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One of the characteristics of Old Testament faith that a lot of Christians have trouble with is the often brutal honesty of many texts about their anger or frustration with God. The psalmists can forthrightly describe how they feel that God has abandoned them. Jeremiah and other prophets can reveal their anger at God for calling them to a task that seems too hard. Job can question God’s justice and demand he appear to give an account of himself.

Last night I was teaching at church about how the Psalms in particular can convey the whole range of human emotion, including those darker aspects of ourselves we prefer to keep under wraps — especially at church! But there is great wisdom in finding the freedom to express to God what we really feel and not be constrained to merely repeating pious platitudes.

The book of Lamentations is one of those texts that is sometimes shocking in its honesty. The author perceives God as Israel’s enemy and wonders if there is any reason for hope. He closes with a prayer for God to restore the people, but then adds, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (Lam 5:22).

What do you do with passages like that? After church, a friend and Mercer colleague told me he has sometimes had students respond to such texts by saying, “But you shouldn’t talk to God that way!” And yet, many of the Bible’s heroes of faith did just that. We’ve somehow hypnotized ourselves into thinking that God won’t be able to handle it if we tell him how we really feel, or that it is somehow a sign of lack of faith to feel what we do. Personally, I’m grateful God is big enough to deal with me when I’m at my ugliest. Honesty before God creates an environment in which my faith can grow.

Also sighted:

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Chanting the Psalms 12

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.

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Chanting the Psalms 11

The final section of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms deals with some radically new experiments in Christian chant. In chapter 14, “Is There Chanting beyond the Psalms?” Bourgeault reminds us that classic Christian psalmody “is an art of high intelligibility requiring focused attention and a willingness to engage with the images and emotions that the psalms offer up as the working laboratory for personal transformation” (163). As such, it is fundamentally different than the chanting traditions of most other world religions in classic spiritual terminology, it is a cataphatic practice (i.e., engaging the faculties or reason, memory, feeling, etc.) rather than an apophatic one (i.e., transcending into “formless or unboundaried selfhood,” 165). In classic Christian spirituality, it is meant to lay the groundwork for contemplation by “purifying the passions and awakening the heart’s capacity to feel deeply about spiritualities” (164). It is not intended to evoke the contemplative state itself.

Where, then, does that leave those of us who do not have the time, resources, or inclination to join a monastery in order to devote ourselves to the rigorous discipline that traditional psalmody requires? One solution, explored in great detail in chapters 7-13, is in the direction of simplification: opting for simple, uncomplicated psalm tones or for an increasing use of refrains for the choral parts. Even in simplified settings, however, psalm chanting takes a great deal of diligence.

Another, far more radical, option is presented in the chapters to follow. This option is more of a fundamental revision of the spirituality of Christian chant, bringing it more in line with how chant functions in other religious traditions: as “a primarily apophatic practice intended to transcend ego consciousness rather than purify it” (168). In chapters 15-17, Bourgeault briefly describes four current experiments in just this sort of Christian chanting.

Chapter 15 deals with perhaps the most widely known example of the revision of the spirituality of Christian chant, “Taizé Chant.” Bourgeault defines the chant tradition of the Taizé Community as a form of “ostinato chant” which has been elevated to a whole new art form. As she describes it,

A traditional ostinato is a simple tune or harmonic progression repeated continuously throughout a composition. Typically, it’s found in the bass line (usually played instrumentally by an organ or a cello); its major purpose is to serve as the harmonic foundation for a more complex musical expansion in the upper voices. Like a cinder block foundation, it is useful but not terribly appealing in itself.

But Berthier’s use of the ostinato form [at Taizé] essentially stood tradition on its head. In Taizé chant, the ostinato becomes the center of interest, the main place where both the action and its deeper meaning unfold. The entire congregation sings the simple, repetitive melody (usually in two- or four-voice harmony or in canon), while optional vocal and instrumental soloists add the musical variety and expansion. (171-72)

Chapter 16, “Songs of the Presence,” describes a form of spontaneous, improvisational singing based, as at Taizé, on the repetition of a simple text: “Rather like a flock of birds all swooping together in flight, this is an experiment in spontaneous presence to a guiding intelligence deeper than the mind” (184). This form of chant has been popularized by Lynn Bauman, director of the Praxis Retreat and Learning Center in Elwood, Texas. According to Bourgeault,

Like Taizé chant, this new body of chants works on the principle of repetition. A short phrase or sentence is sung continuously, creating the ostinato chant effect of drawing the prayer deeper. Unlike Taizé, however, the Songs of the Presence are intentionally improvisational. The chant tune is a simple melody set within an implicit harmonic pattern. The full realization of the chant’s potential depends on each group hearing the harmonic possibilities and unfolding them spontaneously in the synergy of the moment. Every chant is its own unique and unrepeatable event. (186)

This strikes me as in some ways similar to the ancient practice of jubilation, and I wish Bourgeault had helped connect the dots between the two forms of improvised singing.

