Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Psalms – Comfort and Challenge in Hard Times

It is almost clichéd to the point of triteness to say that the recent past has been a season of fear, uncertainty and confusion. The world seems to be crumbling day by day into an economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the 1930’s. In such anxious times, the need to find perspective and spiritual focus, while perhaps no greater than in times of luxury and earthly peace, is at least more apparent. Fear over declining finances strips away the false faces of fashion, the immodesty of obsession with ‘taste’ and preference, and the scandalous delusion of self-sufficiency. The precariousness of societal instability inevitably leads to the recognition that only inner spiritual strength can provide the means to tread forward through this vale of fears.

It is therefore worthy to become reacquainted with the Psalter. The Psalms have been central to Christian worship and prayer since the time of our Lord and the Apostles. This may strike one as odd, given that the Psalms are hymns and reflections firmly rooted in the liturgical life of the Jewish Temple. Yet, the Church appropriated the Psalms as prototypical sources of spiritual nourishment from the beginning. Until a hundred years or so ago priests and Monastics of all the Churches of Apostolic origin were required to read the entire Psalter every week. Even today, the Psalms form the backbone of the Roman Church’s Liturgy of the Hours.

In the Byzantine Tradition, while much of the actual recitation of the Psalter on a weekly basis has given way to only chanting the troparia and other hymns that once functioned as spiritual reflections and elaboration, references and allusions to the Psalter still permeate the hymns and common texts of the Divine Liturgy and other services. And in a welcome advancement, many Byzantine Christians and others recently have turned again to include the recitation of the Psalter as a constituent part of their daily devotions. This is a highly commendable development.

Our Lord frequently quoted the Psalms, and the Apostles came to understand that these millennia-old hymns reveal essential insights into the human condition and man’s relationship with God. The Psalms speak of devotion to God, fear of enemies, sorrow for sin, humble acceptance of God’s justice, and longing to understand in times of confusion and doubt. These are universal themes of human existence. By meditating on the Psalms the Christian finds continuity between his own experiences and those of the shepherd tending his sheep four millennia ago.

Over the years, your rambling host has found the Psalter an inexhaustible and indispensable source of spiritual strength. Having used different versions and several different methods, I have witnessed that my devotions and confidence in God’s mercy and protection can only be sustained through close contact with the Psalms. They are at once intimately personal and concretely universal, providing comfort and challenge to live a more Christian life.

In this light, I recommend two resources that have recently proven most valuable to me. The first is The Psalter According to the Seventy, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press. HTM is a traditionalist monastic community in Brookline, Massachusetts. The monks have been engaged in a now decades-long task of translating the entire corpus of Byzantine hymnody and service materials into English. Their aim has been accuracy and attention to the need for chantability. While the language is “classical”, which may not speak to everyone, their works will long be remembered as foundational in the history of Byzantine Christianity in the English speaking world.

The Psalter According to the Seventy is beautifully printed and bound in two editions; a large print edition suitable for the psalterion, and a ‘pocket size’ edition perfect for personal use. The large edition includes the traditional Byzantine Scriptural canticles. The pocket edition features end notes explaining the Kathisma system for weekly recitation.

The second resource is the translation of the Psalter Translated from the Greek Septuagint by Baron Jose De Vinck. This nicely-bound edition follows the artistic format of Byzantine Daily Worship; the translation being an elegant contemporary English, without the use of jargon. For those in the Melkite Tradition, the translation has the benefit of being familiar due to its inclusion in Byzantine Daily Worship. The only drawbacks are the exclusion of Psalm 151, the use of ‘double numbering’ when the division differs between the Greek and the Masoretic versions, and the lack of noting the Kathismata divisions. Nonetheless, while it is often hard to find, this edition is well worth the effort.

For those who prefer to utilize their time in the car for spiritual reflection, there are also two versions of the Psalms available for careful drivers. The first is an intoned reading by one of the monks of the Hermitage of the Holy Cross simply entitled The Psalter, utilizing the aforementioned Holy Transfiguration edition. This version has the benefit of being divided into the Kathismata, allowing one to program the particular Kathisma or Kathismata for a given day and time-period.

The second version uses the King James Version of the Psalter and is recited by Alex Jennings entitled The Psalms and available from Naxos. This version is beautifully read by Mr Jennings, an accomplished Shakespearean actor, and brings out the drama and pathos in the readings. Here and there, short pieces of classical or choral music punctuate the readings.

As both of these versions utilize translations in "classical" ("Church") English, the listener who finds "Thou shalt make me to lie down in green pastures" an awkward phrasing may not benefit from them. Others will find either edition worth using as an aid to devotion and reflection. Those wishing for a version that easily allows for listening according to the days and times of the Byzantine tradition will prefer the Holy Cross Psalter. Those preferring a more nuanced reading will prefer Jennings.

Whatever version or edition one chooses, the Psalter - prayed daily - will reward the seeker with deeper spiritual insights, greater appreciation of the universality of human nature, and a renewed sense of confidence in facing the vicissitudes of life. The words of the psalmist will seep into the heart, and references and allusions in the Liturgy will becoming striking both during the Divine Service and during the psalm reading. Slowly but surely, one will find one's layers of would-be and want-to-be falsehoods flaking away as the person God created and loves come more clearly into view. At the same time, knowledge and, more importantly, intimate acquaintance with God is fostered through these timeless meditations.

For true inspiration in these troubled and confused times, make the Psalter a priority on your reading and devotional list.


Byzantine, TX said...

Still searching for BDW. Not an easy book to find.

The Byzantine Rambler said...

Dear Josephus:

You are most kind in quoting my blog. Thank you.

I pray you have success in finding BDW, as well as have a very joyous Nativity Season.

earlcapps said...

Wise thoughts and rather timely ones, given the current uncertainties (as if life ever comes with a lot of certainty or stability?).