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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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Chanting the Psalms 6

In chapter 6 of Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault discusses the traditional four senses of Scripture and their connection with sacred psalmody. Titled “The Psalms as Soul Music,” this chapter argues that the constant “ingestion” of the Psalms in the classic monastic lifestyle is in fact “a total immersion program in learning to think with the heart” (49), that is, to transcend the mind alone and engage all the other faculties of the soul—intuition, sensitivity, creativity, and conscience—in what may be called “full-spectrum thinking” (50).

This manner of thinking about the language and imagery of Scripture, and interpreting life in light of it, is nothing new. From very early on, Christians proposed that the Bible could be understood on more than one level. In the New Testament itself, we find a typological reading of Old Testament texts as pointers to the Christ event, and as early as as the third century, Origen could speak of literal, moral, and allegorical senses of Scripture, pertaining to the body, soul, and spirit respectively. Bourgeault bypasses all of this, however, to dive straight into the classic quadriga (“four-horsed chariot”) of John Cassian’s day. As Bourgeault describes the four senses of Scripture, they are as follows:

  1. Literal, in which the Bible tends to be interpreted as a rule book.
  2. Christological (others say “allegorical”), in which Scripture points to Christ through “coincidences, symbols, and resonances” (51).
  3. Tropological (others say “moral”), in which the stories of Scripture are seen as “holograms of the soul’s journey” (51).
  4. Full emergence of the unitive, (others say “anagogical”), in which “we begin to realize that there is only one story, the great biblical drama of salvation, and our own life is perfectly mirrored and contained within it” (52).

As I first learned this model, the fourth stage had more to do with Christian hope and future consummation, so I wonder if Bourgeault may be trying to shoehorn something in here that doesn’t properly belong. At the same time, I think I can discern how what she is describing in the terminology of the awakening of the unitive conscious may correspond do what Orthodox theology calls “theosis” or “divinization,” which would seem to bring what she is saying into more obvious harmony with what I think I know.

At any rate, Bourgeault contends that a constant diet of psalmody helps the contemplative become alert to senses of Scripture beyond the literal and interpret his or her experience in scriptural terms:

What happens when the Divine Office becomes the backbone of daily life? Outwardly, a situation such as the poet Charles Baudelaire vividly describes in his poem “Correspondances” is set up—a dynamic tension or dialogue between inner and outer world carried in the power of images. The events of the day and the ingested bits of psalm verses reach out and connect….” (54).

She offers the medieval story of Brendan the Navigator as an illustration of what this might look like. In this sixth-century tale, Brendan and his crew of monks take to sea for seven years in search of “the land promised to the saints.” Whatever the outward geography of their voyage (did they really reach Newfoundland, as some propose?), their true journey was spiritual:

As the manuscript makes clear, the land promised to the saints is reached not only in physical space, but simultaneously in inner space through the journey of moral and spiritual purification that prepares the way for the eventual opening of the eye of the heart. (56-57)

Next: Part 7

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Chanting the Psalms 5

What is a believer to do with the “shadow material” in the Psalms? I’m referring to those passages that lash out in anger, asking God to destroy one’s enemies—often described in graphic cruelty. The notorious lines from Psalm 137:8-9 are a perfect example of this sort of material:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Passages like this, and Psalm 137 is but one of many that might have been offered as an example, are a stumbling block for many who might otherwise be drawn to the Psalms. That such passages exist, and what to do with them, is the focus of the fourth chapter of Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault, titled “The Psalms as Psychological Tools.”

She begins by observing that the easy “fix” of concluding that the vindictive, warlike God of the Old Testament is incompatible with Christian faith is precisely the heresy of Marcion. Christian tradition has affirmed a continuity between the Testaments, although the consequences of this affirmation continue to play themselves out.

