Referring to the psalms in a sermon, St. Augustine said, cantare amantis est, “Only the lover sings.” He was making an argument for the sung character of prayer in general, and of psalmody in particular. There are some parts of Scripture, like psalms and canticles, that are written to be sung/chanted and, it might be argued, can only be understood, received and interpreted rightly by those who first sing them aloud in the context of the liturgy. In fact, the word psalm comes from the Greek psalmos, which means “song sung to a harp.” The Catechism augments this musical point in paragraph 1152:
The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy. The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephe 5:19). “He who sings prays twice” (St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 72,1)
Loving the Psalms
I love the psalms. They are the prayer of Israel and of the Church, prayers inspired by the Holy Spirit who is the pedagogue of prayer (cf Romans 8:26). They suffuse the Liturgy and are meant to be memorized and internalized, so the Spirit is free to raise them up within us whenever He wishes. In fact, memorizing psalms was always considered among the Church Fathers and medievals to be the 101 of basic spiritual practice. A biblical scholar I know once said,
The Fathers would be horrified that Christians think they can pray without memorizing biblical texts. Especially Psalms and Proverbs. That was one of the original meanings of the phrase “living Word” — the Word was meant to be alive both in the believer’s memory and in their life. But how can one imagine the Word alive in life if it’s not in the memory?
And the Psalms are rich! Pope Benedict, at the beginning of his string of Wednesday audiences on the Psalms, said:
In the Psalms are expressed and interwoven with joy and suffering, the longing for God and the perception of our own unworthiness, happiness and the feeling of abandonment, trust in God and sorrowful loneliness, fullness of life and fear of death. The whole reality of the believer converges in these prayers. The People of Israel first and then the Church adopted them as a privileged mediation in relations with the one God and an appropriate response to God’s self revelation in history.
They are also, for Christians, Christ’s psalms. For the Christian, all of the Psalms speak of Christ’s Passover from death to life (cf Luke 24:44), of Christ’s redeeming love for humanity revealed in the Church, and the Church’s penitent and joyful love for Him. They are also Christ’s psalms because He prayed them, they constituted the soul of His prayer life. On the Cross, Jesus quotes two psalms explicitly — 31:5 and 22:1 — and if you take His queue and continue with the rest of each of these psalms you will find a magnificent explication of the inner sentiments that welled up from His heart as He was dying. Just think, if you find yourself in distress and pain, you also can allow this psalm to well up in you. But it must be sung to become prayer. Listen, for example, to this haunting rendering of Psalm 22’s lamenting tone:
I love all the psalms, but two psalms have a special place in my heart.
My first love is Psalm 68. By weaving the Paschal troparion (Easter antiphon) into this ancient Hebrew “war-victory psalm,” the liturgy transmutes the joyful celebration of Israel’s violent and victorious terrestrial battle against its enemies into a joyful celebration Christ’s non-violent and victorious celestial battle against the dark powers of sin, Satan and death. These paschal words — “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” — intermingle with the first lines of the psalm:
Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be glad.
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (vs.1-4)
Here are a few of my favorite Psalm 68 stanzas:
O sing to the Lord, make music to his name;
make a highway for him who rides on the clouds.
Rejoice in the Lord, exult at his presence (v.5)
Father of the orphan, defender of the widow,
such is God in his holy place.
God gives the lonely a home to live in;
he leads the prisoners forth into freedom (vs.6-7)
The Lord gives the word to the bearers of good tidings:
“The Almighty has defeated a numberless army
and kings and armies are in flight, in flight
while you were at rest among the sheepfolds.” (vs.12-13)
May the Lord be blessed day after day.
He bears our burdens, God our savior;
this God of ours is a God who saves.
The Lord our God holds the keys of death. (vs.20-21)
Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God, praise the Lord
who rides on the heavens, the ancient heavens.
He thunders his voice, his mighty voice.
Come, acknowledge the power of God. (vs.33-35)