1. I wrote this “little handbook” to assist anyone who would like to pray through the Psalms this Lent (and maybe afterward). Outside of Lent, the Orthodox Christian community prays through the Psalms completely once per week; and in Lent itself, we are called to go through the Psalms twice per week.
2. This handbook is meant only as an introduction. There are many more things to say about the Psalms than what is contained in these paragraphs: in fact, it is impossible to write anything that approaches completeness about the Psalms. The same thing could be said about the Psalms as the Evangelist said about the Lord Himself: “… there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21.25 RSV).
3. God has helped me so often, and so deeply, through the Psalms that I encourage everyone to try praying through the Psalms in a regular manner. I invite you to do this whether you are Orthodox or not — even whether you identify yourself as a Christian, or a believer, or a traditionalist or a doubter or wanderer.
4. The Psalms constitute the “hymnal” or “songbook” or, better, the “prayerbook” for all Christians. Our Lord Himself, in His human life, grew up in and continued to pray these Psalms. This is a deep and beautiful thought, because it is the same Lord Who in His divinity — as the eternal Word of God — actually formed the Psalms through the work of David and the other makers of the Psalms.
5. In the same way, the Psalms “form” our thoughts and feelings and actions as we sing them. They teach us the design of prayer — the ways of meeting God in His sanctuary that He Himself has made (more on this below).
6. You probably noticed that the second title is “Singing the Psalms.” I encourage you to at least read the Psalms out loud, so that your ears can hear the words and the verses from your mouth. If you can, try to chant — that is, sing on the same note or a simple melody — the Psalms in a soft voice (sotto voce) that is just barely loud enough for you to hear. This is not an unimportant matter. It is possible that silent reading confines the information in subjectivity: on the other hand, reading audibly gives the words a higher level of objectivity. At the very least, move your lips when you read the words. In a famous passion of his Confessions (book vi, chapter 3), St Augustine was amazed to see his spiritual father St Ambrose of Milan actually reading silently, without even moving his lips, so that he would be always available for visits and thus “interruptible.” I know that I am not nearly so spiritually developed as Ambrose: perhaps this is true about you as well.
7. Sometimes (actually, many times) my attention wanders while I pray. This happens less when I chant the Psalms out loud. And even then, when my consciousness wakes up and finds itself “otherwise occupied,” I am better able to re-focus on the Psalms in the context of a chant.
8. At the end of this handbook, there is a schedule of readings that we follow in praying through the Psalms in a single week. There exists an additional Lenten schedule for reading the Psalms twice per week: I have not included this. I share with you the fact that I have rarely chanted the Psalms in Lent on the twice per week schedule. I do what I can and try to do better. If you can do better, I am sincerely happy and thankful, because you are making the world a better place (without any irony, I welcome any superiority over my own work).
9. This schedule of readings is special, and worth looking into. The early desert monks, living by themselves, would chant the entire Book of Psalms (or “Psalter”) every single day. As they grew into communities, the chanting of the Psalms every week became the community form of prayer. Over time, the Psalms were divided into twenty sections called “kathismata” (“kathisma,” singular). Every kathisma is roughly the same length, consisting of one to four Psalms, depending upon the length (thus, the longest Psalm, the 118th, is a kathisma unto itself).
10. The word “kathisma” is the Greek word for “sitting.” This reflects the practice of the monks who would sit down while one of the brothers would stand and chant the Psalms.
11. Each kathisma is further divided into three “staseis” (“stasis,” singular). “Stasis” is the word for “standing,” which is exactly what the monks would do at this point, since the monk who was chanting the Psalm would say “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit,” at which point everyone would stand.
12. For most of the week, the schedule calls for the reading of two kathismata in the morning and one kathisma in the evening. The “kathisma” schedule is based upon the chapter numbering of the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is called the “Septuagint.” This is the translation used by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic community. Its chapter numbering is different from the more familiar English translations (like the King James Bible, or the New International Version). For example, the “Good Shepherd Psalm” is known as Psalm 23 in most translations, but in the Septuagint (which is often abbreviated as the “LXX”), it is identified as Psalm 22. To help you with this difference of chapter numbering (especially if you are using an English translation that is not based on the Septuagint), I have included a helpful chart that compares the Septuagint numbering with the Masoretic (this is the numbering used by most English translations).
13. It is more important to do a little with the Psalms than to attempt a lot, only to give up and not do anything at all. That is why I have not yet tried to do the Lenten schedule in its entirety. Perhaps it is impossible for you to chant the Psalms completely in a single week. If this is the case, pray one Psalm in the morning, and another Psalm in the evening. If you would like to complete all the Psalms on a less demanding way, I suggest that you try the “tri-weekly” schedule. In this manner, on the first week, you would simply chant the first stasis of each appointed kathisma. On the second week, you would do the second stasis. And on the third, you would complete the Psaltery by chanting the third and final stasis of each kathisma.
