Reflections on Praying with Psalms

Psalms1

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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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!
  5. 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?
  6. 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!
  7. 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.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

saints front

On a recent morning, I captured this image of the early light shining through the stained glass window of one church and landing right among the pews in front of the icon of Christ. This image made me think of the possibility of the Angels and Saints visiting and listening attentively to the Lord in silence.

This morning, when I was attending Mass, the bright morning light shone through the church window onto my face as I was standing for the Gospel.

bright sunlight

The priest was reading the line about the Greeks coming to Philip and saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”.  I couldn’t help but think how the light forced me to close my eyes and, now, I would not be able to see Jesus. It was then that a conversation with the late Father Charlie came to mind.

Long ago, I asked about Purgatory and, specifically, why our souls would need to be in Purgatory.  Father Charlie thought that, perhaps, the light of God’s love would be so powerful that we would not be able to face the Lord if we were to head straight to heaven. We needed time to adjust to this brightness.  Thinking about the pews glowing in the morning light from a few days earlier, I think Father Charlie might be right.

Saints and Angels.jpg

The angels and saints, who are spirits or have been raised to life in heaven, may be fairly bright, just like those multi-coloured spots on the pews suggested. They are, therefore, able to stand in the presence of the Lord, seeing Him face-to-face, singing songs of praise! So, if you and I were to ask the same question as the Greeks and “wish to see Jesus”, we might want to look at the saints as our role models. Just like them, we can choose to follow God’s directions in life and embark on a journey of holiness.  Of course, we can always join in praising at church with the saints and angels:

“For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and for ever. Amen.

Let the saints and angels accompany us and guide us!

How quickly can you answer to “Do you know Jesus Christ?”

A good teacher once proposed the scenario where someone approaches me and asks,

Do you know Jesus Christ?

If you were confronted with this question, could you answer it as quickly as you would if someone asked if you know your mom or dad?

I challenge you to answer the question!

 

What would you need to give a positive response?

To say that we “know” someone, I suppose we first need to know many facts about this person. We need to know something about his physical appearance and “data”, such as his background, likes and dislikes, etc.

Indeed, we know the background of Jesus Christ from the bible. We can read about his genealogy, his birth, his human parents, his ministry, his death and resurrection, all from the Gospels.

What about his appearance?

I was checking out an old hymn, “Fairest Lord Jesus”, that is no longer in the present edition of the hymnal at my church, when I came across a blogpost by David Hamrick. In his blog http://drhamrick.blogspot.ca/2013/11/fairest-lord-jesus.html , he talked about how Jesus’ physical appearance was probably unremarkable, as Judas had to point Him out to the soldiers. Jesus was probably an “average-looking Galilean Jew.”  Yet, his inner beauty would make him be the light that shines in the darkness, and he would be “the most beautiful of all ever lived.” Hence, he is the “fairest” of all!

However, by knowing the physical appearance and facts about a person, we can only claim that we know of that person, just like how we know of a movie star because of all the pictures that we have seen and post that we have read on the internet. We will need to have intimate knowledge of the other. We can say that we know the other well only if we have had specific common experiences with the other, have private communications, be able to feel for the other, have challenged one another, respected or loved the other, etc.

I asked myself when I last communicated with Christ – the last time I talked to him, the last time I heard him, the last time I saw his glory in nature, his remarkable work in the good deeds that I witnessed. He often answered me in ways that only I could appreciate – the funny sign that I saw seemed to answer the question I had in my thoughts, the colorful bird that flew by when I was having a greyish day, etc.  I remembered feeling sad when I read about the government making medical-assisted death legal.  I felt Christ weeping when I heard about the fate of Christian martyrs and those betrayed by fellow brothers and sisters. I prayed for Jesus’ consolation as he stayed on the cross and he challenged me to be a better disciple. He gifted me with his life and I returned his love by singing praises and trying to follow his will.

So, do you have all that you need to answer the question positively? Do you know Jesus Christ?

I think I do. 

 

 

 

 

What would you put in the stocking for Jesus?

 

Jesus' stocking

 

I have been feeling particularly rushed in all the regular Christmas preparation this year.  For this short Advent season, it seems difficult to focus on what is really important.  As always, songs have a way to speak to me and make me pause.  As I was singing along to the Christmas piece “In the Bleak Midwinter”, I found myself in a sudden pause at the fourth verse:

Presentation1

 

The words made me think of my relationship with the Christ Child. The words made me think about what I would give him if I were meeting him by his crib.  For those of us who are parents, as we go about helping Santa putting smiles on the children’s faces on Christmas morning, how would you help Santa decide on what to put in the stocking for Jesus?

