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Christ in the Psalms

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Christ in the Psalms, by Patrick Henry Reardon

Sheila and Charles Michie, (Oblate Sister and Brother Thérèse and Paul), our monastery's beloved senior Oblates in Tulsa, recently wrote me and asked if I might say something about two books that I recommended to our Novice Oblates as part of their formative reading. Although it has taken me more than a fortnight to get to my desk to do this, I am very happy to do so. The two books in question belong on every Oblate's bookshelf. Today, I will present the first of the two.

The Psalter: A Benedictine's Daily Bread

The Psalter is a Benedictine's daily bread. The Psalter accompanies a monk -- and by extension, an Oblate -- through all of life, day by day, and hour by hour. The 150 Psalms of David were inspired by the Holy Ghost and entrusted to the children of Israel in view of the day when the Word made flesh would stand in need of a human language of prayer in order to express in words -- with rhythm, and inner music, and accent, and poetry -- the mystery of His ineffable dialogue with the Father from all eternity.

Prayer of Christ and of the Church

These same Psalms, that Jesus learned from Saint Joseph, from His Virgin Mother, and in the village synagogue, accompanied Him throughout His earthly life until, from the altar of the Cross, He used them as the final expression of His filial and priestly prayer to the Father. The Church, being Christ's bride and the mother of God's children by adoption, took up the Psalter, and made it her own. By means of the sacred liturgy, she teaches it to her children, from generation to generation, thus transmitting to souls, as if by a sacrament, the prayer of Christ to the Father, uttered in the Holy Ghost.

The Face of Christ in the Psalms

Behold he standeth behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices. Behold my beloved speaketh to me: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. (Canticle 2:9-10)

In what ways is the Psalter a kind of sacrament of Christ? First of all, the prophetic character of the psalms allows us to catch glimpses of the adorable Face of Christ in His mysteries. One cannot pray the psalms without seeing, at least from time to time, the Face of Jesus appearing, all radiant, through the lattice-work of the text.

The Voice of Christ in the Psalms

The Lord hath said to me: Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee. (Psalm 2:7)

Secondly, the Psalms allow us to hear the voice of Christ as He pours out His Sacred Heart to the Father in prayer. Like the Our Father, the Psalter is Our Lord's answer to the request of His disciples, "Lord, teach us how to pray."

Christ in His Mysteries

They have dug my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones. And they have looked and stared upon me. [19] They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots. (Psalm 21:18-19)
I rose up and am still with thee. (Psalm 138:18)
God is ascended with jubilee, and the Lord with the sound of trumpet. (Psalm 46:6)

Thirdly, the Psalms reveal Christ in His mysteries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the choice of the Psalms that the Church makes in the celebration of the seasons and festivals of the liturgical year.

The Psalms: Communion with the Prayer of Christ

Finally, the Psalms are the species under which those who pray them receive a real holy communion with Our Lord in the mystery of His prayer to the Father. To pray the psalms, especially in the Divine Office, is to receive the prayer of Christ. The holy communion o the Psalms sustains one all through life. The Psalter is, in its own way, a manna given to sustain us in the exodus of our passage from this world to the Father. At the hour of death, the same Psalms will, God willing, accompany us out of time and into eternity.

A Book to Keep Close at Hand

For all of these reasons, and for many others besides, Father Patrick Henry Reardon's book, Christ in the Psalms, is a resource for all who make the Psalms their prayer, and find their prayer in the Psalms.

Father Reardon's approach is simple, practical, and profound. He takes each of the 150 Psalms in turn, and shows us Christ in it. In one Psalm after another, he helps us recognize the features of the Face of Christ, hear His voice, and enter into His prayer.

Christ in the Psalms is not a book that one reads once and then relegates to an out of the way shelf to collect dust. It is a tool to be used daily. Monks and Oblates will refer to it again and again to deepen their participation in the prayer of the Church. Priests and deacons will find it especially helpful in the preparation of homilies. I regret that, for copyright reasons, I am unable to reproduce a sampling of the book here. Father Reardon's book is a worthwhile investment. You will want to keep it close at hand, alongside your breviary, your missal, and your Bible.

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Men Who Specialize in Prayer

What I am about to share reflects, without any doubt, the experience of most priests. It is especially true here in Ireland where, in spite of reports of a distressing loss of faith, people still say with a touching confidence, "Will you say a prayer for me, Father?" The Catholic faithful view their priests, first of all, as intercessors, that is, as men who specialize in prayer.

