Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Please Don't Mess with the Psalms!

Many years ago, Reader's Digest, which puts out condensed versions of many books, put out a condensed version of the Bible, prompting many jokes about "which two Commandments will they cut out?" and the like, as well as a sense of outrage among many conservative Christians. While I agree that there are many parts of the Bible which are less than edifying, and even my fundamentalist Southern Baptist minister father told people to skip over the long genealogies of unpronounceable Hebrew names by just saying "and all God's children" and skipping ahead, I agree that the idea is a bit cringeworthy -- but am happy to refer people to the more edifying parts.

However, it is really annoying that many of the liturgical churches -- even the conservative ones -- have done exactly that to the Psalms. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1979) puts a few Psalms in brackets, with more verses in parentheses, as suggestions for omission. At least Episcopalians get a choice in the matter -- the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours omits Psalms 58 and 109 and mangles many other Psalms. Also, while encouraging laity and religious to shorten the office by only reciting Morning and Evening Prayer, rather than coming up with a Psalter distribution that enables one to recite all of the Psalms in those two offices, they retained a distribution scheme that requires one to recite at least five offices in order to cover all of them (except the parts they threw away). It would have been much better had they created a scheme similar to the historic 30-day one used by Anglicans (and still printed in the text of the 1979 Psalter) or the 7-week scheme in the Daily Lectionary of the 1979 BCP. (I will absolve the Lutherans for past sins in this area since both the ELCA and the LCMS worship books just published contain all 150 Psalms. And I will be silent about the fact that our Jewish brothers and sisters omit NOTHING from the Psalms, including the titles and the word "Selah" -- I make a point at least once a year to read the Psalms from a Bible rather than from a BCP/Breviary/Diurnal just to read these.)

Mark Hoemmen, an ICCC member in San Francisco, has an outstanding post for April 26 on his blog, in which he recounts being startled by the violent ending of Psalm 139 (138 in the Septuagint/Vulgate numbering) put onto the bulk of the Psalm, which is a beautiful meditation on the comforting omnipresence of God. Mark goes on to reflect on how important it is to read even these disturbing parts of the Psalms -- because they teach honesty before God.

One of the reasons that the Church places the Psalms before us as the greater part of the liturgy each day is precisely because of this ability to lay bare our souls, not only to God but to ourselves. If we cannot face this soul-baring, we cannot truly enter into that relationship with ourselves that is required before we can healthily relate to God or others. I don't know that we can authentically pray Psalm 150 if we skipped Psalms 58, 109, and the horrifying last three verses of Psalm 137. Even if we don't see those Psalms reflected in our soul, they at least teach us about the potential we have within ourselves, so that we may safely "ground" these energies without having them express themselves in unhealthy ways in other parts of our lives.

So -- please -- put the scissors away, and read ALL of the Psalms!