 

May the remaining time of Advent of yours be one filled with hope, and that your Christmas season be one filled with joy and peace!

 

Baptism of the Lord – a parent’s view

In today’s Gospel (Mark 1:4-5, 7-11), Jesus asked for Baptism from John. Since John’s message has been one of repentance, Jesus is essentially admitting his “sins.”

But…was it really his “sins”?

Jesus would have known his mission all along. God sent his beloved son to save the people. However, how would God knows his Son accepts his mission until his actions show that he does?

We, parents, teach our children to be kind to others and to have good manners. However, it’s not until we see our kid hold the door for others for the first time, or initiate to donate their favorite toy to toy drive, that we would know that our messages came across to our children.

When Jesus asked for baptism, he was fully “man”. As a child of God just like us, he was saying that he was taking the cup, his mission. He was responding to God the Father, just like his mother’s fiat. He, who has no sins, was taking on the sins of the people and asking for repentance. For that, God the Father said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Several Minutes of Silence

I felt privileged and blessed to have the opportunity to attend a sacred music concert at the newly rededicated St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto on September 30th, 2016.

 

Articles about the restoration project of the Cathedral have been featured on all major newspapers. Reports on this beautiful sacred place in Toronto have been shown on local TV news channel. Praises and positive commentaries on the concert were all over social media. There are very few words that I can actually use to describe how beautiful is the building and how glorious were the sound of the choristers from the St. Michael’s Choir School and the tones from the beautiful Casavant organ played by organist William O’Meara that have not been used in all those reports yet.

True. I was blown away by how they managed to restore a Cathedral to its present glorious state. The statues, the detailing of every archway, the ceilings, every ornamental design on the beams, the light fixtures, the stained glass,… that was truly a feast for my eyes. Seriously, when my eyes could see so much more details than my digital camera could capture, I thanked God for his creation of our human eyes. I wonder what is the capacity of our eyes in terms of megapixels?!!

The choral music performed by the 275 members of the St. Michael’s Choir School was magnificent! Together with the organist and a brass ensemble, the choristers performed works across time, from Palestrina to Haydn, Bruckner to modern composers. They were really well done! Most important of all, the program was well chosen, showing reverence to the space and letting the glorious music showed the power of God.

All the above would be worthy for one to dwell on and to write a touching article. However, I want to talk about a magical moment that happened at 7 PM! As the booklet for the concert says,

booklet-t

The Cathedral’s capacity, I was told, would be around 1200.   Prior to 7 PM, people were entering the Cathedral, claiming their favorite spot to sit, walking around, taking pictures, or chatting with friends. The choristers had walked in 5 minutes earlier and were standing in place. The place was bustling with people and sounds. I was reading the program booklet when I noticed a sudden dead silence. At first, I thought someone important walked in but I did not see anything out of the ordinary from my spot in the choir loft with an unobstructed view. I looked at my watch and it was 7 PM. The silence was so pronounced that one usher walked up an aisle with a stack of program booklets in her hand and I could hear her every footstep clearly. The silence went on for about 7 minutes until Cardinal Collins, the Rector of the Basilica and the Director of the Choir School walked in and approached the ambo. During those 7 minutes or so of silence, the atmosphere was stunning.

Why would so many people in the Cathedral collectively willingly participating in this moment of silence? I really cannot explain the phenomenon. I did not hear an announcement asking for silence. I did not see anyone signaling people to quiet down. Except for the choristers standing at the edge of the Sanctuary, there was no movement by the altar in front of us. The only explanation that I can think of would be that our good old Catholic training, attending mass and learning to be silently praying in church trained us all to this stillness, but that still wouldn’t explain the “sudden” silence at 7 PM for so many minutes! We are talking about over 1000 people in the Cathedral here!

I remembered that after the first puzzling minute of silence, I found myself willingly staying quiet and sitting there by the pew. Personally, I just felt that I could use that time to clear out the noise and the chatter in my mind and in my heart.  I was anticipating a sacred music concert and needed that time of silence to properly prepare myself for the coming of the glorious sounds. Looking up at the ceiling of the Cathedral, there was a dove suspending from a light fixture.

dove

It seemed to symbolize the coming of the Holy Spirit among us, weaving through the music, reaching deep into our souls. Mother Teresa had said that

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself.”