Finally, in chapter 17, Bourgeault deals briefly with “Iona Chant and Gouzes Chant.” While chapters 15 and 16 dealt with experiments in a more apophatic approach to chanting, in the approaches discussed here, we are firmly back in cataphatic territory.

“Iona chant” is, technically speaking, a misnomer, as the Protestant Iona Community understands its music to be songs, not chants. Still, this new musical genre has an obvious contemplative spirit. Bourgeault describes it as follows:

Iona chant tends to be much more rhythmic than Taizé, in keeping with its African and Latino influences. Dotted and syncopated rhythms abound, and frequent use is made of a call-and-response format, both between cantor and congregation and within the musical voice parts themselves…. While the songs are not primarily contemplative in their intent, they have earned a place in the hearts of contemporary contemplatives because of their profound musical and mystical beauty (195-96)

Finally, Gouzes chant is classic psalmody, yet in a distinctly different form. Gouzes chant originated in France within the Fraternités monastiques de Jérusalem (FMJ), one of the fastest growing young monastic orders in Europe. The form takes its name from André Gouzes, a Dominican priest and composer. Again, I’ll let Bourgeault describe this form of chant in her own words:

On a first hearing, Gouzes chant can sound deceptively straightforward, as if the choir is merely singing simple harmonic progressions. But one soon realizes that these “simple” progressions do not emanate from a northern European harmonic base (as with Taizé). Instead, they echo the modal system of Byzantine chant and the pentatonic flavor of much of Near Eastern and Islamic chant; in fact, they sometimes echo them simultaneously, for Gouzes can marry these two distinct musical color palettes with astonishing effectiveness. The most striking musical signature of Gouzes chant is that the voice parts tend to operate in close harmony, with frequent accidentals and dissonances. (199)

Gouzes chant is still largely a Francophone phenomenon, but its “musical genius” is already well attested in Europe.

Next: Part 12

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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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Chanting the Psalms 9

In chapter 9, “Reading Simple Psalm Notation” and chapter 11, “Reading Gregorian Notation,” Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms begins to expand our repertoire of psalm tones and (hopefully) our ability to make some sense out of what we may see in printed psalm texts arranged for chanting. Although I can read music after a fashion (Junior High School band, third clarinet, but that was back when Gregorian chant was still in fashion!) I’ve never been taught how to match up the little dots on the musical staff with the notes that are supposed to be coming out of my mouth. In other words, what little I know about the subject is largely irrelevant for the task at hand. Still, the instructional CD is at hand, and I’ve always been fairly good at singing by ear.

What was most helpful in chapter 9 was an exposure to some additional psalm tones that I can learn to sing by ear, as well as some practical hints at marking up or “pointing” a psalm text as a memory aid so that, in the privacy of my own psalmody, I’ll know when to move from the reciting tone (the monotone note on which most of each line is chanted) onto the “passing tones” until arriving, at the end of the line, on the “cadence tone.” There are some beautiful—and singable—psalm tones in this chapter. The suggested tone for Psalm 100 from the New Camaldoli Monastery is great and easy to learn. In fact, it is the tone I’ve been using for over a year as I have worked to begin my day with this very psalm.

As for chapter 11, I’m sure some will find it helpful, and Gregorian chant is certainly beautiful, but it is beyond my grasp to incorporate this form of chant into my repertoire.

Nestled between these two chapters is chapter 10, “The Wide World of Antiphons,” which explores the monastic custom of elaborating on a psalm by pairing it with a short line, derived either from the psalm itself or some other source, to provide a lens through which to encounter the psalm itself. Bourgeault refers to this approach as a “psalm sandwich”:

If you can imagine the psalm as the meat of this sandwich, the bread on either side is provided by a contrasting musical composition known as an antiphon. As in any good sandwich, the purpose of the bread is to help you get your hands around the contents, while at the same time highlighting its flavor. (111)

An antiphon is thus a contrasting melodic line, similar to a refrain. In monastic communities, the antiphons can be expected to vary throughout the year according to the changing liturgical seasons. Of course, the psalms are perfectly serviceable without any antiphons at all, although they do serve to reinforce the mood of a psalm and tease out its deeper meanings. This chapter also includes some additional tones, including very nice ones for the Benedictus and Magnificat, should one wish to add these to one’s devotional practice, and some simple settings of the “O Antiphons,” and just in time for Advent!