Prayer the First Order of Business

Since coming to Ireland, I am more aware of what people expect of a priest: they expect him to pray, and to make prayer his first order of business. This expectation is rooted in a profound faith in the mediatorship of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ stands facing the Eternal Father on behalf of all men, just as He stands before all men on behalf of the Eternal Father. To be "in Christ" -- as Saint Paul so often says -- is, in effect, to participate in His priestly mediatorship. While this participation is given to all the baptized, in the ordained priest it is heightened, confirmed, and divinely endorsed in a unique way by the indelible seal engraved in his soul. Simple Catholics understand this. Venerable Pope Pius XII writes in Mediator Dei:

In the same way, actually that baptism is the distinctive mark of all Christians, and serves to differentiate them from those who have not been cleansed in this purifying stream and consequently are not members of Christ, the sacrament of holy orders sets the priest apart from the rest of the faithful who have not received this consecration. For they alone, in answer to an inward supernatural call, have entered the august ministry, where they are assigned to service in the sanctuary and become, as it were, the instruments God uses to communicate supernatural life from on high to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Add to this, as We have noted above, the fact that they alone have been marked with the indelible sign "conforming" them to Christ the Priest, and that their hands alone have been consecrated "in order that whatever they bless may be blessed, whatever they consecrate may become sacred and holy, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ".
Let all, then, who would live in Christ flock to their priests. By them they will be supplied with the comforts and food of the spiritual life. From them they will procure the medicine of salvation assuring their cure and happy recovery from the fatal sickness of their sins. The priest, finally, will bless their homes, consecrate their families and help them, as they breathe their last, across the threshold of eternal happiness.

Intercessor at the Altar

Nowhere does the mediatorship of the priest in Christ, the Eternal High Priest, shine forth more clearly than when he stands at the altar, with the multitude of the faithful behind him, to plead on their behalf. Just as the Eternal Father sees the priest in Christ, His Beloved Son, so too does He see all the faithful in the priest who enters the sanctuary, and ascends the altar, to bring their needs and their petitions before Him. The widespread practice of Mass "facing the people" has all but obliterated the popular and, I must say, even the clerical, awareness of this mysterious reality.

For both he that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one. For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ] I will declare thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the church will I praise thee. And again: I will put my trust in him. And again: Behold me and my children, whom God hath given me. (Hebrews 2:11-13)

The Divine Office

The intercession of the priest (and a fortiori of the bishop) for all the people entrusted to him -- the children whom God has given him -- attains its highest and most perfect expression when he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but it doesn't begin nor does it end there. The Church imposes upon the priest the daily recitation of the Divine Office as the single most effective means, after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, of interceding for souls. No one can possibly know or describe in this world the torrents of grace that flood into parishes and dioceses in response to the liturgical prayer of the priest or bishop who recites the Divine Office faithfully and devoutly, day after day. Conversely, no one can possibly no or describe in this world the torrents of graces withheld from parishes and dioceses because a priest or bishop has stopped praying his Hours and, therefore, stopped exercising the mediatorship on behalf of the people for whom God and the Church have set him apart.

Again, consider the teaching of Venerable Pope Pius XII:

The divine Redeemer has so willed it that the priestly life begun with the supplication and sacrifice of His mortal body should continue without intermission down the ages in His Mystical Body which is the Church. That is why He established a visible priesthood to offer everywhere the clean oblation which would enable men from East to West, freed from the shackles of sin, to offer God that unconstrained and voluntary homage which their conscience dictates.
In obedience, therefore, to her Founder's behest, the Church prolongs the priestly mission of Jesus Christ mainly by means of the sacred liturgy. She does this in the first place at the altar, where constantly the sacrifice of the cross is represented and with a single difference in the manner of its offering, renewed. She does it next by means of the sacraments, those special channels through which men are made partakers in the supernatural life. She does it, finally, by offering to God, all Good and Great, the daily tribute of her prayer of praise. "What a spectacle for heaven and earth," observes Our predecessor of happy memory, Pius XI, "is not the Church at prayer! For centuries without interruption, from midnight to midnight, the divine psalmody of the inspired canticles is repeated on earth; there is no hour of the day that is not hallowed by its special liturgy; there is no state of human life that has not its part in the thanksgiving, praise, supplication and reparation of this common prayer of the Mystical Body of Christ which is His Church!"

Verse After Verse

For some reason, while praying the Hours of the Divine Office since my arrival in Ireland, I have had a heightened awareness of the efficacy of this prayer. In every psalm, verse after verse seems to correspond exactly to the particular needs made known to me by people who have approached me, saying, "Will you say a prayer for me, Father?" I am, moreover, aware of the struggles of certain souls, of the sufferings of others, of the concern of parents for their children, of spouses one for the other, and of those afflicted by sicknesses of the mind or body. All of these needs find expression in the psalmody of the Hours. The Psalter, taken up by the Church, and placed on the lips of her bishops, her priests, and her deacons, is the divinely inspired form of their sacerdotal intercession, and the expression of their effective participation in the mediatorship of Christ.*

*I must add that those who have received the Order of Subdeacon, as well as solemnly professed choir monks, choir nuns, canons regular, and other solemnly professed religious are, unless their Constitutions specify otherwise, bound to the daily recitation of the Hours, if not in choir, then in private.

Accountable on the Day of Judgment

The Divine Office is far more than the personal prayer of the priest, circumscribed by his human limitations, and giving voice to his own needs. It is the grand sacerdotal intercession for which he will be held accountable by God and by the souls entrusted to him on the Day of Judgment.

The Weekly Psalter

As a priest who is a monk, I am bound to honour Saint Benedict's injunction in the Holy Rule that the entire Psalter (all 150 Psalms) must be prayed over the course of one week. Increasingly, I experience this weekly repetition of the Psalter not as a burden to be acquitted, but as a privilege, and as the means appointed by God and given me by the Church to adore, to praise, to supplicate, and to make reparation.