Of course, there is also the famous line from St. Augustine saying that “he who sings prays twice.” Such is the power of music!

I would say that evening, in the St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, everyone faced God in prayer and in silence. I knew I went home after the concert with my heart enlightened and my spirit renewed. The Divine communicated with me in a very personal way and, more importantly, I experienced that power of silence.

God answers in unusual ways

Have you ever asked God a question and have your question answered? Perhaps, I am one of the lucky ones. During my faith journey so far, I have had numerous “encounters” with God. I would like to record a few here.  My former spiritual director said that one knows God not just through the usual senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste, but also through our imagination. I agreed with him, as God seems to “speak” in unusual ways.

 

A few years ago, a broken friendship and several setbacks in a project left me devastated, confused, and sad. With that, feelings of unworthiness, defeat and hopelessness crept in. I decided to attend a weekday mass one evening at a nearby church. The size of the congregation that evening could be counted by our ten fingers. The priest was a foreign priest who loved singing and led the congregation into the singing of hymns. As we were singing the hymns without instrumental accompaniment, we were singing in relative pitch and the starting note of each hymn was at the mercy of the priest. I remembered clearly that the recessional hymn was “How Great Thou Art” and the priest picked a relatively high note to start with. When we got to the second part of the hymn “Then sings my soul…”, it was clear that the hymn would wander to a really high range. By the time it got to “How GREAT thou art!”, literally everyone stopped singing after “How”. The usual E-flat has been transposed to at least a third higher. I, the lone soprano, was the only one reaching out to “GREAT” to complete the sentence! At that moment, I realized God somehow had planned this funny and dreadful congregational hymn sing so that I might understand that every one of God’s creation has a purpose in life! Without those who help God’s Kingdom to be great, there would just be “art”. The meaning of art and life is made great only if we allow ourselves to be his instruments.  In this case, I was literally the only one at that moment who could sing and made it “great”. Here, God spoke in the language of music and I “heard” Him.

 

I had thought that if I were to follow what God has put in my heart, life would be easy and all related work would be carried out without troubles. Of course, I have read the lives of prophets were never easy, and why would I be so naïve to think that any little projects that I do at church would carry through without any glitches? In 2013, I felt compelled to organize a Lenten project with other denominational churches locally, though I had limited knowledge of other Christian faiths and how their churches operate. After I had initiated meetings with other churches and started working on the project, I realized that there were too many obstacles to overcome. Well, it didn’t really help that I accidentally visited a Protestant church on Reformation Sunday, thinking that I could observe a normal Sunday service of another denomination, in order to write a common script for the project to be presented at all churches. Again, feeling defeated, I remember questioning why God would made a poor Catholic sitting in on a sermon on Reformation Sunday. I remember doubting God’s reason for planting a seed in my heart for this seemingly impossible project. As I was driving home, I actually asked aloud, asking God to give me a sign that this is really what he wanted, a joint project with the other churches. To my surprise, when I looked in front of me, I saw that a black sedan was right in front of me. Curiously, the license plate of this car spelled “SEMINARY.” I started cracking up. What a humorous God! For a moment, I thought I was seeing things. I started counting the number of letters in “Seminary” to verify that such a license plate was even possible to exist. Now, if that’s not an answer from God, I am not sure what else that could be. Here, I “saw” Him.

 

I tend to ask a lot of questions. In particularly, I tend to ask God a lot of questions. I like to think of it as my way of praying. Recently, I drove to London for a meeting and I got there early. So, I decided to spend a few moments in the seemingly empty St. Peter’s Basilica. While I was on my knees, closing my eyes, quietly praying, or I should say, asking God yet another question on his purpose for me to be at the meeting, I heard a loud booming voice saying “TESTING!”  I was startled and thought how strong was God’s voice.  Of course, when I looked up, I saw that someone was actually standing at the ambo, testing the microphone. Perhaps, it was a coincidence. Perhaps, it was all in His plan. Somehow, the loud booming answer did answer my question. What more can I say? God has a good sense of humour!

 

So, next time, when you ask God a question, be aware of what’s happening, he might have already answered you, though somewhat unexpectedly.