14. Sometimes people do not like the idea of a “way” or “method” of prayer, thinking that any such form is artificial and limits the spiritual freedom of prayer. But nothing is wrong with “form” in prayer, even a repeated form. This does not at all prevent anyone from speaking extemporaneously or spontaneously. In fact, the Psalms often speak of pouring out one’s heart to God, or expressing intense emotions to the Lord. It is in such intense moments, especially of sorrow or anxiety, that form can actually help in the expression of spontaneous concern. When the Lord condemned “vain repetition” (in Matthew 6.7), He did not denounce “repetition” or form, but the vanity of “going through the motions,” without any attention to the words, or without any emotional involvement. There are many instances of repetition in the Psalms. Themes and ideas frequently re-appear. Verses and even groups of verses are repeated in various sections. And in one famous case (Psalm 135 LXX), the phrase “for His mercy endures forever” is repeated twenty-seven times and twenty-six verses.
15. There are good reasons for repetition. One reason is that repetition signals that the phrase is important and deserves greater attention. Another reason is that each successive repetition calls for increasing intensity and higher, wider interpretation. In the case of Psalm 135, the repeated “for His mercy endures forever” calls for an ever deepening sense of God’s mercy. For example: I start with a simple identification of “His” as “God,” but then “His” turns into a personal possessive. “Mercy” may start with the simple meaning of “erasing my debts” or “letting me off the hook.” But then the repetition deepens in sense: “mercy” becomes “steadfast love and compassion,” which is more intimate than an arbitrary erasure of debit in an accounting register. Then, as the chanting continues, “mercy” reaches the deeply mystical understanding (or “knowing”) of the Self-sacrifice of Christ on the Cross (and throughout His Incarnation” — and that Self-sacrifice itself is related to the constant “pouring out” of One to the Other within the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
16. In this sense, any formal repetition in the Psalms is not at all a deadening, limiting and vain practice of man-made habits. Instead, it becomes a spiritual “dance” of love between the Creator and His beloved creature. There is a pattern of God’s action and word, and our response. And God in turn responds to us: and at ever act, the human heart rises higher.
17. Much, if not all, of the Psalms is simple: a straightforward “plain reading of the text” can yield powerful meaning. But at the same time, everything in the Psalms is also mysterious. In general, every Psalm and every verse (or “stanza”) is simultaneously plain and hidden. I say “in general” because frankly, there are some Psalms and some verses that are not at all plain. Some of the Psalms actually state, outright, that they are about “dark sayings,” “riddles” and “things hidden since the foundation of the world” (as in Psalm 77.2 and 48.4 LXX). This is an honest statement about reality: only some of life is easy to understand, but better understanding of real life is difficult and requires hard work. This shows the presence and deep concern of Wisdom that occupies the “depth of the earth and the height of the sky” surrounding and permeating the Psalms.
18. Thus, there is no substitute for a constant, repeated practice of praying the Psalms. Meanings will seem to jump out at you with the first readings. There may be occasions when nothing new will commend itself to you. But there are other occasions, perhaps on the tenth or hundredth or thousandth, that the utter depths of Wisdom reflected in a single stanza will overwhelm you with such loveliness and a vision of the everlasting that you will be reduced to tears (which St Symeon the New Theologian and St Isaac of Nineveh called the second baptism of the latter rain, that turns the gray wilderness into verdant pasture). Repetition of the Psalms is like a spiral, not a circle: for example — you may revisit, cyclically, Psalm 109 every Saturday morning (since it is contained in the sixteenth kathisma, but one year, one morning, you will be overcome by the poetic and Christocentric force of Psalm 109.7 LXX: “He shall drink from the brook on the way, therefore he shall lift up his head”).
