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Chanting the Psalms 10

The second part of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms ends with chapters on “Customizing Your Psalmody” (ch. 12) and “Developing Your Own Daily Office” (ch. 13).

In chapter 12, Bourgeault encourages readers to develop their own psalm tones and explains how she has accumulated a notebook of tones adaptable to a variety of psalms. Composing original tunes may seem beyond the reach of most readers, but we must remember how much we already know intuitively about how music is “supposed” to sound:

What if you don’t read or write music? Your ear is the composer, not your mind. After all, you’ve been listening to music since you were a baby, and even if you don’t know the technical terms, the patterns are still deeply imprinted in your being. Let your ear lead you in classic Suzuki fashion, and put your mind to work remembering what you’ve heard. Later on, you can easily find a musically trained person (such as a choir director or an instrumentalist) to write down the notes for you as you sing them.

Although I have never tried composing music in this fashion, I do occasionally practice a personal form of jubilation or wordless vocalizing. (I find that most of my improvised tunes come out sounding vaguely like the “moaning” I sometimes heard in the African American church of my youth, or else somewhat “Hebraic” in tone.) Perhaps if Bourgeault had chosen to emphasize the “improvisational” nature of experimenting with new psalm tones, it would seem less daunting that discussing “composing.” Who knows?

This chapter also includes some suggestions for finding new antiphons in other parts of Scripture (such as the Beatitudes), the writings of a favorite spiritual writer, or even bits of traditional hymns. On her suggestion, I chanted my morning psalm today using a bit of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as the antiphon. Great idea for Advent!

In chapter 13, Bourgeault begins to build the basics of chanted psalmody into a daily pattern of prayer and worship suitable to the needs, abilities, inclinations, and time constraints of the readers. As with any other practice one hopes will grow into a lifelong habit, the key word of advice is to keep it as simple as possible, at least initially. Adding even a very brief regimen of psalmody can be overwhelming if one already has an established discipline of daily prayer, Bible reading, etc. A psalm or two in the morning and again before bedtime may be all many people can manage.

Still, Bourgeault is generous with advice on how to construct a simple version of Daily Office around the psalms and other texts long used in monastic tradition. She explains how developing a personalized Office is basically a four-step operation (157):

  1. Decide on the number of offices you are actually going to chant. Will you address vespers and/or lauds only, or will you try to add in one or two of the little hours, such as noonday prayer or compline? Be realistic and err on the side of sustainability.
  2. Determine how many and which psalms you will sing at each office and what your cycle will be. As a basic guideline, you can always consult the Rule of Saint Benedict (chapters 8 through 19), which spells out the traditional order of psalmody in explicit detail. Obviously, you will need to adapt this massive schedule to fit your own circumstances; use it for reference only and not for copying.
  3. Decide on the specific psalm tones you’ll be using and point accordingly.
  4. Develop your own creative variations, as we explored in the last chapter, using antiphons and new translations.

As I said at the outset of this series, I have been acquainted with Bourgeault’s method of psalmody for several years and have—through fits and starts—endeavored to incorporate a bit of psalm-chanting into my personal spiritual routine. I even managed to get an adult Sunday school class chanting the psalms with me last year, and will get to do so again this coming February. I appreciate how Bourgeault has fleshed out many of the ideas she presented in embryonic form in her previous audio book.

The last section of the book will explore some new directions in Christian psalmody that have come to the fore in recent years.

Next: Part 11

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