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Praying the Psalms


The Psalms form a sort of alphabet or primary vocabulary of our spiritual life. In them, we can find emotions from joy, through gratitude, to doubt, and despair. We can see them expressing different aspects of our spiritual journey. And we can use them to express our relationship with God.

The Psalms are prayed daily by monks, nuns, and others. They form the foundation of a lot of our hymns. And as we sing them, chant them, pray them, read them we are regularly encountering emotions and realities that may not be our current experience, but they have been in the past or might be in the future.

It is as if we are exercising – making sure that all our muscles are fit and healthy. Even the ones we aren’t currently using day to day.

To keep it simple, there have been two traditions of praying the psalms: “monastic” (starting at Psalm 1 and working through in sequence to 150) and “cathedral” (using {a} psalm{s} appropriate to the time of day, feast, or church season). Many ways of praying the psalms, of course, are a combination of these two approaches.

I have been praying the Psalms in different ways for decades. But in the form of the Office I follow, I could end up not using a certain psalm or psalms – or using some very rarely.

A friend of mine, aware of this, has recently returned to Cranmer’s division of the Psalms to work through them once a month. Another person I know prays his office by merely picking up the Psalter and working through from where he last left off for as much time as he has.

What do you do? What might you do?

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7 thoughts on “Praying the Psalms”

  1. I have a subscription to psalm-o-matic. It’s a free service that emails a randomly selected psalm out each day. Over time, one will have read them all. Currently, its Psalms come from the NAB. One day, the developer hopes to include randomly selected translations of the Bible so that one can get a flavor of the Psalms in its various presentations. I’m not holding my breath for the random translation thingie to be implemented any time soon.

    Interested folks can send an email to psalms_liturgy@fccr-ace.org and ask to be subscribed. There is never any spam and no email addresses will be shared with third parties.

  2. Thanks so much for this invitation, Bosco. As you know, I follow Cranmer’s division (in Coverdale’s translation). It is one of the anchors of my life, spiritual and otherwise.

    George Guiver has a useful breakdown of seven different ways we pray “sacred poetry” (specifically the psalms) that have changed little over the millennia and are still accessible to “modern” people:

    1. As “verbal confetti, a stream over which prayer can ride like a raft on the waters”.

    2. As “rhythm to calm us down and make us receptive”.

    3. As “a tour through our unconscious: fear of enemies, desire for revenge, depression, concern with material things, jubilation, victory, glory … the Psalms hold before us the real selves we often overlook, and lay them before God.”

    4. As “elementary theology” bringing us back to “the simplest and crudest levels of the relationship between human and divine”.

    5. As the exercise of “the priestly vocation of the praying Church,” giving “voice to the voiceless cry of countless hidden victims and sufferers”.

    6. As thematic selection for special occasions, with psalms acquiring meanings from those occasions (as with Psalm 116 as a Eucharistic text: “I will lift the cup of salvation”).

    7. As if they were hymns, chosen selectively, like Psalm 65 at harvest festival, or Psalm 100 at the opening of a service.

    Only having listed these does Guiver consider the more difficult (but endlessly fruitful) tradition of Christological interpretation of the psalms. We may read the psalms as speaking (a) about Christ (Psalm 23), (b) in the voice of Christ (Psalm 22), or (c) in the voice of the Church (Psalm 126).

    Far from being fanciful, this “typological” interpretation:

    “recognizes … the repetitive patterns in God’s way of going about things. Exodus is linked with resurrection, Israel with the Church, because they are part of a repeating pattern in the way things work. This is why typology, the matching-up of stories and pictures like this, is more than merely fanciful. It works on the basis that God’s methods remain true to type. The acts of God are seen often to follow archetypal patterns, so that some passages of Isaiah resonate strongly with the crucifixion, while the history of Israel resembles that of the Church. … It does not matter that a Hebrew king entering the Temple to celebrate a victory (Psalm 118) knew nothing about the resurrection of Christ. The same God was revealing himself in the same inimitable manner in both events, an both reveal a similar trait in his character, and in the character of his Truth.”

    (This is all from George Guiver, Company of Voices: Daily Prayer and the People of God, rev. ed. 2001, pp. 151–3.)

