Caffeine and Psalmody

“My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.” — Servant of God, Dorothy Day

Man, there it is summed up in a sentence, the whole spiritual life! Java and psalmody.

The Psalms

I have come to love praying the psalms over the years, especially through the recitation of the Breviary, the Liturgy of the Hours. The psalms contain an extraordinary variety of voices and emotions, drawn from various historical epochs and diverse life circumstances, all crying out in pain, rejoicing, remembering, hoping, lamenting, raging, repenting, longing, praising, adoring, cursing, thanking, glorifying, and interceding with the sleepless Angels before the thrice holy presence of the Eternal God. They capture the heart and the “guts” of Israel’s restless, yearning faith, and each was shaped by the various exigencies of particular historical moments. In other words, they are the words of real people in real life situations.

That said, the psalms are not merely individual human expressions of faith bound to a specific time and space, but they are simultaneously Spirit-breathed words that mysteriously bear within them something beyond them, something eternal. They not only echo the voice of Israel, but they contain the voice of Israel’s longed-for Bridegroom, and of His Bride, the Church. The psalms are the Word of God and the word of man, or, more boldly said, the prayer of God and the prayer of man (cf. Mark 15:34). They give us God’s own language for contending with Him, and give shape to an inner disposition ready to receive the covenant grace of the God-Man who wishes to forge a union of love with humanity.

Praying the Psalms

When we pray the psalms, we should first pray that the Spirit of Jesus opens us to allow the divine-human voice of the psalmist to become our own. St. John Cassian says it this way,

…receiving into himself all the inward states contained in the psalms, he will begin to sing them not as if composed by the prophets; but as if spoken by him as his own prayers, drawn forth from deepest compunction of heart: and he will certainly interpret them as directed at himself, understanding that their verses were not only formerly fulfilled by or in the prophet; but that they are fulfilled and acted out daily in him.

The desert fathers were unanimous in their opinion that, when temptation assails us and threatens to take captive our souls, pray the psalms. St. Athanasius succinctly sums up this point, “Singing psalms is a medicine for healing the soul.”

But for this to happen, one must pray them “without ceasing” — regularly, frequently, faithfully. Fact is, it takes much labora to come to a good ora. That’s the gift of the Breviary — it prescribes ceaseless psalmody in a wonderfully orderly way.

I have found such ceaseless psalmody, when I remain faithful to it, to be wonderfully healing.

A last thought.

I remember years ago when I worked at an Orthodox Jewish nursing home, I asked the Rabbi chaplain how he prayed. He replied very directly: “How? The psalms.”

As a devout Jew, Jesus frequently prayed the psalms that had been, undoubtedly, pressed deeply into his memory. If that’s the case, what other incentive could a lover of Christ possibly need to make the psalms his or her own?

A Trappist monk (who are my favorite order of monks, btw) once gave me this wonderful piece of advice for praying the psalms well:

As you pray each psalm, ask the Spirit to allow you to see, hear, say, groan, whisper, sing the words the way Jesus did. If you can capture that vantage point, the psalms will have accomplished their mission in you.


Among the many wonderful ways to access the Breviary online, this is my personal favorite: 

Lastly, let me leave you with the psalmody of Compline (night prayer) sung at an awesome Trappist monastery in Iowa that I miss terribly — New Melleray. Hearing it makes me well up with emotion:

15 comments on “Caffeine and Psalmody

  1. […] (In a lovely coincidence, one of my favorite Catholic bloggers posted on the same subject yesterday: […]

  2. Kristen Daigle says: has beautiful recordings of some of the psalms and hymns used in the Hours by the MaryMotherChurch missionaries!

  3. oneview says:

    Loved this post, both for the beauty of your words and for the practical catechesis it provides. Just posted it on the SJEC Facebook page at Blessings on your day and weekend!

  4. That Dorothy Day quote might have made its way into my top ten. Thank you so much Dr. Neal for a great post and beautiful insight into the prayer-book of the Heart of Jesus.

  5. Tom says:

    I love the link and use it often – I especially like that I can play the podcast of the prayer!

  6. WoopieCushion says:

    So grateful for this beauty in the world.

  7. Lisa Schmidt says:

    Yeah, what everyone else said. This one’s especially bookmark-worthy, Dr. Neal. Hope you’re doing well!

  8. mmtittle77 says:

    Lovely reflection! I do love the Psalms too, but sometimes find it difficult to see how some of them resonate within my own life. Will work harder to contemplate on that; it really is a wonderful spiritual exercise. BTW…I live in Iowa not far from New Melleray and have been to Compline, so I can completely understand what you mean by the beauty and emotion behind their evening prayer! Peace to you and know that I have been greatly affected by your daily posts!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.