In some ways I’m a contemplative trapped in a husband and father’s body. I am deeply enriched by contemplative practices such as lectio divina, centering prayer, and the like, but fight a constant battle to work them into the natural rhythm of my life. Still, I am eager to learn about such practices and am always on the lookout for resources that can make them more accessible to “regular people.”
That is probably why I first picked up Cynthia Bourgeault’s audio book, Singing the Psalms, and I have found it to be a nice little treasure. Unfamiliar as I was with the centuries-long tradition of Christian psalm-chanting, it was a nice introduction to the practice for laypeople for whom the fullness of the monastic Daily Office was outside the realm of practicality. Now, this little CD (I first bought the cassette tape version) has been expanded into a new presentation of much of the same material in Chanting the Psalms. I am approaching this book from the point of view of a lay person elbow-deep in secular life and secular responsibilities to care for home and family, sleep when I need to, and get to work on time. I’m bringing a love of singing and a modicum of musical ability (certainly nothing to brag about) as well as an intellectual grasp of the Psalms and their interpretation and a basic familiarity with Christian chant gained from my previous exposure to Bourgeault’s audio book.
In her introduction, Bourgeault notes the powerful influence chanting the Daily Office at a local Benedictine monastery made in her spiritual development. Bringing this practice home, however, is another story. She notes that while other monastic spiritual practices (contemplative prayer, lectio divina, mindful work) have been successfully adapted to life beyond the monastery, the tradition of sacred psalmody has proven difficult to transplant. This, she says, is for two major reasons.
First, intellectually, many people are puzzled by some of the content of the psalms. Bourgeault writes,
The psalms clearly belong to an Old Testament spiritual milieu, and they are often fraught with violence, self-righteousness, and vindictiveness. There is much black-and-white thinking and demonization of the enemy. The teachings seem on a lower level than the teachings of Jesus. How can steeping oneself so intimately in this primitive material bring one to a higher spiritual level? (3)
The author will address these concerns head-on in a later chapter, and I will add some thoughts of my own when we get to that portion of the book.
The second reason psalm-chanting has proven hard to incorporate into secular life is practical: there is a steep learning curve involved. It requires a certain musical skill and therefore a certain amount of work to master. One does not pick up the practice automatically. Unlike many forms of chanting in other world religions, psalmody requires a full engagement of mind and emotions which may strike the beginner as “hopelessly mental and cumbersome” (4).
Bourgeault intends for this book to address both sorts of concerns, and hints that the Benedictine tradition of psalmody, spelled out literally chapter-and-verse in Benedict’s Rule, has a depth of spiritual wisdom to it that is more than meets the eye. She suggests in passing that chanting the psalms involves an “underground yoga” around the core elements of breath, tone, and attention.
As a side note, I personally find Bourgeault’s frequent references to yoga, chakras, and other non-Christian categories a bit off-putting, but not so much that I wouldn’t recommend the book. It is helpful for me to remember that yoga is cognate with yoke, with all that implies with respect to the Jewish and Christian connotations of putting on the “yoke” of a teacher or discipline. Traditional Christian psalmody is definitely a “yoke” I am eager to try on for size.
Next: Part 2