The final chapter of Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault is called “Dancing before the Ark.” It is a fitting summary to what she has endeavored to teach her readers about the nature of psalm-chanting. Since I prefer not to end this extended review on a sour note, I’ll discuss the end of the chapter first.
Bourgeault concludes by speculating about whether humankind is on the verge of a new era of consciousness such as broke forth in the “axial period” of ca. 800-200 BC. Such a new consciousness would be “less grounded in the mental egoic perception that sustains our usual sense of selfhood; less dualistic and boundaried; more attuned to a new collectivity where each of us (like individual snowflakes) derive our full meaning and splendor from the whole (the snow)” (208).
In all candor, this strikes me as the sort of gobbledygook I would expect to hear on Oprah. For all the strengths of this book—and there are many—Bourgeault can sometimes sound like every negative stereotype a traditional Christian ever had of the liberal-progressive Episcopal priest that she is. I appreciate the psychological and spiritual insights she brings to the table, and I have no qualms about drawing phenomenological comparisons to similar chanting practices in other world religions, but she sounds in places like someone not entirely at home within the Christian tradition and perhaps longing for something she believes she cannot find in it. Isn’t there a story out there about a Buddhist or Hindu wise man who turned away a western spiritual seeker by telling him first to master his own spiritual tradition (i.e., Christianity) before looking elsewhere for enlightenment? And yet, Bourgeault is interested in the Dalai Lama and Sufi zikr chants, even though she gives no evidence of exploring her own tradition in terms of Christian psalmody and chanting prior to the rise of monasticism: she has literally nothing to say about the place of the psalms in the New Testament period (among either Jews or Christians), the practice of “jubilation” as an improvisational chant-form, its possible connections with “singing in the spirit,” etc. This is the chapter I would have liked to have read. It would have been far more useful in an introductory book on Christian psalmody than these speculations.
With that little bit of unpleasantness behind us, let me tell you what I liked about this chapter. Bourgeault offers an intriguing insight into the story of David dancing before the ark of the covenant (2 Sam 6) as a metaphor for the spiritual effects of psalm-chanting. David is acclaimed as the author of many of the psalms—and over the centuries tradition added even more psalms to his repertoire! While this ascription is only partly true historically, Bourgeault asserts, “it is one hundred percent true emotionally, for his spirit throbs through the songs, and this vivid incident before the ark is esentially an icon of all I’ve been saying about the psalms throughout this book” (204). She finds three points of comparison:
Passion. David in this story is passionate, and so are the psalms. They give expression to all the feelings human beings are capable of. “For nearly three thousand years,” Bourgeault writes, “the psalms have held up the mirror to the sacred reality of our human journey with all its seething untidiness…. They encourage us to engage honestly and fully with the power and profundity that is life itself. Like David, they are a life force calling us to the dance” (205).
Creativity. David’s response to God involved creativity: “When moved to the core, he doesn’t just yell and jump; he dances. The passion of his heart is transformed into a sacred art form that gives shape and direction to his emotions” (205). The psalms seem to have a “catalytic” effect, calling for a variety of creative responses, from the illuminated psalters and breviaries of the Middle Ages to the legends of seafaring Saint Brendan to the great medieval cathedrals and the continuing experimentation in the artistry of Taizé and Gouzes chant.
Vulnerability. Just as David stripped off his royal robes to dance dressed only in his loincloth, the psalms “strip away our psychological battle armor and invite (in fact, impel) us to dance naked before God, revealing our shadow and wounds: our undigested anger, self-pity, and vindictiveness, those dark places we would prefer to keep hidden” (206).
Chanting the Psalms is a valuable spiritual resource. It is a great practical introduction to Christian psalmody, and those who know more about music and music history than I do may well find it an even greater treasure. Reading it has certainly inspired me to take a fresh look at the psalms and renew my commitment to spending much time with them in my own devotions.
In the eleventh century, Saint Romuald wrote, “The psalms are your path; never leave it” (207). Bourgeault’s book unpacks a bit of what Romuald meant and invites Christians today to begin to take his lesson to heart.