Want to read more about the psalms? Check out these titles the Brothers recommend.
Read more about how to pray with the psalms:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit
C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms
James Sire, Learning to Pray Through the Psalms and Praying the Psalms of Jesus
Try praying with a different version of the psalms:
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter (W.W. Norton, 2007)
The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, Translated by Pamela Greenberg (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill (Continuum, 2000)
Psalter for the Christian People: An Inclusive-Language Revision of the Psalter of The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Edited by Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw (Liturgical Press, 1993)
Go deeper into the psalms:
If you’ve never read much of the book of Psalms and don’t know where to begin, you might want to start with these psalms, which one of the Brothers selected as among his favorites: Psalms 19, 24, 27, 42, 46, 62, 67, 71, 84, 85, 98, 100 (“the first psalm I ever memorized at age nine”), 148, and 150.
When did you first begin to have a sense of your vocation?
Even as a little kid, I somehow or other knew that I wanted to be a priest. I used to have a very dark blue wool dressing gown, which I would wear backwards as I wandered around the house pretending to be Mr. Pasterfield, the rector of our parish. I couldn’t have been more than maybe six or seven years old. I remember saying to my mum, down in the laundry room, “When I grow up I want to be like Mr. Pasterfield.” So, from childhood, I always felt attracted to the priesthood, and that attraction never really went away.
My awareness of the religious life came a bit later. While I knew that there were nuns in the Anglican Church – in fact I’d been taught nursery school by a sister of the Sisterhood of Saint John the Divine (SSJD) – it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that there are monks in the Church as well. I learned that through an advertisement in our church newspaper for a summer vocations program at SSJE’s Mission House in Bracebridge. Though I ended up not being able to attend that program, I finally made it to Bracebridge for a reading week when I was at university. During that initial visit, I was really drawn by the silence, the prayer, and the worship. I came away from that first experience thinking, “I could do this.”
When I was a seminarian at Sewanee, my liturgics professor, Marion J. Hatchett, was the chair of the text committee for The Hymnal 1982, and since I didn’t know that this was the sort of committee to which one was appointed – in all my experiences of committees to that point volunteers were welcome – I approached him and said, “I hear that you’re on the text committee; I’d like to work on that.” Fortunately, he did not tell me that I was an upstart (he likely assumed that, as a PhD in English, I would at the very least know how to punctuate). Instead he said to me, “Well, actually, we’re having a meeting in Nashville in a few weeks. Why don’t you come along and see what you think.” Of course, what was really happening was that they were seeing what they thought of me. Apparently, I was not completely useless, since they invited me to keep coming. Bit by bit, I’d help out with the revision of a few lines, then a stanza here, a paraphrase there. The first time I wrote a hymn on my own was because we had the tune Bridegroom by Peter Cutts, but found that the old words were just not salvageable. So I was asked to write a hymn text to fit that tune. The resulting hymn was “Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” – my first hymn. That’s how it transpired that I worked my way up from revisions to paraphrases to hymns of my own.
In the tradition in which I was raised, the Christian Reformed Church, a predominantly Dutch Calvinist denomination headquartered in western Michigan, the psalms played a prominent role in worship. In fact, the Psalter Hymnal, the official hymnal of the denomination in which I grew up, gave about two-thirds of its pages to the words of the psalms set to music. In the tradition in which I now practice my Christian faith – the (Anglican) monastic tradition – psalms are a mainstay of worship as well. We Brothers sing and pray the psalms several times a day, moving again and again through a cycle which covers the entire Psalter.
Contemplative Humility: A Meditation on Psalm 131
O LORD, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
from this time forth for evermore.
Apart from their grouping under a shared, descriptive superscription, “Song of Ascents,” the psalms numbered 120-134 seem a motley crew at first glance, unconnected, even fractious: some are individual laments, others collective thanksgivings; some laud the joys of domesticity while others the glories of the assembly at worship; communal doxologies contrast with a single penitent’s cry for divine mercy; personal pleas for deliverance from enemies are juxtaposed with hymns of gratitude for national protection.
Yet the designation “Song of Ascents” indicates their commonality and interrelationship, for all are psalms of pilgrimage – toward and into God. And as such they are hymns for an upward journey experienced on two levels simultaneously, the outer and visible, and the inner and unseen. Outer and visible, since pilgrims traveling on foot to Jerusalem, whether coming from north or south, east or west, must physically ascend through hill country. For though not itself one of earth’s great peaks, Mount Zion presents a sometimes arduous climb, whether approaching via Roman road or overland. But also inner and unseen, for pilgrimage entails a moment-by-moment commitment to rise to the new life which is God’s gift to us in Christ. The temple to which we make ascent is the Lord’s own crucified and risen body, of which we are members.
The “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” of which Paul speaks is made in humility in walking through life, day to day: feet treading the ground of reality, of paradox, upward ascent implying true groundedness. Humility stilling the soul (the word humility derives from humus, the soil, earth, and clay from which we come). Speaking of fears, trials, losses and hopes, dreams and lasting meaning. Making the ascent to God’s dwelling place in pilgrimage, we learn that it is very much within, trusting in humility as a child on its mother’s breast, nurtured, caressed, kissed, sung to, suckled.
