Come Pray 5: Praying the Psalms

Mar 4, 2021 20:37 · 3491 words · 17 minute read

- Hello, I’m Brother Jonathan Maury. And this is my Brother, Sean Glenn.

00:14 - We are members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

00:19 - A monastic community in the Episcopal Church.

00:22 - We’re delighted to have you with us today for the fourth week of our Lenten series, come pray.

00:31 - This week we’ll be talking about “Praying the Psalms,” and we’re delighted to have with us as our friend in discussion, Kristin LeMay.

00:42 - Kristin thank you so much for being here today.

00:45 - - Thank you, Jonathan and thank you, Sean. I’m delighted to share this conversation with you both.

00:50 - You know, chanting the Psalms with the brothers is probably the single landmark experience most shared by all visitors to the monastery chapel.

00:59 - I realize it, it’s probably the single thing you all spend the most time doing together.

01:04 - The thing you do spend the most time doing maybe besides like sleeping.

01:08 - So, I guess I’m channeling the curiosity I think of countless visitors, When I ask you what is that like? What is that like for you all day after day, year after year chanting the songs.

01:21 - What is that like? - I have found that its a bit like stepping into a river, that’s been flowing for a long time.

01:33 - One of the things I really appreciate about the Psalms is the way they connect our own life after the Jesus event, to the praying of the people of Israel.

01:45 - The people of ancient Israel. And how that ties the faith together with its roots in that way.

01:53 - And I find that as it goes day by day. As we step day after day into the flow of it.

02:00 - Bits of language start to sort of settle into the subconscious.

02:04 - And I remember when I was in school, I was always very struck by how figures like John Wesley or Aquinas or, you know, you name them.

02:15 - All of their prose seemed to be littered with bits of the songs.

02:20 - And I thought, how on earth did they just have a huge Psalter open as they were writing? No.

02:26 - It sort of weaves its way into your subconscious.

02:30 - Even Psalms that even once I did not like. Psalm 45, I used to have a relationship with it that was a little rocky.

02:38 - But you stay with it long enough and it speaks to you in a different way.

02:44 - How about Jonathan, what you like to add to this? - I was just thinking that, you know, the, the psalter.

02:49 - The book of Psalms has always been the core of what we call the daily office now.

02:55 - Especially for monastic communities. And it’s the practice that of the book of common prayer, that the Psalms are at the core of the office.

03:06 - We have it in a kind of an expanded sense in our monastic usage.

03:12 - Because we’re praying the entirety of the Psalter at the four offices a day, every month.

03:19 - So, there’s a much larger section of psalmody, like those early monks in the desert.

03:27 - Yes, I the, the language, it especially. It becomes a kind of vocabulary of prayer for me.

03:35 - There’s a wonderful set of prayers written by Saint Ansell.

03:40 - Who is Archbishop of Canterbury. But was also from a monastic tradition.

03:45 - And his prayers are, if you will kind of quilting together in the sense of phrases from the Psalms.

03:55 - And, they use that fullness of language which covers as our rules speaks about the Psalms have every human experience and emotion.

04:09 - Even the things we would perhaps like to hide from ourselves.

04:13 - Or especially from God at the core of them.

04:17 - - Yeah. I mean, I wonder in light of that, right.

04:20 - I mean, any book that has stood the test of time the way that the Psalms has.

04:24 - It has to have that capacity to both speak to the long trajectory of human history, right.

04:30 - At every moment across the sort of what does that, the sin synchronic and the diachronic time.

04:35 - But also that now it has to speak to now. Or else it wouldn’t resonate with us.

04:40 - It would just be an artifact. So, I’m wondering how has your relationship with this book changed over this year? What’s come to the fore? Or has your prayer with the Psalms shifted in this year where there’s been such a heaviness of grief and longing and so many difficult emotions? - Well, there’s so many places where the Psalms, and as I said kind of compass kind of all emotions and all types of prayer.

05:10 - You know, that we’re all familiar with the praise or adoration or thanksgiving in them.

05:16 - But huge quantity of the Psalms are laments.

05:23 - For people who are sick or people who are in danger or people who are oppressed or people who are hungry.

05:34 - And this year, of course, as we pray the Psalms.

05:40 - The element of lament has stood out tremendously in this COVID world that we’ve been occupying ourselves.

05:52 - And I think it’s also, I know personally it’s changed my sense of prayer.

06:00 - That lamenting and making known our needs to God is also a way of blessing God or praising God.

06:11 - Especially when it’s folded into, you know, a song that goes on then to give thanks and make a self offering for example.

06:22 - - I love the way you put that. Because, as I said, as I alluded to earlier.

06:26 - There are some facets of the language in the Psalms, that as a modern person I can sometimes feel a little detached from.

06:35 - Until I spent some time sort of living in the world of the text.

06:39 - But one of the things the Psalms have always elicited out of me, is this kind of resistance to my own humanity.

06:46 - Because they’re so human. They’re so human.

06:48 - And they’re full of thanks and praise. But they’re also followed anger and spite.

