Friday, August 20, 2010

Preferring Christ: Psalms and Contemplation

I greet you simultaneously speaking Peace and >{} reverencing Christ in you by bowing with hands clasped together.

This morning after beginning my day with my best practice, meditating on the Name of Jesus with coffee in hand and dog by my side, I happened again on Abba Isaac of Syria's words and said them slowly for holy reading:

O name of Jesus,
key to all gifts,
open up for me
the great door
to your treasure-house,
that I may enter
and praise you
with the praise
that comes
from the heart.

Like Abba Benedict, Abba Isaac and many elders before both of them remind us that this one Name, Jesus, is to be preferred above all else. The Eastern Churches have an entire practice of silence wrapped up in this preference for Christ's Name: The Jesus Prayer or hesychast tradition. Many variations exist on this way.

It is, however, no accident that Benedictine's open up the prayer at the end of the day with: "O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us." Abba Cassian reminds us that praying repeatedly this phrase from Psalm 70 leads us to resting in reality, that is, our utter dependence on God. Praise is "recognition of dependence," is practiced trust:

One thing is clear. Praise is not all alleluias and hosannas. If it were, the Psalter would not be listed as “praise.” There is, however, a common thread that runs through the Psalter, regardless of the devotional mood of the individual Psalm. It is the motif of dependency. Regardless of the difficulty that surrounds the individual Psalmist, the solution to the difficulty is always found in trust in and dependence on God….the act of dependence itself becomes the beginning of praise, from which its proclamation comes. (Clifford W. Atkinson, Study Guide for The Daily Office: Proposed Book of Common Prayer, 11)

Praying the Psalms with care, whether said slowly or sung in chant, leads us slowly but gently over the course of a lifetime, to greater and deeper silence. Abba Benedict intends communities that live out of this Great Silence. He sets up practice in such a way that the dangers of the life of solitude are avoided. Silence is among we who pray together the songs that tradition associates with Christ, and through Christ's high priestly ministry, with Christ's whole Body--the Church. And even unrecognizably, or invisibly, the entire Creation.

Praying the Psalms is the Prayer of the Church. And the Prayer of the Church does not divorce communal, outward expression and personal, inner encounter. The contemplative life is communal life. Word and silence are intertwined. Psalms and Christian meditation are cut from the same cloth.



  1. Thanks for this, Christopher.

    One of the real clues about using the Psalms has to do with speed! The more slowly the Psalms are recited/chanted, the better -- because there is a dimension to their use which transcends intellect. At OJN, we use a FOUR SECOND pause at the asterisk and no break at the exchange of sides between verses.

    I've also often written elsewhere that the spiritual value of the Psalms is not primarily related to their overt meaning, but to the "mantra" quality of their recitation. Certainly one is open to sudden and unexpected intellectual insights, but it should not be a case of struggling about babies' heads being bashed against stones or creditors taking everything from one's enemies (or whatever). Those are diversions from the spiritual use of the Psalms.

    Part of this comes from the antiphonal recitation: the "handing back and forth" of the substance of the Psalm, the silent communal cooperation entailed, is part of the true "magic". One HAS to avoid individual notice. I get short-tempered with the seminarians who resort to UNISON recitation if there are less than twenty people present! As long as there are two voices at least the "Responsive" recitation is preferable.

  2. Fr. John-Julian,

    Yes, speed is key.

    Our director reminds us "slowly and reflectively" when praying the psalms and all prayers in fact.

    When my partner and I pray the psalms together, it is always responsive. When he cannot join me, I may pray the psalms in unison but I take the various noises of our dog companion at my side as joining in in his own way; he reminds me to pause and be slow and reflective in prayer.

    What is most key for me is reminder that our public prayer life is contemplative life for all. To find our selves abiding, receiving, and responding our vital joy.