[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 20 November 2008]
Sing the words and tunes of the psalms and hymns when you are together and go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Eph 5:19-20
Greek letters and mathematical symbols littering their pages, a dozen quantum mechanics exams are piled on the desk behind me, waiting to be graded. I left my students an exam to take while I was away at a conference last week. It wasn’t the same as having class, they told me: “We’d rather have you here.”
I empathize. Some things are better if you’re all in the same place. I’d much rather hear about Victor’s day as we take an evening walk together, than talk to him on the phone while I’m taking a walk in another time zone.
At the conference, though I had an elegant meditation space to use, I was reminded that praying the psalms was really not the same all alone, either. I missed the community of Augustinians and lay people who gather for Morning Prayer each day at my parish.
As a Church, we have long taken St. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians to heart. Lay people, monks, priests and bishops have been gathering regularly to chant the psalms at daybreak and at eventide since the earliest days. St. Hilary wrote in 360 AD, “The increasing delight of the Church in the morning and evening psalmody is a notable sign of the mercy of God.”
The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours today is often a far cry from the earliest gatherings. A fourth century Spanish tourist recounted her experience of Morning Prayer in Jerusalem: a multitude had gathered outside before the cock-crow, waiting for the bishop to throw open the doors to a basilica sparkling with innumerable lights.
There’s no crowd pushing at the doors to Our Mother of Good Counsel at dawn, and only the Presence light dances in the dimness. Yet traces of the liturgies that took places in those packed fourth century churches can be found in our celebration of the Liturgy of Hours to this day.
Many communities, mine included, still pray the psalms antiphonally — splitting the assembly into two sides, chanting the strophes in turn, a legacy of the ancient liturgies.
Originally a single reader chanted the psalms. Over the rustles and murmuring of a packed congregation, a lone voice was hard to hear. As one early bishop lamented, “What hard labor it is to produce silence while the readings are proclaimed!” So the custom of two choirs alternating strophes arose, better able to punch through the noise.
The cacophony at the Liturgy of the Hours these days is less likely to come from restive congregants and more likely to arise from our internal voices. The upcoming day’s demands and responsibilities often rustle distractingly in my head as I mark the pages for morning prayer; I know I’m on the clock the moment I’m out the church door.
Antiphonal psalmody is as effective at overpowering these quieter, though no less distracting companions, as it was at drowning out the noise in a crowded basilica. You can’t drift through the verses, prompted by a break to repeat a refrain on autopilot. You have to be present to the Word made flesh in your counterparts across the chapel, ready to take up the next verse. You can’t rush through at your own pace; the voices on your side hold you to a measured and untroubled rhythm.
St. Basil, an early champion of antiphonal psalmody, thought it a blessing to sing in turn like the choirs of angels on heaven and earth. I’m not sure how much we sound like an angelic chorus in the morning, but Basil also reminded us that this practice would season our day’s tasks like salt.
I go forth well seasoned each morning, distractions set aside, enabled to enjoy the flavors of the psalms in the work at hand. It’s a taste worth cultivating.
Lord, be the beginning and end of all that we do and say. Prompt our actions with your grace, and complete them with your all-powerful help. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer, Monday Week I.