06:53 - And all this stuff that I think we’d rather not show God.

06:58 - And this sort of this book that is, I feel like we could say it was Jesus’s prayer book in a way that was the prayer book of the people of Jesus.

07:07 - It was an invitation really to sort of let it all show.

07:12 - And to know that God not only knows what’s going on but wants you to engage with God.

07:19 - With the good and the bad, the ugly, the frustrating.

07:23 - Even the things that we don’t wanna pray. I mean, there are verses in the songs that I think I shouldn’t pray.

07:31 - But I think why not? That’s my own ego getting in the way or, you know, it’s the spirit comes and says just be a human being.

07:39 - - Yeah, there’s that wonderful reversal, right.

07:41 - You don’t just read a book, but a book also reads you.

07:44 - And you might not necessarily like some of the portrait of what you see in some parts of those pages.

07:50 - Right. But it’s truth. And whereas even saying that I realized you don’t read the songs at the monastery.

07:55 - Which is, or you do. But that’s not the primary way you engage with them.

07:59 - So, let’s talk about the fact that you sing them, you chant them.

08:04 - Why is that important? How does that change the experience? - I think the biggest part of it is the embodied sense that we have when we pray.

08:17 - I think anyone who is an amateur singer or a has taken part in worship.

08:23 - Knows that there are, or has the sense that they are breathing differently when they are singing.

08:30 - There’s a kind of more of a sense of the body of being anchored in the body.

08:36 - But also of having, you know, spaces within it opened up by singing.

08:41 - Even if it’s, you know, singing on a single note.

08:45 - It elevates a text in a way that, makes it as St. Augustine would say “singing twice”.

08:56 - Praying, that singing the songs is to pray twice.

09:02 - Praying with the body, but also with the words in the text.

09:06 - But, not in a formulaic way. In a way that engages the emotions as well.

09:15 - - And this is a long sort of trajectory. Sort of in the history of the people of God.

09:21 - Because you, when I was in seminary and taking church music stuff.

09:27 - The first lesson we got was that, you know, the Hebrew scriptures to this day in Jewish settings are not simply read aloud.

09:35 - They’re always, the technical term is cantillate into these formulas.

09:40 - That we’ve sort of inherited in different forms as the age song tones that we utilize in our own offices.

09:49 - But, in a way it’s not only does it tap, put us in touch with our bodies.

09:55 - And it’s sort of the inspiration of breathing.

09:58 - But also connects us to the long tradition of singing God’s praise.

10:05 - - In our rule, we have a quote from Father Benson.

10:08 - Who reminds us that as we pray our offices.

10:11 - We are in a continuous communion with Christ.

10:19 - Offering his love to the father in the spirit.

10:26 - So that, you know, whether it’s all of us together are doing something that we can connect with with people in other places who are also praying the Psalms.

10:40 - And also be built up, you know, be built up on those days where we’re not connecting that well personally.

10:49 - - Well, and I have to chime in about that experience of communion.

10:52 - Just because it’s one that I have had so powerfully, in joining, you know, from my own home.

10:56 - In joining the brothers for some of the services.

10:59 - And the moment that I feel it the most is not when I’m singing along with you, which is wonderful.

11:03 - But, often it’s in a hymn or in the Psalm that moment where like, we all take that breath together.

11:08 - And it’s like, I actually feel. That’s the moment that I feel that I’m in the room, that we’re breathing together.

11:15 - And it’s like, I’m getting a little choked up just talking about it.

11:18 - It’s such a powerful experience of community.

11:21 - Which seems so much a part of sharing across space and time this song book, this prayer book.

11:27 - - The wonderful word to use in that case is inspiration.

11:32 - Which is breathing in the spirit, you know.

11:36 - And it, and meeting with our own spirit within us.

11:42 - Yes. And even across the internet, there’s that connection.

11:49 - - Well, and I have to say that it’s much better actually than when I am in the top with you.

11:52 - Because I go too soon or I like stumble and, you know, no one else is hearing it.

11:56 - So, I mean. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of those choices that happen, right.

12:02 - That to the outside, I’m sure that you could go deep on any of them.

12:05 - On why is there the pause in the middle of the line and you’re going back and forth across the choir.

12:09 - And I mean, I’m sure all of that has meaning.

12:12 - I’m wondering if you could just take us a little bit deeper into some of those practices of monastic chant, right.

12:17 - This isn’t just singing. It’s a very specific way of singing.

12:20 - What’s the goal here? What’s the hope? - Sean is the source of the most instant recent inspiration on that.

12:26 - So I think he should speak to it. - There’s a sort of two, there’s a sort of a practical dimension to it.

12:32 - And there’s a deeper sort of interpersonal and theological level to it too.

12:39 - On a purely practical level. I love the image that my brother Jim uses of crossing the street together.

12:48 - You know, we’re no just gonna run out in a mass like lemmings randomly into traffic.

12:53 - We’re gonna, you know, take hands together.

12:54 - Look, here we go. So, in that level it sort of keeps the ensemble cohesive.