Psalm 131 comes as an oasis on the way, a place of respite for the journey, a reminder of the Holy One who has preserved us in life to this very moment, and who promises life yet more abundant, even beyond our wildest imagination, when the pilgrimage ceases. This hymn of humility invites us to revel in remembrance of God’s love, which first brought us into being and which at this moment as always delights in our companionship.
“O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks,” we pray, first confessing our forgetfulness in acknowledging ourselves as entirely dependent on God alone, a vital truth which we often refuse through our illusion of self-sufficiency.
“I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me,” the Spirit prays from deep within. And though we have occupied and still do so occupy ourselves with reactive, unconsidered words or actions, the Source of all being invites us to rest from our striving and wait patiently upon Love.
“But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” Here in the midst of pilgrimage we come upon an image of God unique in the scriptures: God as the nursing, nurturing mother; God gently rocking and calming the weary and hungry child who seeks the security of unconditional love. We pray to return to the child-like dependence, even vulnerability, by which alone we enter the kingdom and the security of God’s embrace.
And so our journey in prayer comes full circle: “O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.” We travel on in humility, joined to the community of God’s chosen, and knowing even now of our union with the One to whom we ascend. The stance of waiting is pregnant with expectation, the hopeful assurance of seeing things which are now hidden from our sight. It is to trust in God’s unfailing generosity, which ever provides not what we think we need, but what we actually need – in the right degree and at the right time. The unexpected is made visible to the contemplative heart, which watches and waits on God in all circumstances.
Remember: A Meditation on Psalm 126
It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations –
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.
And now, God, do it again –
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing. (Translation: The Message)
Have you been part of a surprise party? Or the reuniting of friends who didn’t expect to see each other? Have you witnessed an act of kindness or generosity that stunned the recipient? Psalm 126 recalls a laugh-out-loud time that was “like a dream, too good to be true.”
Intimacy with God: A Meditation on Psalm 85
You have been gracious to your land, O LORD,
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of your people
and blotted out all their sins.
You have withdrawn all your fury
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.
Restore us then, O God our Savior;
let your anger depart from us.
Will you be displeased with us for ever?
will you prolong your anger from age to age?
Will you not give us life again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your mercy, O LORD,
and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying,
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him,
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
Bless the Lord, O My Soul: A Meditation on Psalm 103
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless his holy Name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
And forget not all his benefits.
He forgives all your sins
And heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave
And crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
He satisfies you with good things,
And your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.
The LORD executes righteousness
And judgment for all who are oppressed.
He made his ways known to Moses
And his works to the children of Israel.
The LORD is full of compassion and mercy,
Slow to anger and of great kindness.
Whenever I hear the opening words of Psalm 103 I think of my grandmother, who loved me unconditionally. I have reflected often in recent years on those individuals whose influence helped make me who I am, and she is certainly at the top of the list. My grandfather died unexpectedly when my grandmother was 27 and within weeks of giving birth to her second child, Elizabeth. They had been sweethearts since childhood. Left a widow in a frontier town in Indian Territory, far from her family in Texas, my grandmother emerged from darkest grief a year later spiritually rescued and renewed, determined to lead others to the love of Jesus. An inspired teacher, she did so by teaching Bible classes for over fifty years. Bereft by tragedy at such an early age, her life could have been hobbled by fear. Instead, Psalm 103 inspired her to live. It became her mantra. Its message can inspire us to live more fully, as well.
Psalms are very much at the center of a monk’s daily prayer. Not including the offering of daily Eucharist, SSJE Brothers pray corporately five times each day. In four out of five of those occasions, singing psalms is at the core of our communal prayer.
Biblical scholars tell us that most, if not all of the psalms were originally meant to be sung, which seems to account for their rhythmic style. The name “psalms” comes from the Greek psalmoi, to sing to the accompaniment of a harp or lyre.
Here at the Monastery we sing psalms using traditional Gregorian chant. Chanting, I’ve been told, is one of very few human activities that engage both left and right brain hemispheres simultaneously. Something happens in the body through the rise and fall of the chant pattern. What happens when we chant the psalms I cannot really explain in words. But whatever happens seems to both lull the body into a more relaxed state and heighten its attention at the same time.
I found a real spiritual home at SSJE in 1984, after graduating from college. I’d taught math for a year at the Taft School, then moved back to Boston to work for an actuarial consulting company, designing pension plans. I loved my job, I had a fabulous apartment in the North End, and I loved going to SSJE for the weeknight Eucharist. But at the time I was wrestling with discerning a call to the priesthood: Am I called, am I not called? Do I say yes? When do I say yes? I had all these checklists in my head and I kept making deals with myself: “Once I turn this age… once I accomplish that goal… then I’ll say yes to the priesthood.”