The first key point Bourgeault makes is to draw a distinction between “public” and “contemplative” psalmody. The first involves the singing or recitation of the Psalms during regular worship. As such, it is meant for a broader audience, many of whom will be hearing the Psalms and other Scripture with little frame of reference for incorporating the difficult passages into a mature Christian worldview. In this setting, Bourgeault states,

there is little excuse for parading forth the darkest and most violent passages in the psalms. It is inappropriate, even flat-out abusive, to indulge in the gratuitous violence of, say, that verse from Psalm 137 in a congregation where little ones are present or to engage the congregation in long diatribes from the “cursing psalms,” particularly if there will be no follow-up in the sermon (40).

On the other hand, this dark material has an important purpose when the Psalms are used in contemplative prayer. In that setting, the Psalter’s “shadow material” makes it possible to talk about the pain and darkness humans carry with them, and even provides a means of letting go of it. In one of the more quotable passages of the book, Bourgeault reflects on the “divine therapy” the Psalms afford:

What I believe happens when we introduce the psalms into our consciousness—and even more so into our unconscious—through the practice of contemplative psalmody is that they begin to create a safe spiritual container for recognizing and processing those dark shadows within ourselves, those places we’d prefer not to think about. There are times in the spiritual journey when anger is a very real part of our live, just as jealousy, abandonment, helplessness, rage, and terror are. All of these emotions are in us, and they’re all in the psalms. Perhaps we’re not terribly pleased with ourselves when we find ourselves praying, “Destroy all those who oppress me, O Lord,” but most of us have felt that way. (43)

The Psalms, then, confront us with the darker portions of our own beings so we can process them on the way to spiritual transformation. According to Bourgeault, psalmody provides two aspects of a graceful way of moving on. First, the collective nature of the Psalms can teach us that these feelings are not simply all about us. Others have felt the same exact feelings, have have done so for thousands of years. This helps put our personal darkness in some sort of perspective.

Second, a regular pattern of psalmody exposes the contemplative to the whole gamut of human emotion, and in a way that has nothing to do with one’s current private emotional state. For example, one may find oneself chanting about feelings of despair or abandonment when personally cheerful, or exulting in the goodness of God while struggling mightily on the inside to believe in God at all. This process eventually builds in a certain detachment from one’s own emotional ups and downs: “You begin to see that all emotions are ultimately just energy events in time and will come and go of their own accord if you don’t strain too much to hold on to them” (45).

In the past, I have found Bourgeault’s approach to be a helpful jumping-off point for teaching mature Christians about the imprecatory psalms. The key for me is to identify accurately the “enemy” one is asking God to destroy. Relying on the traditional triad, “the world,” “the flesh,” and “the devil,” I tend to see three possible ways to redeem these psalms for Christian use:

  • The Psalms as Vehicles for Emotional Catharsis (the enemy = the world). This is the model Bourgeault develops in this chapter.
  • The Psalms as Vehicles for Self-Mortification (the enemy = the flesh). Bourgeault alludes briefly to this model at the end of the chapter, where someone explains understanding these psalms as prayers for God to destroy in oneself those sinful attitudes that prevent spiritual growth and holiness.
  • The Psalms as Vehicles for Spiritual Warfare (the enemy = the devil). I believe this was also suggested by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who of course understood themselves to be “soldiers of Christ” doing battle with the forces of evil in the wilderness.

The imprecatory or “cursing” psalms are difficult, to be sure. But they remain a part of the Bible for both Jews and Christians. Therefore it is important for us to find ways to navigate their turbulent content and come out for the better on the other side of them.

Next: Part 6

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Chanting the Psalms 4

The third chapter of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms is titled, “Psalmody as Christian Yoga.” The emphasis of this chapter is on four fundamental elements that comprise Christian chant, but she begins by noting the spiritual power that seems to inhabit Gregorian chant. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, she says, the actual practices that result in spiritual growth, the “technology of transformation” (29) is nowhere explicitly stated. Her sense is that it is to be found lurking below the surface of the Divine Office itself, in the daily chanting of the psalms. She relates the story of French physician Alfred Tomatis, who was called to a monastery in southern France about forty years ago where the monks had all mysteriously fallen ill.

