The Daily Office: the Psalms as our companion: Brother Damian SSF

Damian shared how his personal journey of experiencing the psalms as his companion began in his teens when he was struck by the 1st verse of Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners : and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful”. For him this was a moment of discovery as these words, like an arrow, burst through his breast and touched base.

Later, he learnt plainsong for the Office of the Guild of Servants of the Sanctuary: his first encounter with any sort of Catholic worship. Soon he was serving at a convent for Vespers! As Psalm 111.9 was chanted: He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever; holy and reverent is his name – the priest raised his biretta and bowed his head: a lesson in reverence for Damian. In 1963, he bought a copy of Prime and Hours so that he might pray the 119th Psalm.

The Office of Terce was to give him thoughts of dependence, acceptance, union, God’s goodness, His hands: this became the opening up of a way of life, which eventually claimed him in the tradition of the friars.

The Psalms had become his prayerful companion.

The Book of Psalms is, initially, the Jewish Hymn Book. It’s been 2400 years since the Psalms passed from an oral to a written down tradition. “They sing of the wisdom of lived experience,” George T Peck writes, “surviving the pain of suffering and the gloom of grief, risking honest hate and anger and making penance. They also seek refuge from fears, give honour to God’s creation, and finally coming to rest in the love of God, singing praises!”

There are 5 Books of Psalms. Most were composed by King David. They reflect the varying happenings of the people of Israel, some more directly personal to the scrapes that King David got himself into. David’s reign covered many adventures caused by rivalry, war and intrigue. Psalms, then, were born into a basically hostile, dangerous and uncertain period of history, giving us a full range of emotions, fear, loss, betrayal, anger, questioning, and also trust, triumph, and some intimate encounters with God.

They are all given a prefixed title, except Ps 34. Some are written as a long historical record (e.g. Ps78, 136). In contrast the longest Psalm, 119, is a personal reflection on God’s law and loving purposes, set out in 22 stanzas of 8 verses, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The injection of the word Selah in some texts would probably suggest that the musicians provided an interlude while the singing ceased: certainly it reminds us that the Psalms were meant to be sung and accompanied.

The Christian Church has always turned to the collection of Psalms for its basic menu of worship.

We follow our Lord’s lead who would have known the Psalms by heart.

Luther calls them ‘a Bible in miniature’. Morning Prayer still opens with a version of David’s prayer in Ps 51.15: Thou shalt open my lips, O Lord : and my mouth shall show thy praise. There are many other well-known one-liners in the psalms which contain the basis for a meditation.

Damian’s purpose was to offer some encouragement in liturgical worship, but he assumed that for most, this would be about private prayer using the Office. That has advantages and disadvantages. Clearly the stimulus of praying the Office with others provides its own incentive as well as an opportunity to speak aloud. The disadvantage is to be without that encouragement but it doesn’t then matter if you make that pause in the middle of a psalm just to ponder on a phrase.

Damian then went on to explain how the verses are constructed. It’s not ‘word rhyme’ but ‘thought rhyme’ (which is more common in ancient poetry), arranging thoughts in relation to each other. Verses are often made up of synonymous lines, said twice, in different ways: for instance: For he has founded it upon the seas: and set it firm upon the rivers of the deep (Ps 24.2). Or antithetical rhyme, with a contrasting statement, such as: For the Lord knows the way of the righteous but the ways of the wicked shall perish (Ps 1.6). An illustration of synthetic rhyme would be: Your words have I hidden within my heart that I should not sin against you. (Ps 119.11). Progressive rhyme has stair-like style: Blessed are those who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked: nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of the scornful. (Ps 1.1)

There are a multitude of moods and expressions in the Book of Psalms. The Book of Common Prayer lists them in chronological order, dividing the 30 days, morning and evening, into sixty groups of psalms to be read on a monthly cycle.

Some religious orders have arranged the psalter to be read in a week. One remarkable event in our own time came through the genius of Br Tristan SSF who impressed the Liturgical Committee of Synod with his draft of a new Office Book for the Anglican Franciscans. His attempt was to recover for the Church of England a Prayer Book not simply for the use of a religious community but to give back to the church at large a book which served both for public worship and also private devotion. The Liturgical Committee asked to share in this new arrangement of the major Offices, and later in Common Worship to offer a four-fold daily office which for many Communities had become a helpful revision half a century ago, thus making a more manageable rhythm of prayer as they were exposed to the ever increasing pace of life of modern society.

The BCP offered a standard daily form of Morning and Evening Prayer. Now we were invited to pray through the central Gospel themes each week. Sunday was the celebration of Easter, Friday focused on the Cross, and by allowing Monday the theme of Pentecost, Wednesday Christmas and Thursday Epiphany. Tuesday allowed for Advent and Saturday the Kingdom. Br Tristan felt that the Psalms contained reflections of all these themes and set out charts for grouping their recitation around the Gospel themes. With the publication of Common Worship only part of his proposals survived. Along with the recovery of Sundays after Trinity and the old BCP collects, the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter have retained the special choice of Psalms which link closely to those seasonal themes – as a first option.

What excited Damian about the identification of a psalm with a Gospel theme is the sense of prophesy: God’s plan is established and waiting to be revealed.

He finds life in the psalms, taking us from David to Christ and to the saints of the church and to us as we gain inspiration for our time.

Good examples of these are: Christmas: Noble are you on this day of your birth; on the holy mountain from the womb of the dawn the dew of your new birth is upon you (Ps110.3) and Jesus himself was repeating Ps 22 from Calvary, expressing both the agony and the triumph of the Cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me...and later for the Kingdom is the Lord’s, and he rules over the nations. The psalms are alive - both full of the human situation and also of God’s presence and provision. Alleluia!

Jesus fed on the Psalms, they were on his lips and they formed something of a basis for his prayer and his understanding of the Father’s will. He will have stumbled on its wisdom, identified with the described misfortunes, and been able to put into context many of the things that happened both in his mission and ministry and in his community. We who make our prayer through Christ, may be similarly blessed, nurtured, comforted and strengthened through this field of human endeavour mingling with divine wisdom. And let us be careful not to dismiss all the bracketed verses! When the language is strong, it may be right not to bring some of the curses into public worship, but hear finally what Br Samuel SSF made of Psalm 14 which starts and finishes as a lament, because it is a protest over the society, a world of corrupt power – a world in which no one does good, no not one. A world in which foolish people who have no knowledge of God, believe they are therefore above the law. They can do what they want with their money and their status: a world is described in which only the little people pay taxes. A world in which the powerful devour the weak – people are eaten up like bread. But this is a very contemporary picture! And so the Psalmist cries to God for deliverance from this world: O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion. O that God would restore the balance. O that God would turn this world upside down. Which in Jesus he has! So a seemingly negative theme may still inspire us simply by acknowledging just how close the world of David connects with our continuing to ignore God today. Let it fire us again, as that Psalm’s prayer ends ‘to let the children of earth know that you are God for ever, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever. Amen