The fourth chapter of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, speaking about the Divine Office, says that when “this wonderful song of praise is correctly celebrated…then it is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself, together with his body, addresses to the Father.” (84) In other words, Christ joins himself to us in an intimate fashion when we worship. He inspires, guides and actively participates in our songs of praise. Christ’s priestly work continues through the Church’s praise, raising us up to the Father and preparing us for the eternal songs of praise in heaven. Correct celebration of the Divine Office gives us a renewed sense of Christ’s saving activity and helps us participate more fully in it.
Since the Second Vatican council, many parishes celebrate morning and evening prayer as part of their daily worship. That lay people have access to the Psalms “as a source of piety and nourishment for personal prayer” (SC90) has become widely accepted. It is one of the great fruits of the Council. However, if the recitation of the Divine Office has become stale and mechanical, if it fails to quicken the heart and spark the synapses, then we would do well to look again at the ways that we are celebrating it, keeping in mind the Second Vatican Council’s observation that “it is, moreover, fitting that whenever possible the office be sung, both in choir and in common.” (SC 99) The purpose of singing or chanting the psalms is not to furnish our worship with an acceptable aesthetic veneer. Liturgical makeovers may provide our activities with a superficial attractiveness, but they fail to stimulate the contemplative heart. A form of worship more interested in aesthetics than God, reduces our praise to ornamentation rather than true orans. The Psalms are to foster within us a profound desire for God and, at the same time, release in us a joyful recognition of the Triune God that goes beyond mere words. Music helps us to achieve that correct celebration of the Divine Office.
There have been times, usually after being on retreat, when I have been inspired to try and sing the office when praying it on my own. The inspiration soon evaporates because it doesn’t really work. Instead, I tend to employ my imagination. I call to mind the psalm-tones I’ve heard sung by the monks of Pluscarden Abbey or the choir at Brentwood Cathedral. I imagine myself among them, standing in their midst. I find that my solitary voice begins to surf their austere melodies. The written characters on the page of my breviary begin to hum, hit notes and form simple melodic lines. The words discover their divine frequency. Of course, my imaginary music is no substitute for the real thing. But it helps and gives my reading of the psalms a contemplative quality.
Although the Hebrew word for psalm is mizmor, the Psalter, in the Jewish tradition, has never been called Mizmorim, “Psalms”, but Tehilim, Praises. The sole purpose of this hymnal is to praise God- to praise him in our joys and sorrows, our wonder and desolation. Our purpose is to praise God. We are worshipping creatures and if our life is not one of praise, then we have never really encountered the Triune God. We may have encountered the idea of God and even been intellectually convicted of its intellectual truth, but without praise, the encounter is drained of all its vitality and ultimate truth.
Part of the problem is that almost every action and attitude is now considered worthy of praise. A dog walking on its hind legs on a talent show is enthusiastically praised as is an industrially produced piece of contemporary art, the latest toothpaste and popcorn movie blockbuster. Everything is “awesome” and “cool” and given a five stars rating. In a world that is praise-saturated, superlatives multiply like fungal matter and the criteria for discriminating between something that is praiseworthy and something that isn’t, disintegrates. Our judgements are skewed and begin to ring hollow. When everything is lauded, nothing is.
Given this cultural context, when we come to God what kind of praise can we offer him? We appear to be linguistically limited. The range of responses we can apply to God shrink to nothing. It is for this reason that instead of praise, we opt for lesser forms of engagement. I will go to God when I am down in the hope that he will provide me with a spiritual pick me up. When I need something, I will turn to him for assistance. I will use God to confirm me in my attitudes and so on. But the one thing I will not do is simply praise him just because he is God, the Almighty and all Holy One.
We praise God not, in the first instance, because of what he does but because he is: ʾehyeh ʾašer ʾehyeh. I am who I am. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 206 explains that “God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is – infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the “hidden God”, his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men.” In praise, we humbly approach the mystery of the Triune God – we recognise him as he really is. God is, in the words of Rudolf Otto, a mysterium tremendum, a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating. Here is the mystery that a priest approaches, preaches, gifts and praises in the assembly of the faithful (Psalm 149).
A God that is not worth praising is not worth knowing and loving. Without praise we will never have a true sense of God. We will begin to prefer the pantheon of demi-gods who might answer our immediate needs rather than to fall to our knees in awe before the glory of the Triune God.
The Psalms provide us with a unique grammar and vocabulary with which to praise God. It is for this reason that they have a privileged position in the life of the Church and in our worship. Without them, we would be tongue-tied, struck dumb. They give the Church a voice. “The words and thoughts of the Psalms spring not only from the unsearchable depths of God,” writes Thomas Merton, “but also from the inmost heart of the Church, and there are no songs which better express her soul, her desires, her longings, her sorrows and joys.”
The poetry of the Psalms possess a tensile strength that can embrace both divine realties and describe with profound insight, the human condition. We experience the otherness of God not as something outside our human experience, but as intimately related to it. The encounter with God does not take place in some isolated Gnostic sphere, but through the complex movements, sometimes dissonant rhythms, of the human spirit. The Psalms express this. As reflected experience, they speak to us in a way that is direct and accessible. Though the cultural context they were composed in is alien to the majority of us, their existential authenticity speaks to the heart of who we are in our own time and in our specific circumstances. The poetry cuts finer, more accurately than any laser scalpel, stripping us bare and exposing in all its rawness and exultant faith, the human experience of coming into contact with God.