Bourgeault concludes this chapter with a few words about the ancient Christian practice of interpreting Christ as the center and focus of all of Scripture, and of the psalms in particular. We see this in the use of christocentric antiphons and also in the monastic tradition of appending a trinitarian doxology to psalms, thus giving them a more overtly Christian message.

In monastic psalmody, this subtle contextualization suggests that “the yearnings expressed in the psalms find their fulfillment in Christ” (124). This raises potentially explosive issues in Jewish-Christian relations, especially in light of many unfortunate ways in which Christians have traditionally read the New Testament, in which anything overtly Jewish is understood to be inferior by definition and too great a discontinuity is asserted between the teachings of the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish apostles and the other forms of Jewish piety and thought we encounter in the text.

While some would favor a wholesale liturgical housecleaning‚ pruning away the christological and trinitarian antiphons and doxologies‚ Bourgeault believes the better solution is not no antiphons but new ones. The antiphons are the most fluid and creative part of psalmody, “and their function has always been to invite a dialogue between what is fixed and unchanging (such as the ancient words of the psalms themselves) and the evolving perceptions and sensibilities of our own time” (126). We should not shelve the church’s rich treasury of antiphons but rather “harness the creative power of the antiphon principle itself” (126).

She suggests mining the spiritual writings not only of Christians but of mystics from many traditions for possible antiphon material. This does not strike me as a personally satisfying approach.

First, I must confess that I am quite comfortable with a christological reading of Psalms, and indeed of the whole Bible. Moderate Baptists have recently been up in arms that the revised doctrinal statement of Southern Baptists no longer contains the important statement that “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Moderates see this affirmation as a guard against precisely the kind of violent, patriarchal readings of Scripture that Bourgeault (and any sensible believer, Christian or Jewish) is eager to avoid. And the recent track record of the Southern Baptist Convention tends to make me think the moderates are largely right on this issue: the Baptists who refuse to confess Christ as their exegetical plumline are not the ones seeking more respectful dialogue with adherents of other world religions! The fact is, something is always going to be the central focus of our interpretation of the Bible. For Christians, why not let it be Jesus?

Second, Bourgeault herself seems to know at some level that this proposal is missing the target. She admits that Christian contemplatives simply do not interpret the traditional antiphonal material in an antisemitic or otherwise inappropriate way:

But in more than thirty years of intimate association with Christian contemplative monasticism, I can honestly say that I have yet to see a single example of the kind of rigid intolerance and literalism so typical of religious fundamentalism… (125)

In other words, the people who live most closely with the psalms and the traditional antiphons and doxologies are among those least likely to need the “corrective” that would supposedly come from adding antiphons written by Muslims, Buddhists, and the like. I appreciate that many Christians read the Bible with faulty and uncharitable views of Jews and Judaism; but these are not likely to be the people chanting the Divine Office on a regular basis!

Next: Part 10

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Chanting the Psalms 8

Continuing our blog through Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms, we now come to the more practically oriented second part of the book. Chapter 7, “Finding Your Voice” addresses a major obstacle some face in adding psalmody to their program of spiritual formation: reticence about their singing voice. Sadly, North America is well on its way to becoming a nonsinging culture. To be sure, there are some exceptions to this. Baptists, particularly in the South, still largely have age-graded choirs, and some churches can still belt out the congregational hymns with gusto. (Our church had an old-fashioned hymn-sing just last month.) Still, most church folks who love to sing gravitate toward the choir, and many of the rest assume they are somehow absolved from the responsibility of participating in the church’s hymnody.

Bourgeault laments how much of this general reticence is derived from childhood experiences where people were made to feel inadequate about their musical talents. She writes,

I suspect (at least I hope) that there may be some special corner of hell reserved for such grade-school music vigilantes. for the damage done is not just to our instrument of musical expression and exploration, but to that of spiritual expression and exploration as well. (75)

With this in mind, she makes some starting affirmations:

  1. Your real singing voice is beautiful. It is closely connected with your authentic self, “which is nothing less than the glory of God written in you as your being” (77).
  2. Proper singing is not so much a matter of adding on (volume, vibrato, etc.) but taking away: the strain, constriction, and anxiety.
  3. Working with your voice is a great way to deepen the process of self-inquiry, “exploring the material of your essential being and the blockages and constrictions in your personality” (78).

