By Dr. Judy Bullock
Why are psalms so much a part of liturgy?
The Book of Psalms is sometimes referred to as the songbook or prayer book for the liturgy. We know that the Psalms are songs by their poetic composition and the fact that the names of the melodies for many of the psalms are listed in the Bible, even though today we do not know these tunes. Because of their form, psalms may be sung using a chant tone, which is a simple melody with a repetitious pattern for each verse or stanza. The psalms may also be sung using a lyrical melody. This type of melody can express the character of the psalm and enhance the meaning of the text in a memorable manner. Added to this collection of psalms, there are also songs in other books of Scripture. These songs are called “canticles” and they are used extensively in the Liturgy of the Hours.
Psalms have other characteristics that make them especially suited for inclusion in the liturgy. Although originally understood as God’s communication with his people, psalms also came to be interpreted as the people communicating with God. This dialogical quality makes psalms especially attractive for communal prayer. Scripture scholars tell us that even when the psalm has a singular pronoun, “I,” the psalmist is speaking for the whole community when addressing God.
Another characteristic that makes psalms a wonderful source for prayer is the gamut of emotions expressed: joy and exuberance, gratitude and praise, trust and faithfulness, even sorrow and lament, anger and frustration, longing and regret. All aspects of the human condition can be addressed in the psalms.
How were the psalms used in daily prayer?
In the early centuries of Christianity only a limited number of psalms were included in communal prayer. Most of the people were illiterate and the invention of the printing press was years away. Morning and evening prayer had a small number of psalms that were repeated each day of the week. Psalms 148-150 with the emphasis on praise were part of the common repertoire. Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm, was included in every morning prayer; Psalm 141, the incense psalm, became a regular psalm for evening prayer. It was only much later that most of the 150 psalms found their way into the daily prayer of the church, especially the monastic communities.
The way of praying the psalms was significantly different in the gatherings of the Christian communities from the manner they were prayed in the monastic communities. For the Christian community, the psalms were the prayer itself, the dialogue with God. For the monastic community, the silent times after the singing of the psalms were the most important times. This was the time for meditation and striving for personal sanctification.
How are the psalms used in the Liturgy of the Hours today?
Today psalmody in the Liturgy of the Hours is a combination of both ways of praying. Psalms are normally sung or recited in a four-week rotation. For example, on Monday evening of the first week of the cycle, Psalm 11, Psalm 15 and the Canticle from Ephesians are repeated every four weeks. Brief periods of silence and a prayer based on the psalm add a meditative element.
For ease of communal participation, there is a great deal of flexibility in the celebration of morning and evening prayer. Seasonal psalms may replace the designated psalms and the number of psalms reduced for practicality. This makes Liturgy of the Hours an excellent model for prayer before meetings or other gatherings in the parish.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.