19. There are, indeed, repetitions of many terms, phrases or themes. Here is a short list of Psalmic terms. I describe these particular ones because some of them may actually appear as an obstacle to you. Some, even, may appear to afflict you with fear or distress, or even despair. Some will say this is impossible, since “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4.18 KJV). But for my part, this issue became an almost insurmountable difficulty in the beginning phase of my Psalmic life: I was saved, however, and granted peace (and a vision of beauty) only after some hard work of repetition and study. So in the hopes of sparing you some discomfort that is possibly avoidable, I offer a short discussion of the following terms:
- Selah. This odd, mysterious Hebrew word appears seventy-one times in thirty-nine of the Psalms. The Septuagint translates this with the Greek word “diapsalma,” which indicates a pause, and perhaps a change in melody and rhythm. I suggest that when chanting and you encounter “selah,” that right then you take a breath, and think deeply on the phrase you just chanted, and pay attention to how the next words follow upon that phrase. For example: the first occurrence of “selah” occurs in Psalm 3.2 LXX. In the first two verses, David sings about how the increasing number of his enemies, and “how many are they who say to my soul: There is no salvation for him in his God.” Then there is the “selah.” At that moment, we reflect on how often in life we suffer from attack, and attack of a certain kind. The clue to this is the phrase, “many are they who say to my soul.” Plainly, this is at attack from spiritual sources instead of physical ones, since these “afflicters” are ones who can “say to my soul.” So in this reflection, we are ready to more deeply appreciate the protection of God in verses three and four: “But You, O Lord, are my protector, my glory and the One Who lifts up my head. I cried to the Lord with my voice and He heard me from His holy hill.” And even then, we encounter another “selah” before the beginning of the fifth verse: “I lay down and slept” (i.e., secure enough to sleep vulnerably in the midst of the foe) and why is this possible? “I awoke (i.e., I survived the night), for the Lord will protect me.”
That is what “selah” can do for you.
- Enemies. These are “actors” or agents who attack the prayer of the Psalms — whether the Psalmist is David, Moses, Solomon, the sons of Korah, or even you and me. At one time, these enemies may have been actual, human persons (or groups of people). But even then, when the enemies may have been Goliath, King Saul or palace conspirators lined up against David, they had given up the noble image of their humanity and were acting as puppets of their demonic masters. The literal, historic meaning of the “enemies” in the Psalms is always valid (because it is “authentic”), but it is always secondary and derivative — even in the original author’s contemporary situation. To confine David’s many, many complaints about his enemies to a political situation is to reduce the meaning — even for David himself, as he knew that behind the historical actions of his physical enemies lay the greater, far more horrible evil presence of the demonic.
The interpretation work is even simpler for us after the Incarnation. “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6.27-28 KJV). Some early Christian Fathers say that human anger should never be directed against anyone who bears the image of God, at least not any human. Some Fathers teach that anger should be reserved only for the demonic. But even then, a few Fathers suggest that we should even pray for them, or at least mourn for them (I’m thinking of St Silouan of Athos here), simply because, as St Isaac of Nineveh teaches, God only loves those whom He has created.
In short, when enemies are mentioned in the Psalms, they are spiritual entities, whether they are demons or demonic forces or just nameless, amorphous, even ambiguous afflictions and oppressions. We are to express completely and emotionally our affliction to God and His compassion: we are not to take revenge.
- Imprecation. This word means “curse.” There are some moments in the Psalms when the singer seems to demand that God take revenge on the enemy. Two Psalms in particular (68 and 108) are considered the most infamous of the “Imprecatory Psalms.” There are also “imprecations” in sixteen other Psalms (5, 6, 12, 13, 36, 38, 41, 53, 55, 57, 59, 80, 84, 138, 140, and 143 LXX). The problem of the “Imprecatory Psalm” is so distinct that it has found its way into English literature. In Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, the main character sees his hated rival outside the pub window, where he is drinking with the church choir after choir practice. He persuades the choir to sing Psalm 109 as a curse against his enemy. The choir director then said this, understandably, of the psalm: “”Twasn’t made for singing. We chose it once when the gypsy stole the parson’s mare, thinking to please him, but parson were quite upset. Whatever Servant David were thinking about when he made a Psalm that nobody can sing without disgracing himself, I can’t fathom.”
But I don’t think any Psalm, even so-called “cursing” Psalms, can ever be sung with disgrace. In the almost two thousand year long tradition of the Church, these troubling Psalms are not identified as curses or imprecations. For one thing, all curses — along with all dark magics — are abolished by the Incarnation: “From that time onward all magic was abolished and every spell” (St Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians, xix). For another thing, it is contrary to God’s Nature: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1.7 KJV). God is never the cause of any evil. Any description of wrath or vengeance in Scripture on the part of God is mainly a description of the inevitable and self-inflicted consequences of persons (human or demonic) who reject God’s love.
This must be said clearly and insisted upon, and you have to remember it at all times during your perilous adventure in the Psalms, because the enemy (whoever and whatever) will do its best to discourage you, and tempt you into thinking that God is the source of evil.
You can pray the Imprecatory Psalms confidently. One thing to keep in mind is God’s nature of goodness, and that His Name is Love. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that the Imprecation Psalms may not ask for God’s revenge so much as they plead for His salvation and healing. What David does with complete openness and confidence is to fully express his psychic situation to God. No, God does not need to be informed of this information, because He already knows. But in giving full voice to his pain and anguish, the Psalmist opens himself in complete vulnerability. It is as if he is driven to childlike, primitive crying for paternal rescue. And at this point of extremity, God meets the Psalmist in so intimate embrace that the Psalmist’s heart is expanded and healed.