    Guiver’s account of Christological/typological reading gives special life to Walter Brueggemann’s very helpful classification of the psalms into three groups:

    1) Psalms of Orientation (Wisdom, Torah, Well-being)
    –> Jesus’s Earthly Ministry
    2) Psalms of Disorentation (Lament, Exile, Repentance)
    –> Jesus’s Suffering and Death
    3) Psalms of New Orientation (Thanksgiving, Praise, Messiah)
    –> Jesus’s Resurrection, Ascension, Reign, and Return

    (See Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, 1984)

    I’ve found Brueggemann’s approach immensely helpful as one who prays the psalms “monastically,” because no matter what psalm is in front of me I can pray it as a kind of anamnesis of part of Christ’s saving work, and also enter into that work myself. Praying the psalter in course can thus become an expanded meditation on the baptismal creed.

    1. Thanks! And Oh Dear, Jesse. George Guiver is (you can probably tell) underneath this post, so I add the links to the two books you mention. The “Oh Dear” is because I haven’t got/read this Brueggemann book, and (because of my respect both for you and for Brueggemann) I can see my library expanding once again… Blessings.

      George Guiver Company of Voices: Daily Prayer and the People of God
      Walter Brueggemann – The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg Old Testament Studies)

  3. Living in England now, where there are several simultaneous lectionaries on conflicting principles (none of which is included in the volume “Common Worship: Daily Prayer”), and where the little-used 1662 BCP is still the only prayer book the vast majority of faithful Anglican churchgoers are likely to own or handle that actually contains a Daily Office… I find myself with a deepened appreciation of the American 1979 BCP. Granted, most Episcopalians don’t bother with the Daily Office, despite all the “real estate” it occupies in the book—but it stands there as an invitation, and I believe it is much more widely used for private prayer* by the laity than in England (I’d love to see a study of daily liturgical prayer based on real data).

    * “Private” because the English definitely deserve credit for Evensong. Of course corporate prayer is the ideal, and there are many thriving outposts of it here in England.

    Anyway, it’s just so simple: one two-year cycle of lessons for everyone, reading the NT entirely every year and a lot of the OT over two years. As for the Psalms, you either pray every verse of every psalm around seven times per year (using the lectionary in the back and disregarding the brackets and alternatives for the “naughty bits”), or twelve times per year (using the Cranmerian indications “Eleventh Day: Evening Prayer” etc.).

    It’s something I took for granted (everything for a life of prayer between two covers, from baptism to Eucharist to every day to funeral!), but England doesn’t have it, and the Church of Ireland, in an otherwise attractive BCP, unaccountably lacks a Daily Office lectionary. In NZ does your commonest prayer book provide a usable office liturgy and office lectionary?

    P.S. Perhaps only the weekly Benedictine cycle is truly “monastic.” I certainly consider the seven-week BCP1979 cycle I use, usually chanted with either generic or seasonal antiphons, as monastic as Cranmer’s schedule!

    1. Thanks, T.W.

      [by the way – on this site, we just use the name we are usually called. If you are normally called “T.W.”, fine. If not (and I can see your email address – which I don’t share – indicates you may be called something else), you’ll understand it helps keep the culture of the community with this site healthy in knowing we are real people here – not anonymous or pseudonymous.]

      The NZ Prayer Book includes the daily office. It includes a psalm “translation” (our own) with Cranmer’s 60 (two times a day) divisions. This prayer book does not include an office lectionary. In fact our province has not authorised such a lectionary and just borrows others’ in our annual NZ lectionary booklet. Three decades ago, our General Synod went through the complex procedure of removing the requirement that clergy pray the office ! (passed in all houses at General Synod, sent to local synods where at least half were required to agree, passed by a 2/3 majority in each house of a newly-elected General Synod). We keep no national statistics about anything – so we would be the last to be able to contribute real data. A priest who looked into this for his study leave concluded that if clergy were formed in a live-in seminary context they were more likely to have a daily office discipline. If they were not – they wouldn’t. Again, as we keep no national stats, best guess is that about 93% of clergy here are not formed in our seminary. As to laity considering praying the daily office, I am struggling to remember if I have ever heard it suggested in church – other than by me. I am unaware of any teaching/formation programmes provided for laity should they consider doing so. (Weekday) Choral Evensong is provided in NZ in a rare place or two – there it is probably more appreciated for its beautiful music than as a part of our daily prayer discipline.

      This site has a strong emphasis on encouraging all to pray the daily office and in whatever format works best in their context. St Benedict was all for adapting and flexibility.

      Where do you source your antiphons? Please pray for me, and for/with all those here who follow the daily office discipline.


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