The traditional Roman Breviary, reformed by Pope Pius X, held fast to the principle of the entire 150 Psalms being prayed over the course of a week. Only with the post-Conciliar Liturgy of the Hours was the weekly offering of psalmody drastically reduced, to the point of distributing the 150 Psalms over four weeks instead of one. This was done primarily to accommodate the demands of priestly ministry in modern culture. The change was, I think, conditioned by Western society's obsession with tangible results, and shortsighted. The answer to stress is more prayer, not less, particularly in the life of a priest. Curiously, since the post-Conciliar reduction of the weekly obligation of liturgical prayer, the recitation of the Hours by priests as fallen off significantly. More priests were faithful to the daily obligation of the Divine Office when it was more "meaty" and substantial, than now when it has been reduced to a mere vestige of what it formerly was.

Sion's Songs

"Will you say a prayer for me, Father?" Indeed, I will. I do so seven times a day and once in the night, and I will continue to do so, making use of the all-sufficient prayer given me by the Church, the very prayer of Christ, the Eternal High Priest, encapsulated in the Psalms of Israel, "Sion's songs" in this place of exile, and in this valley of tears.


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The Grace of Psalmody

There is a particular grace attached to psalmody. Psalmody softens the heart, making it penetrable to Divine Love. It opens the eyes of the soul to the deifying light, by which one begins to see and judge things as God sees them. It establishes the soul in communion with the prayer of Christ to the Father. It is a bulwark against the assaults of demonic powers; a sweetness to the palate of the soul when all else is bitter; a substantial daily bread to sustain the soul when she has lost the taste for all else.

Vatican II and the Loss of Psalmody

I cannot help but wonder, however, if today, this particular grace is less common than it once might have been. The "daily debt" of psalmody, the pensum once paid to God by all monks, has, in many places, become markedly reduced. Saint Benedict's injunction, that monks are bound to say in one week the 150 psalms that our first fathers were accustomed to say in a single day, was in many places swept away in the confusion following the Second Vatican Council, and this in direct violation of the Conciliar mandate that monks and religious were to return to their original charism.

Semper in Ore Psalmus

Here in the Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle we do, insofar as human weakness allows, pray the entire Psalter over one week. I would not renounce this privilege, this gift, this inestimable grace for anything in the world. The old monastic aphorism is true: Semper in ore psalmus; semper in corde Christus. With a psalm always in one's mouth, Christ is always in one's heart.

The Liturgy of the Hours, a Success?

The drastic reduction of psalmody in the Roman Liturgy of the Hours has not had the effect that certain of the reformers of the 60s (and earlier) thought it would. Psalmody, as such, has become a form of prayer that, increasingly, is foreign even to the clergy. It is perhaps time for a return to the ideal of the 150 psalms prayed over a single week. Even if all clergy cannot fulfill the ideal, it should not, for that reason alone, be abrogated. One cannot say that the reformed Liturgia Horarum has been a success. I propose that it be critically revisited in the light of the historical ideal (and sometimes, practice) of the Psalter distributed over one week.

Return to the Weekly Psalter

The weekly Psalter might better be envisaged as a work of the whole Church. What one cannot say, another will take up, and this without any legalistic attempt at orchestration of the whole. Even if, for example, a busy parish priest can say no more than Lauds, Vespers, and Compline, he would find comfort in knowing that others are completing the weekly Psalter on his behalf. Thus would the parish priest begin to look to monastic communities, not as entities distant and detached from his personal experience, but as the organic completion of his own prayer, and the assurance that what he cannot do will, in effect, be brought to completion elsewhere.

Saint Romuald

This morning at Matins, the lesson of the Second Nocturn was taken from Saint Peter Damian's life of Saint Romuald. It was, Saint Peter Damian relates, while psalmodizing in his cell that Saint Romuald received the grace of compunction that he had long desired.

He ardently desired to pour forth tears, but no effort of his succeeded in bringing him to the compunction of a contrite heart. It happened however one day whilst he was psalmodizing in his cell that he came upon this verse of the psalm: "I shall give thee understanding and instruct in the way that thou shalt go; I shall set my eyes upon thee." All of a sudden, so great an abundance of tears began to pour forth from his eyes, and his spirit was so illumined to understand the Scriptures, that from this day forward and for as long as he lived and whensoever he wished, he easily shed copious tears, and many mysteries of the Scriptures were uncovered to him. Frequently, the contemplation of the Divinity ravished him.

The Treasure Buried in the Field

Seek the intercession of Saint Romuald today for the grace of perseverance in psalmody. Not everyone has the grace of prolonged silent prayer, but there are very few who cannot open the Psalter, and read it, plodding, as it were, from verse to verse, and waiting upon the visitation of Divine Grace. When it comes, it comes swiftly and unexpectedly. It uncovers the treasure that lay hidden in the vast field of the Psalter -- Jesus Christ -- and in that moment, one knows that not a word of the psalms pronounced in dryness and obscurity was uttered in vain or lost to God.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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