The Psalms of Ascent (XVIII:2)

CHAPTER XVIII. In what order the Psalms are to be said
2 Feb. 23 June. 23 Oct.

At Tierce, Sext and None on Monday are to be said the nine remaining parts of the hundred and eighteenth Psalm, three parts at each Hour. This Psalm having thus been said through in two days, that is, Sunday and Monday, let the nine Psalms from the hundred and nineteenth to the hundred and twenty-seventh be said on Tuesday at Tierce, Sext and None – three at each Hour. And these Psalms are to be repeated at the same Hours every day until Sunday; the arrangement, moreover, of hymns, lessons and versicles remaining the same throughout, so as always to begin on Sunday from the hundred and eighteenth Psalm.

The fifteen Gradual Psalms, that is, Psalms 119 through 133, are, for the most part, recited at the Little Hours. Psalm 128 occurs on at Vespers on Monday. Psalms 129, 130, 131 and 132 occur at  Vespers on Tuesday, and Psalm 133 is recited daily at Compline. The Vulgate, translating a title given in the Hebrew, calls each of these canticum graduum, which is variously given in English as canticle of ascent or song of degrees. It is commonly held that these psalms were appointed to be sung by pilgrims “going up” to Jerusalem. It is not difficult to understand why these same psalms became for Christians an expression of the ascent, through labour, suffering, and tears, and yet not without joy, to divine union.

One might, drawing inspiration from Saint Bede’s Psalter, a kind of digest of the Psalms for private devotion, compile a condensed form of the Gradual Psalms that might look something like this:

In my trouble I cried to the Lord: and he heard me. (Psalm 119:1)

May the Lord keep thy coming in and thy going out; from henceforth now and for ever. (Psalm 120:8)

I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord. (Psalm 121:1)

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us: for we are greatly filled with contempt. (Psalm 122:3)

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 123:8)

They that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Sion. (Psalm 124:1)

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. (Psalm 125:5)

Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. (Psalm 126:1)

Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: that walk in his ways. (Psalm 127:1)

Often have they fought against me from my youth: but they could not prevail over me. (Psalm 128:2)

With the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. (Psalm 129:7-8)

Lord, my heart is not exalted: nor are my eyes lofty. (130:1)

I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her saints shall rejoice with exceeding great joy. (Psalm 131:16)

Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. (Psalm 132:1)

In the nights lift up your hands to the holy places, and bless ye the Lord. (Psalm 133:2)

The fifteen Gradual Psalms were often recited together as a prayer of intense supplication. Already, early in the 9th century, Saint Benedict of Aniane ordered the recitation of the Gradual Psalms before the Night Office, a practice that passed into the Cluniac observance. Like the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Gradual Psalms may be prayed, outside of the Divine Office, as a private devotion. It is good, at any rate, to focus on the Gradual Psalms systematically in one’s lectio divina, given the place they hold in the monastic tradition.