On Praying the Psalter in the 21st Century
Exegesis or Prayer Wheel?
Experience in religious and monastic life in Christianity inevitably leads to an encounter with the Book of the Psalms. This is the book, according to the Fathers of the Church, in which God prays to Himself so that we know how to pray to Him. Ancient Christianity had great reverence for this book, and early Christians often knew the entire Psalter by heart. They had a great sense of devotion while praying it since they knew that it was God's word itself, and it was considered the highest of all forms of personal prayer.
Over the centuries, particularly in the West, the popularity of the Psalter as a prayer book faded in the mind of the Christian masses. The Rosary and other devotions in the West, and private prayers and akhathists in the East began to be much more popular in the private prayer lives of the people. While there have always been attempts to revive fervor for this inspired book of prayers, a certain gap remains, and I would argue that this gap is due to a lack of understanding in the modern mind itself.
Having had experience reciting the Psalter both in a sacred language and the venacular in liturgy, I have to say that some verses and entire psalms are impenetrable. One verse, "they have been sated with swines' flesh and have left the remainder to their infants," always made me smile with peaceful resignation that the power of the words would never quite penetrate. And what of the famous line, "in splendoribus sanctorum ex utero ante luciferum genui te". What is that supposed to mean?
We will not get into the linguistic subtleties here, since we are well aware of them. And of course, the result will always be the same: we still don't understand much of the Psalter. This is why the Roman Church placed so much emphasis on the antiphon; it was the highlight of the psalm even if the rest of the psalm seemed to have nothing to do with that verse. So why did the early Church so revere this book, while we can pray some psalms, like the famous Psalm 108, only blushing and in a very low voice?
The problem is that we have changed. We often approach a text with the desire to master completely its meaning. We might be too subjectivist in our approach to how we read God's word. "How is God speaking directly to me?", might be our most pressing question. Could it be, though, that the act itself of reciting this sacred text changes us in ways that we don't perceive? Could it be that when we pray, we need to keep in mind that we are not just before God, but we are also before the Church as the Body of Christ? Our communion is not just vertical (from God to me), but also horizontal, ( from me to my neighbor, through space and time). Praying this book is not just a study, an act of exegesis, but a communal act of worship. And in very postmodern fashion, when we contemplate the meaning of the text, we cannot simply try and take into consideration the mind of the (human) author, but also how the Psalter has been prayed throughout Christian history.
Of course, we also have to avoid the "prayer wheel" approach, like those poor nuns of yesteryear who used to chant the rubrics as well as the Psalter when singing the Divine Office in Latin. But as in all things, "in medio stat virtus", in moderation lies the right thing to do. We must try to read and pray with understanding, but also with humility.