From here on, Bourgeault’s accompanying CD is absolutely necessary. The various psalm tones, antiphons, and such discussed in the text are all performed on the CD so the student can pick them up by ear. The first track is a basic vocal warm-up, which leads to chanting the first eight verses of Psalm 134 in a simple monotone.

In chapter 8, “Suzuki Psalmody,” Bourgeault unpacks the basics of a very simple form of psalm-chanting. She introduces two simple psalm tones (i.e., “tunes”) on a basic step-up, step-down pattern, which she identifies for the musically illiterate as a major second and a minor second. She then introduces what she calls the Anglican tone (“because it has the flavor of contemporary Anglican plainsong,” 90) and provides a slight variation thereof. All of these tones are demonstrated on the CD.

As the chapter title suggests, Bourgeault’s goal for us is to learn the basics of chanting by ear, without getting bogged down in the musical notation. Far more important is to bring the right-brain, intuitive, and emotive parts of the self into play, and this can be short-circuited by the visual cues of psalm notation, which engage the more mental, analytical parts of the brain.

It is important, therefore, for beginners to spend some time at this point:

My recommendation, then, would be not to rush too quickly through this chapter in a desire to get on to more “advanced” material. Take this most recent psalm tone [i.e., the Anglican tone], which is a beautiful, serviceable workhorse, and chant through the entire Psalter, allowing the pattern to become deeply ingrained.

In this chapter, Bourgeault also introduces organum, a medieval form of harmony. Although she calls this another “Suzuki” exercise, I must confess that it requires more musical acumen than I possess to find a note a fourth below or a fifth above someone else’s note. Put me next to someone who knows what he’s doing, however, and I’m sure I could join in.

Next: Part 9

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Chanting the Psalms 7

In “Psalters and Sourcebooks,” the sixth chapter of Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault gives a summary of some of the resources available for people who are serious about psalmody. Of course, the obvious place to start is with the Bible itself, but for those interested in chanting the psalms, not all translations are created equal! Many translations, while technically accurate and even beautiful, do not lend themselves to singing by casting the psalms in metrically straightforward verse that can support a simple tune.

In addition to standard Bible translations, there are a number of stand-alone psalters, of which two in particular should be noted:

  • The Book of Common Prayer contains a translation of the Psalms that easily lends itself to chanting. In fact, the text comes with a simple form of “pointing” or chant notation already provided.
  • The Grail Psalms were developed for Catholics when that church shifted from Latin to vernacular forms of liturgy. These translations “are straightforward both poetically and metrically, which makes them a good basic libretto” (63).

Although not mentioned by Bourgeault, a few years back I picked up Psalms for Praise and Worship by John Holbert, S. T. Kimbrough Jr., and Carlton R. Young (Abingdon, 1992). The translations are usually quite good, although probably more “politically correct” than some would appreciate. The beauty of the book for me is its extensive collection of responses—127 of them—some of which are drawn from traditional Protestant hymnody. (We’ll get around to psalm responses or antiphons in another few days.)

In addition, Bourgeault highlights several more “dynamic translations” of the Psalms that seek to address perceived problems of violence, religious intolerance, or political incorrectness:

  • A Book of Psalms by Stephen Mitchell simply eliminates the most problematic imprecatory psalms, although Bourgeault likes what he does with the psalms he in fact includes.
  • Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan Merrill receives fuller coverage than any of the other resources in this chapter, although the examples provided suggest it is a psalm paraphrase that does not deserve to be called a translation at all.
  • Ancient Songs Sung Anew by Lynn Bauman attempts to discover “what the psalms would sound like if prayed in words that expressed the conditions and experiences of contemporary life” (67).

Bourgeault also takes a moment at the end of the chapter to explain the “numbering hiccup” by which the psalms in the Hebrew canon (followed by Protestants and, more recently, by Catholics) are usually one number off from the same psalms in the Greek canon (followed by Orthodox). In other words, the psalm that begins “The Lord is my shepherd” is Psalm 23 to some people and Psalm 22 to others. This is a minor issue, but it would be sure to confuse some if it weren’t addressed somewhere.

Next: Part 8

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