Sunday, 10 November 2013

Lectio with the Psalms

I am more and more drawn to the Psalms, and to reading them slowly, using the method of Lectio Divina. At the heart of the Bible, they reflect the whole of Scripture in the form of prayer to God. Part of the Wisdom Books that divide the Historical Books from the Prophets, they form a vital stage in the movement from the first Covenant to the last, that of Jesus.

The Pentateuch or five Books of Moses open the Bible with the first Covenant – the creation itself, then Noah, Abraham, Moses. Then the Historical Books trace the Covenant through David and his descendants, through the emergence of Israel. Then the Wisdom Books reveal the meaning, the inner meaning, of this unfolding Covenant, to the individual soul as well as the People of God. The Book of Job flattens the soul on its face before
God, preparing it for prayer. The Psalms are the outpouring of this prayer, of the Holy Spirit at work in his People. 

What needs to be understood, and what makes the Psalms so interesting, is that they are not assembled at random. One leads to another, each prepares for the next, balancing or fulfilling it. These are the prayers of Israel, and the prayers of Jesus – the prayers Jesus learned and lived. No wonder they begin with a Beatitude (Blessed is the man...), since they prepare the way for the teaching of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, and as a whole they form a portrait of the spiritual man, the man seeking his own end in the glory of God. They encompass the teaching of the First Temple, renewed by Jesus.

We also need to understand the "code". The enemies of Israel against which so many of the Psalms are directed are the sins, the forces of evil, that assail the soul. Or at least, that is how we must read them if we are treating them as prayers. And remember that we are reading in translation, which means we lose the nuances and associations that would have been apparent to early readers.

Th poetry of the Psalms relies on a simple technique (parallelism or anaphora) that is nonetheless very profound in its implications – the juxtaposition of two, or sometimes three, distinct metaphors or ideas to converge on the same idea from different angles (Praise the Lord, all you nations./ Extol him, all you peoples). This gives us a deeper and richer appreciation of what is being said – it is like the way we use bifocal vision to see in depth. The Book of Genesis gives us two distinct descriptions of the creation event for a similar reason, and the Gospels give us four rather than two accounts of the life of Jesus.

One way to read the Psalms meditatively is by going one at a time through the entire Book. This can be done online HERE – the advantage of this being that cross-references can be followed up immediately through hyperlinks from inside the text. The commentaries are from the Reformed tradition. For more detailed study (not in the order of the original Psalter but according to the Divine Office) you can also read the commentaries of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the Psalms of Morning and Evening prayer, collected HERE. The Aquinas Translation Project gives us St Thomas' commentary on many of the Psalms HERE, and St Augustine's complete commentary is available in English HERE. Readers may wish to suggest other favourite resources for the study of the Psalms in the comment boxes below.

Illustration: David singing the Psalms, from the Westminster Psalter.

1 comment:

  1. This comment was posted then deleted by mistake: this link uses translations from Protestant bibles, but it has a lot of information and takes each psalm verse by verse: