms. Others have suggested that the lines in Mary’s Magnificat came from various Psalms that Mary knew by heart. So, it should be quite an honour to read/sing Psalms as Jesus and his disciples would have done! In fact, I think one might get goosebumps thinking about this while joining in the Responsorial Psalms during Mass!
- Many Psalms speak of coming before God’s presence in the House of the Lord. When the Temple built by Solomon was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews could no longer make sacrifices at the Temple but they continued using Psalms as their way of prayer. So, making Psalms our daily prayer means following that tradition to come before God’s presence.
- The Psalms were chanted to accompany certain rites at the Temple. Specifically, they would accompany the actions of animal sacrifices. Nowadays, the Psalms became sacrificial offering of the words themselves. So, how would you make your sacrifice? Perhaps, you might sing loudly during the responses to the Psalm at Mass? That’s your sacrifice!
- The Psalms are infused with “body language” for a reason. Parts of the vocal apparatus are often mentioned in Psalms. References such as “my lips will glorify you”, “my mouth will declare your praise”, “my throat is parched”, “I cry with my voice”, etc., can be found throughout the book of Psalms. Other parts of the body are also mentioned. For example, we have “my back is filled with searing pain”, “my loins are full of inflammation”, “I spread out my hands to you”, “my arms can bend a bronze bow”, etc. All these examples might be making a point that we are supposed to let the prayers sink into every part of our body. It’s not just an intellectual exercise to read Psalms but we ought to let every cell of our body savor it! I might be biased, but singing allows the sound wave to vibrate each of the cells in your body and it is a good way to let your body feel the Psalms!
- Psalms were understood to be chanted aloud. When Hannah prayed silently with her lips moving and not making a sound, no one could blame Eli the priest for thinking that she was drunk! (1 Samuel 1:13) Now, no one will accuse you for being drunk at church if you don’t join in and sing the Psalms, but why would you not sing Psalms when they were meant to be sung?
- As a book in the Bible, Psalms are words of God. To let the words of God come out of your own body to praise God is to let God move through you to communicate with God, as Jesus communicates with His Father! That is, we actually allow ourselves to be the body of Christ!
- The various types of Psalms cover our usual moments in our daily living (praise, thanksgiving, laments, joy and hope after laments, etc). So, why not let Psalms accompany us in our daily prayer? As Prof. Di Giovanni said, all we need is to re-understand Psalms in our own context to make them meaningful. In fact, one participant on Saturday made a comment on how it could be so upsetting to read the daily news and suggested that we have our Book of Psalms handy whenever we watch the news!
Much more information was gained on the weekend, and other participants will probably have their own understanding of their favorite part of the presentation, but I hope you will benefit from these notes here. These points already let me enjoy praying with Psalms more and give me new ideas on praying with Psalms.