Thinking about Psalms

The editors who write the headlines at the Episcopal Cafe have decided that my native genre is the encomium; my previous post received the title: “In Praise of the Daily Office” and now my latest is entitled: “In Praise of the Longest Psalm“…

In working on this piece I have been doing some thinking about where I am with the Psalms, particularly as regards the whole “monastic” vs. “cathedral” understanding of how to pray them. These terms arose a few decades ago but I know them best from Paul Bradshaw’s great book Two Ways of Praying (which I heartily recommend). As grand caricatures, these two classifications work, but lived liturgy never fits itself into such neat categories.

As a student of lectionaries, I find it more helpful to back off these terms and to return to the two main impulse that direct Scripture selection. One is the impulse to read in a way that is timely or apt (roughly corresponding to the “cathedral” style); the other is the impulse to read comprehensively (roughly corresponding to the “monastic”).

Since I’ve started doing the Offices years ago my preference has always been for the comprehensive and therefore my preferred way of reading the psalms is in course through Cranmer’s original 30-day pattern contained in the BCP’s psalter. Recently, however, I’ve been gaining an appreciation for using selected psalms, especially when memorized, in conjunction with the monthly rota. So, I’m trying to hold to the Prayer book offices as my mainstay with its comprehensive round, but supplementing it with selected psalms as in the Anglican Lauds that I pray on my commute.

I’d also like to—in the spirit of the EC post—try adding in some Little Hours through the day that use Ps 119 as well. We’ll see…

7 thoughts on “Thinking about Psalms

  1. Christopher

    I recommend Robert Taft’s work on the office, The Daily Office East and West. Dix is greatly responsible for the “monastic”/”cathedral” divide. It’s interesting that Cranmer goes with comprehension, in part a didactic move necessary for his time, which tended to be the “monastic” approach. In addition to timely and comprehensively, a difference in piety attended early developments of these two approaches, but as I mentioned before we dare not draw them overly.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, Taft is great as well.

    I’m arguing with the wrong person on this :-) but I look for Cranmer’s logic in the Introduction to the 1549 book which–as you know–was originally his preface to his revised Offices. The principle that he appeals to there is completeness. His frustration is motivated by the overgrown Sanctorale that keeps superceding the classical order of both Psalms and other Scripture readings. I don’t know if his change was just about didacticism or if there wasn’t also an Ad Fontes sense of going back to recapture something important that had been lost.

    I guess I’m having a negative reaction to the charge of didactic, perhaps because it has can have a divorced intellectual all-in-the-head feel to it. I think he was trying to restore the psalm cycle because of its overall formative character, not just for the purposes of information.

  3. Christopher

    Ah, but I wasn’t making a “charge of didactic”. I forget this term is loaded when speaking of the Reformation and liturgy because I tend to find blowhards who make that a charge (that he destroyed ritual, blah, blah, blah) don’t understand Cranmer’s at least partially intent or his way of the didactic.

    In Cranmer’s understanding of didactic as implemented in the prayerbook, what seems to arise is that to teach is not simply the conveyance of information but to inform us, meaning shape us through a regular rhythmn of response steeped in what every Christian should have in their bones, and in that sense, you’re right, he is concerned with “first things” in the principle of completeness.

    What is interesting to me is that he went with completeness. And it might be useful to know, though we may never, if he considered offices more of the “timely” type in his revisions. If I recall, he stayed largely with the Sarum lectionary and its tendency to completeness in such matters; his “clearing away” was to distinguish the forest from the trees in what should form and shape us. I say this because I’m not sure whether timely or comprehensively . In some ways comprehensive would be easier to be “hands free” per my latest post.

    In part, he does this elsewhere with the decalogue, etc., as well, and we tend to think its only to stuff us with information rather than to lodge in our hearts and shape our lives.

    That’s the genius of his “brand” of didactic approach that is different from the Reformed approach to my mind with its concern to stuff us full of information and moralistic emphases. His is liturgical training.

  4. Michelle

    Off on a different tangent, its interesting to see another influence on the psalms on Bede. I believe he wrote his acrostic hymn on St. Aethelthryth around the time he was writing on the psalms. Do you happen to have a list of the alphabetic/acrostic psalms?

    On the daily office, the comprehensive bit is exactly what I don’t like. I guess that makes my preference ‘cathedral’.

  5. John-Julian, OJN

    Derek, your piece at CAFE is one of the best commentaries I have ever read on 119.

    I had been reciting the Office following Cranmer’s 30-day cycle for over thirty years when I came to set up liturgy for the monastery.

    Then I made the decision to revert to older use for the Offices of the Triduum, and in that pattern, we did 119 in its entirely at the noon Office during Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (with “Aleph”, “Beth” etc. spoken before the Psalm parts)…and it absolutely enchanted us…every one of us. It became a “different creature”.

    Whatever there was of boredom or “teachiness” evaporated, and it became almost like a dance step one had already learned by heart. The “delight” simply overtook its “regulatory” dimensions, and it is still just about the most popular Office we recite!

  6. Jeffrey Smith

    (commenting here because Episcopal Cafe’s comment system refuses to cooperate with my browser)

    One thing to expand your reading of Psalm 119 is this bit of teaching from Jewish tradition: that every verse of the Psalm except v. 122 contains a synonym for the Torah (“statutes, judgments, faithfulness, etc.”), and even v. 122 can be seen as doing this (via the word “good”).

    Jewish practice recognizes two possible cycles of reading the Psalms–divided up among the days of the week, or divided up among the days of the month, with repeats and adjustments to account for the differing daycounts of the various months (which can be 28, 29, or 30 days). In the monthly version, Psalm 119 takes up two days.

    (And btw, as an Emory grad (BA, 1980) is the theology school library still the least used building on campus?)

  7. Derek the Ænglican


    If I remember correct abcderian texts are not uncommon in the Anglo-Latin tradition but others more qualified than I may be able to comment on that…

    Fr. John-Julian,
    Thanks! The Triduum Offices sound very interesting. If you were going back–did you use a version of Tenebrae at MP?

    Thanks for commenting! I remember hearing something like that before but couldn’t source it easily…

    The theology library is certainly used–aside from the dorms it’s the most slept-in building on campus! (And may rank ahead of some of the freshmen dorms… :-))

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