The Prayers of the Psalter
Dom Henry Wansbrough
Countless Christians, and especially monastic communities, centre their public prayer on those prayers of Israel which we call the Psalms. They are ancient, pre-Christian prayers, from an era and in an idiom which is far from contemporary. They attract immediately by their heartfelt devotion, and yet they also contain elements which can puzzle and even repel ...
The communal recitation of the psalms was in itself an exercise in community, and often an expression of joy and unity. At other times it might of course be an exercise in patience, self-restraint and tolerance, perhaps all the more valid as a prayer! ... their use in prayer had at least two great values.
Firstly, these prayers were hallowed by use among God’s people for many centuries. Already in the time of the first and second Temples they were the prayers of our forebears among God’s people in preparation for the Messiah, prayed through the vicissitudes and triumphs of monarchy, of exile, of return, and of pilgrImage courtesy of the Diaspora to Jerusalem. Even the least instructed would know that Psalm 109 (Dixit Dominus Domino meo) celebrated the kingship of David, and Psalm 136 (Super flumina Babylonis) mourned the loss of Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Later they became the prayers of our forebears in the Church, sung in the liturgy from the earliest times ... On countless fabled and famous occasions in Christian history the psalms have provided the apt quotation or prayer in need, the perfect demonstration of their familiarity, springing to the lips of Christians in moments of crisis.
Secondly, the psalms were hallowed by the use of Jesus himself. The psalms were no doubt the staple of Jewish public prayer in the assemblies of his time, whether in the Temple or elsewhere. The Passion Narrative in the gospels is shot through with allusions to Psalm 21, so that the evangelists almost see the story of the Crucifixion through the filter of that psalm, keyed in - so to speak - by its intonation by Jesus himself, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. It is surely permissible in Christian meditation on the psalms to assume that he must have enriched them by using them all at various times in the diverse needs and moods of his life.
Since the liturgical use of the psalms has become current in the vernacular these values have not disappeared, but have been joined by others. The following pages represent an attempt to make the use of these ancient hymns not necessarily more scholarly, but rather more prayerful ...
The psalms provide a way into biblical history, and cannot be understood without some knowledge of the history of Israel. There will often be historical glimpses in the pages which follow, but a more thorough and continuous knowledge of the history of Israel will contribute greatly to the appreciation of the psalms ... 1
About Fr. Wansbrough