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!


HilbertAstronaut said...

Thanks for the reference, Bishop Tim! :)

In a way, I think some of this "editing" comes from the thought that since Psalms are part of the Bible, they are to be treated just like the Gospels or the letters of St. Paul. The Psalms aren't like that -- they are a combination of personal prayers and communal liturgy, and not necessarily expositions of Christian teaching or exhortations to moral living.

I'd like to talk more about the conflicting, legitimate desires to remove violent imagery from public worship, and to preserve the integrity of the Psalms, but I need to go to sleep now :)

Michael S said...

Here here, Tim!
One of the "offending" psalms - 137 - is my favorite, and it looses a great deal by being cut down. I myself would never dash anyone's babies against stones; however, without that over-the-top rhetoric, it looses the power to really convey where the psalmist is- and where we've all been.

Tim Cravens said...

Mark, I do agree that there are legitimate concerns about removing violent imagery from public worship -- but the fact is that most Christians do not recite the Divine Office. I don't think Psalm 137:7-9 has any place in the Eucharistic liturgy, certainly not in the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy -- but for those who recite the Office on a daily basis, omitting offending sections is an impoverishment.

Paul Goings said...


I wouldn't say that they encourage the laity and religious to shorten the "onus diei" by reciting only Lauds and Vespers, but they do indicate that these are the more important hours, which makes some sense.

That said, if, as you propose, we use all of the Psalms at Lauds and Vespers, what would we use for Psalmody at the other hours?

Tim Cravens said...

Paul --

What I would propose is that there be alternate tables of psalmody for different individuals/communities, similar to the way the Benedictine Federation has come up with different schemes for one, two, or four weeks to meet the needs of different monasteries, or the tables in Fr. Hartell's Prayer Book Office. Those who only recite two offices would be best served by a BCP-type arrangement -- those who recite four offices might use the two-week OHC Monastic Breviary scheme, and those who recite all seven or eight might use either a two-week Benedictine Federation arrangement or one of the traditional one-week psalters (whether Roman Rite, Benedictine, etc.).

While the Office is, indeed, the liturgy of the Church and ought to have some degree of unity, in fact local variations have always existed (and chances are have made it into your library!), and I think that this diversity of rites ought to be encouraged to meet the varied needs of the faithful.

Paul Goings said...

I very much agree.

That said, I would also mention that in-course recitation of the Psalter is not necessarily an essential component of the Divine Office. The "cathedral-style" of office used only a selection of Psalmody, appropriate to the time of day or season. So, I would have no objection, say, if a community wanted to use the historical "Sunday" Psalms (or a subset of them) for Lauds and Vespers daily.

Tim Cravens said...

And the "cathedral style" office died out in the West, I think in part because it does present a very impoverished selection of Scripture (both Psalms and other Scripture).

I really think that for most parishes and non-monastic individuals, the BCP-style office, which offers the full in-course recitation of the Psalter and a substantial selection of Scripture, is a much richer source of daily prayer than the "cathedral-style" office. Something along the lines of the 1979 seven-week order, which provides the "cathedral psalms" for Sunday and the rest of the psalms for weekdays is certainly one desirable possibility allowing for the more festal celebration of Sunday Vespers.

Alexis TanĨibok said...

I'm all for an 8 day cycle in which all the psalms are read. Its a bit old school I know but . . .

also I'm all for "full disclosure" of the psalter . . .we had some folks a year or so ago who really wanted to push a Roman model because apparently it edits out the more unpalatable imagery . . .something about bashing heads against rocks??? I can't remember exactly, but a psalm is not a psalm if you turn it into a jig saw puzzle of disconnected verses. It looses its cadence, as well as the meaning.

thanks for this Tim!

Carl Fortunato said...

I agree about reading all the Psalms: deleting certains Psalms is nannyism. Yes, some imagery is horrible, but we are all grownups, and should be accorded enough respect to make of those passages what we will, instead of pretending that they aren't there.

I've used many different schemes. Right now, I'm using the Roman Catholic (which eliminates 58 and 109 - I'll fit them in sometime myself).

Thought you might be interested in this:


It contains many different schemes for praying the Psalms. I particularly find this two-week one interesting:


It's BASED on the Order of Holy Cross, which eliminates "imprecatory" Psalms, but this schema includes them.

arvidnybroten@aol.com said...

I am told that the committee of cardinals advising Pope Paul VI on the revisions of the Liturgy of the Hours had recommended keeping the psalter intact, but that when the secretary of the committee sent the cardinals' recommendations to the pope he wrote a longer section expressing his own opinion on the matter than he did to the cardinals.

I rather wish that the revisions of the Liturgy of the Hours beginning with that of Pius X had retained all three of the Laudate Psalms (i.e., Ps. 148-150) in Lauds/Morning Prayer since this is the one universal element in all Christian traditions of this office--i.e., thus a sign of great antiquity.