Almost every kind of remedy had been tried—medication, diet, more exercise or less exercise, rest—but the malaise still lingered. Finally, searching more deeply for the cause, Tomatis discovered that not long before, the abbot had joined the modern trend of scrapping the Gregorian chant and diminishing the length of time the monks spent in chanting the Divine Office. Tomatis called for the chant to be restored, and almost instantly, the monks started to revive. It turned out that their beautiful Romanesque chapel was actually a perfectly tuned reverberating bowl, allowing the monks to receive energy—actual physical sustenance—directly from the vibrations of the chant. Removing it had left them malnourished. (30)

Bougeault admits that she is of two minds about the Catholic church effectively shelving its centuries-old tradition of Gregorian chant. As a trained musician and a student of the Christian inner tradition, she acknowledges “the subtle precision of the chant as a tool of transformation” (31) and laments its loss. At the same time, however, she affirms that no particular form of chant can claim to exclusively embody the kind of spiritual “technology” that leads to profound inner transformation. “After all,” she observes, “Jesus never sang Gregorian chant. Nor did the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The underlying transformative principle has to be deeper” (31). Therefore, she welcomes experimentation with new forms of Christian psalmody, especially those that make the benefits of chanting available to those who don’t have the time or inclination to master the demanding musical form of Gregorian chant.

So, what are the underlying fundamentals of Christian psalmody? Bourgeault identifies four of them:

1. Breath. Attention to one’s breathing is fundamental to contemplative practices all over the world. And, as Bourgeault states, “all sacred chanting, no matter how complex, provides the opportunity to practice conscious breathing. In fact, unless grounded in the breath, no chanting is really sacred; it doesn’t reach far enough into your being” (33).

2. Tone. Tone or vibration is the sound one makes when adding voice to breath. “Singers very quickly learn that the only way to make an authentic tone is to start from the center—that place deep inside you, called the diaphragm, where both your breath and the bottom of your vocal column are anchored” (33)

3. Intentionality. This has to do with the meaning of the words, and it is an especially important aspect of Christian psalmody. Unlike other forms of chant where a single phrase or mantra is repeated over and over, psalmody is content-rich: “you have to know and understand the words; you have to accept them into your being in a fundamental way” (33-34).

4. Community. Singing with a group involves a subtle give-an-take. One must listen to one another and adjust to one another. This, too, is part of the spiritual discipline inherent in chanting the psalms. In a later chapter, Bourgeault will explain how the community aspect applies when one chants alone. For now, simply realize that one is never truly alone when engaged in the practice of Christian psalmody.

In the chapters that follow, Bourgeault will explore how to build a practice of psalm-chanting that is accessible to people outside the monastery and yet still spiritually transformative because it handles these four elements appropriately.

Next: Part 5

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Speaking of Psalms

David Koyzis, the Byzantine-Rite Calvinist, wrote a piece on “The Decline of Psalms in the Liturgy” last week while I was on the road. He has done a good deal of work on the metrical psalmody of the Reformed tradition, and should be listened to on this issue.

Chanting the Psalms 3

If there is a clear deficiency in Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms, it lies in the gap between chapter 1, “The Psalms of Ancient Israel,” and chapter 2, “Early Monastic Psalmody.” In short, she has nothing to say about the practice of psalm-chanting in early Judaism. To be sure, she notes in chapter 1 that chanting the psalms is “praying in the same words that Christ used” (9). But there is precious little attention to the place of the Psalter in Judaism.

Nor, it pains me to say, does she give much grounds for confidence in her ability to handle the biblical texts generally. On the first page of the first chapter, she misattributes Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” to the Fourth Gospel (it is only found in Luke) and equally inexplicably finds the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Ps 22:1) in Luke as well as where most people find it in Mark and Matthew. Discounting such obvious gaffes, a much stronger case for the early Christian appropriation of the psalms could have been mounted (Hebrews, anyone?), and this would in turn have suggested at least a cursory look at the place of Psalms in the synagogue and in traditional Jewish piety generally. As keen as Bourgeault seems to be to find connections between Christian psalmody and the forms of chant found in other world religions, this is a mystifying—perhaps troubling—omission.

