By Bren Dubay
At chapel recently, Elizabeth declared that the Psalms were meant to be sung and that’s just what she intended to do that morning. And she did. The notes were crystal clear. I was astonished by the feeling that I was hearing the words at a much deeper level. The experience was beautiful and deeply moving. I wondered why it had ever been our custom to simply read the psalms.
This set me to thinking about this collection of 150 songs, these 150 prayers. I remembered from my college days that, though hymns were composed from almost the beginning of Christianity, the early church preferred singing the Psalms and did so almost exclusively until the end of the fourth century.
In his short book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer cites St. Jerome who said that in his time one heard the Psalms being sung in the fields and gardens. I thought about the grape vineyard that rests behind the chapel and the people who had been harvesting there that morning before we gathered. The vegetable gardens behind Jubilee House also came to mind. I imagined those who would be working there in the afternoon. What would it be like hearing the music of the Psalms floating through the air into the hearts of all those nearby?
“The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity. Yet more important than all of this is the fact Jesus died on the cross with the words of the Psalter on his lips,” wrote Bonhoeffer. He also gave a warning, “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.”
I’ve heard the criticisms and maybe you have, too, “But the Psalms are too hard to understand, many too violent, too steeped in a culture not our own.” How have we drifted so far from those days when the common woman and man sang them as they worked? Today the Psalms seem like a foreign language to so many or are not even known by so many more.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “The Psalms are full of the Incarnate Word … they contain in themselves all the Old and New Testaments, the whole Mystery of Christ … the Psalms are the best possible way of praising God. The Psalms are cries of wonder, exultation, anguish or joy.”
Merton said that we can make the meaning they contain our own by singing them to God. “To understand the Psalms, we must experience the sentiments they express, in our own hearts.”
How about those of us who do not have the gift of singing? Merton writes in Praying the Psalms, “One of the best ways to learn to appreciate the Psalms is to acquire a habit of reciting them slowly and well. … pausing to meditate on the lines which have the deepest meaning for [you] … There is no aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of man that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms. But we cannot lay hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them.”
My mind keeps returning to Elizabeth singing the Psalm, not simply reading or reciting it. The Hebrew title of the Psalms also means “hymns.” Psalm comes from the Greek word “psalmos” which means “song sung to a harp.” Its root is “psallein” meaning “to play a stringed instrument.” In Latin “psalmus” literally means “twanging of a harp.” I wish we had a harp and a person who could play it but Elizabeth does a wonderful job singing a cappella.
Then again, Bonhoeffer offers that the Psalms were probably most often sung antiphonally, alternating the verses back and forth. Their verse form summons us to pray the Psalms together. Oh, dear, next Elizabeth will surprise us by telling us we will be singing the Psalm that morning antiphonally, alternating the verses from this side of the chapel to that side of the chapel.
However Elizabeth leads us to singing the Psalms, I’m glad she is. These ancient songs encompass the whole of our faith, as Thomas Merton said. They bring us together as a community here in our small chapel at Koinonia and they connect us to people of faith all over the world. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, Jesus himself invoked the Psalms in his own darkest moments. We should follow his example.
Maybe one day at Koinonia we’ll be so good at singing the Psalms that we’ll make a recording. Until then, there are plenty of online examples of the Psalms being sung. Give a listen whenever you can. I have started listening to them just in case Elizabeth does decide to surprise us one morning.