The Hebrew word for a “psalm” is mizmor which translates as “something sung”. The psalmist instructs, “Sing to the Lord with the harp/with the sound of music.” (Psalm 97) He’s issuing an imperative. When the psalms are sung their original state is, in some sense, restored and renewed. They are God breathed poems that find their fullest expression when sung – divinely inspired tone poems or as St Augustine describes them, “love songs of our fatherland”
Music provides the precious words of the Psalms with an extra tenor and sonority. It elevates them above mere quotidian discourse. Lifted by the music, the words take flight and reach a new spiritual altitude. They raise our hearts to God and propel us forward on our earthly pilgrimage towards our heavenly fatherland.
At the same time, the very act of singing opens up in our beings the fertile condition where the multiple meanings contained in the words can bed and seed. Anselm Grun writes in his seminal essay, Choral Prayer and Contemplation: “When we sing the psalms, desire sets in place a resonating space by which desire can fill our whole being with its echo.” Singing expresses the longings of the human heart – our loves, our heart breaks and our deepest desires are articulated more completely when they are sung. We sing when we want to express our joy, but we’ll also sing the blues, when the darkness of life draws in around us. In those darker moments, we require a steady rhythm that will reassure us and give us strength for the journey ahead.
Songs provide the soundtrack to our lives. In the case of the Psalms the desires of the heart for God naturally bursts forth in song and, at the same, time they exercise our hearts so that we are more able to love. Cantare amantis est, declares St Augustine, Singing is what the lover does. And when writing about Psalm 123:4, he explains:
What are they really singing? What is it that these members of Christ are singing? They love, and by loving they sing; by desiring, they sing.
But the act of singing also affects and exercises the heart. When the Psalms are sung, the heart expands and is more ready to receive God. This twofold effect means that an individual or community not only sing to God, but, in a sense, that God also sings them. His divine sound finding an acoustic in our mortal beings. He makes a song of our lives. St John Chrysostom writes:
Do you wish to be happy? Do you want to know how to spend the day truly blessed? I offer you a drink that is spiritual. This is not a drink for drunkenness that would cut off even meaningful speech. This does not cause us to babble. It does not disturb our vision. Here it is: Learn to sing Psalms! Then you will see pleasure indeed. Those who have learned to sing with the psalms are easily filled with the Holy Spirit.
For a priest alone in a parish or a layperson, the opportunities to sing the Psalms are probably few. Apart from the occasions when I attend choral vespers, most of the time, I will pray the psalms privately in silence or read them out loud with a band of faithful parishioners. Though one should not underestimate the personal and ecclesial value of praying the Divine Office in these ways, there is a danger that, with time, these forms of celebration wither to superficial mental exercises that fail to engage the heart. Chant and rhythm help protect us from this pitfall because music communicates, first and foremost, to the heart of a person. “Christ’s message, in all its richness, must live in your hearts,” writes St Paul to the Colossians, “Teach and instruct each other with all wisdom. Sing Psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing to God, with thanksgiving in your hearts.” (3:16)
When the psalms are sung, they short-circuit conventional modes of analysis and directly electrify our interior lives. In this way, the heart that is found to be in spiritual torpor or calcified by sin is startled into life. Psalmody, acting as a kind of spiritual pacemaker, orders the heart with a new rhythm. St Athanasius describes this effect as rhythmizei – the heart’s irregular rhythms being replaced with a regular, healthy rhythm. This rhythmic regulation steadies us and makes us less susceptible to cardiac failure. The interior dispositions and exterior expressions of prayer, the contemplative and active, acquire a harmony achieved through the divine action of Christ.
Without this harmony, the inner worship of the soul and our exterior actions will always be in conflict. We will be afflicted by a debilitating dualism that will weaken our worship. With this harmony, our relationship with Christ intensifies and begins to grow in maturity and intelligence. Reflecting on this, Odo Casel explains that “the inner life grows stronger to the extent that the external act corresponding to an interior one is consciously made: we hear a song, but the inner participation in it will be greatly heightened and made easier if we sing it ourselves.”
Without music, our interior desire for God fails to find an external, audible expression. The song of praise, choked or mute within us, becomes trapped in a psychic bell jar. The Psalms provide us with a key by which we can sound our desire for God. Without this key-note, it becomes more difficult for us to pitch a meaningful response to God’s ineffable being. If the desire for God exists within us, but finds no release, then our love and joy for Him is stifled.