In chapter 2, Bourgeault does provide a solid summary of the origins of the Christian monastic tradition and the place of the Psalter in it. She notes the transformation of Christianity from a small, persecuted community to the state religion of the Roman empire, and the impediments many believers felt this imposed upon the simplicity and purity of their faith. These believers fled to the deserts of Egypt and Syria, and they landed on the psalms as the basis of a radically counter-cultural way of reclaiming the priority of spiritual formation within intentional communities of committed believers. With John Cassian in the early fifth century and Benedict of Nursia a century later, the wisdom of these first Desert Fathers and Mothers began to be written down for Western audiences who were establishing similar intentional communities in France and Italy.

With Benedict, the Divine Office “makes its official debut” (22), and with it a structured pattern for chanting all 150 psalms over the course of a week in eight daily installments beginning somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 AM and ending at bedtime. This daily rhythm of prayer and work is intended to keep the monk attuned to the “vertical” time line of living remembrance of the presence of God even in the midst of the “horizontal” time line of the secular, ordinary world (24-25).

Next: Part 4

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Chanting the Psalms 2

Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms is arranged in three parts. Part One, “The Hidden Wisdom of Psalmody,” explores something of the history and rationale of psalm-chanting, with particular emphasis on the Western monastic tradition within Christianity. Part Two, “Chanting the Psalms,” is a crash course in psalm-chanting for laypeople. In this part, the book’s accompanying CD is a valuable tool for learning the small repertoire of simple psalm tones Bourgeault provides. Finally, in Part Three, “Creative Adaptations,” Bourgeault summarizes some more recent innovations in Christian chant, including Taizé chant and the songs of the Iona Community.

The first chapter in Part One is called “The Psalms of Ancient Israel.” It is the only chapter of the book in which one will find anything like a standard, conventional introduction to the book of Psalms. If the title didn’t already give it away, Chanting the Psalms is about the practical appropriation of the Psalter for spiritual formation; it is not an intellectual exercise in biblical interpretation. Anyway, the chapter begins with the basic bullet points one might expect in an entry-level college lecture on the psalms:

  • The attribution to King David—like the attribution of “Gregorian chant” to Pope Gregory—”combines a core of truth and a good deal of legend.”
  • The great diversity of materials in the Psalter, including hymns, laments, songs of thanksgiving and confidence, royal psalms, and didactic or teaching psalms.
  • The difficulty in dating most of the psalms individually.

More interesting is Bourgeault’s attempt to situate the writing of the bulk of the psalms within a period of transition in the nature of human consciousness. Following philosopher Karl Jaspers, she outlines the period from 800-200 BC as a time of psychological ferment marked by the teachings of Lao-tze and Confucius in China, the Upanishads and the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, the great philosophers of classical Greece, and of course the ancient Hebrew prophets. This era, she claims, marks the beginning of humankind’s development from the previous “magical consciousness” to a “mythic membership consciousness,” which itself was a precursor to the “axial consciousness” of full, individual awakening such as we take for granted today.

At this stage, personal emotion enters the language of religious experience as “a whole new element” (14). In fact, as the fifth-century contemplative John Cassian would later observe, the psalms carry within them “all the feelings of which human nature is capable” (15).

This is not the first time I have read the theory that something profound happened in the realm of human consciousness during the first millennium BC, and to spell out the entire theory would obviously go well beyond the purposes of Bourgeault’s book. Still, I would have appreciated a bit of help with the distinction she is making between the “magical” and the “mythic membership” stages, and even more so with the interplay of the “mythic membership” stage and the “axial” stage. Most if not all New Testament scholars would insist that the “mythic membership consciousness”—in which membership in the group was paramount and individuality was often suppressed in favor of culturally construed definitions of honor and shame—was alive and well in the world of Jesus, a good 200 years (at least) after the last of the psalms were composed.

Next: Part 3

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