13:01 - But that has a sort of deeper relational significance too.

13:07 - Our breathing together is sort of an act of submission to one another.

13:12 - We’re not, I’m not going at my pace and so and so is not going at their pace.

13:16 - We’re coming together to sing these words. In a way that is less dependent on our own, our own sense of individual propriety or anything.

13:30 - I don’t know if that seems to make sense. But, I mean there’s different schools all over the place.

13:37 - I mean our method here at SSJE is in some ways very much us.

13:41 - And is reflective of our needs as a community.

13:45 - What’s that lovely phrase I learned when I moved in.

13:47 - Pray you can, not as you can’t. And so the way we breathe together is one of the ways in which we strive to be able to pray the way we can together.

14:00 - - Or praying poetry too. I mean, I think as forgotten a great deal of the time, so much of the scripture is poetry.

14:07 - And, the book Psalter of Psalms is a body of poetry.

14:13 - Of hymnic poetry. Even the laments and such.

14:18 - Even the cursings. You know, come from a tradition that is poetic.

14:26 - - Or, there is something. - You can get little, if you wanna, if you’re praying along with the songs you can get a sense for this even in English.

14:34 - Because most Psalters provide a really handy asterisk at the end of the first sort of thematic line.

14:41 - And the pattern in the Hebrew poetry often we’ll have this, the images will be repeated in a slightly different way to draw out sort of a looking an object from a different perspective.

14:54 - Which takes some time to get used to. But even just looking at the page, you can see, Oh, this isn’t prose.

15:00 - Even though, English sometimes doesn’t lend itself to that.

15:03 - But I think layering it into the song tone brings out that poeticism.

15:09 - - So, absolutely. - Yes, yes. - Yeah.

15:13 - I love that pray as you can, not as you can’t.

15:15 - And I think one of the sad things is, a lot of us probably, you know, we had maybe a choir teacher in some Elementary moment or something who told us we couldn’t sing.

15:23 - Right. I think a lot of people feel that they can’t sing or they don’t sing.

15:27 - Like I think maybe a lot of adults go through their day and might not have occasion to sing.

15:33 - How would you encourage somebody at home who maybe hasn’t had musical training or doesn’t even kind of know where to begin.

15:41 - To start integrating that the power of sung prayer.

15:45 - Like how could they go about doing this? - This is hard for me to say as a musician.

15:52 - I’m assuming. But, don’t be perfectionistic.

16:00 - God will be praised by whatever sound you make.

16:03 - I think the most important part of engaging with singing is less sort of the the aesthetic quality of the sound we make.

16:11 - And more the fact that we’ve engaged with our body in this particular way.

16:16 - Cause, I am very fond of the saying. You know, what we do with our bodies affects what we believe.

16:24 - And so there’s a way in which, this sort of constant inspiration.

16:28 - I think is more important necessarily than the sort of quality of sound to be produced.

16:32 - Not that, you know, a nice sound isn’t a nice sound, but.

16:35 - - And the Psalter itself has this kind of what it enjoins us to do is to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

16:44 - It doesn’t say seeing beautifully. Or sing in this fashion, you know.

16:50 - And I think that is a distinction that’s brought into the text itself.

16:57 - That it’s to raise the voice. The word that’s forbidden in our Lenten usage of Alleluia or Hallelujah.

17:07 - And that appears in the summons. Is called the festal shout some places.

17:15 - So it’s, you know, it’s not great singing but it’s giving voice to our feelings and it come out as a shout at times.

17:28 - The word means we have it as praise the Lord.

17:32 - But the word actually means something like, Lord shine out.

17:39 - And I think that’s a call for us to shine out too.

17:43 - When we sing as we are able. Not as we think we should.

17:49 - - I think there’s a really helpful distinction that our brothers and sisters, sort of in the traditions of Abraham, have come up with.

17:57 - I had a long study years and years ago on sort of the musical practices in Islam.

18:04 - And that, it’s very curious to me that they don’t even call there their liturgical singing music.

18:09 - The word doesn’t apply. And I think, you know, in some ways, you could lose something there.

18:14 - But I think that invites people, to know that this is something.

18:18 - This is music, yes. But it’s something different.

18:21 - It’s something more, it’s something that, it’s supposed to reflect the roughness of humanity.

18:29 - I think. - So, what are the opportunities to come and do this this week? Right.

18:35 - I know you have multiple services going throughout the week.

18:37 - How can people come and join you all and make a loud hopefully joyful maybe rough noise with the brothers? - Well, we warmly welcome you this week in particular.

18:48 - And any week you like to join us for evening prayer.

18:52 - Which is sort of one of the gems of Anglican liturgy.

18:55 - And we sing evening prayer every Wednesday through Saturday at 6:00 pm.

19:02 - And then Sunday evenings at 4:00 PM. But, we particularly invite you to join us on Saturday evening at six for what’s called First Evensong of Sunday.

19:15 - Which is a lovely, it’s a little richer and it’s sort of musical textures.

19:19 - It begins in darkness, there’s incense. And it’s a wonderful way of letting sort of the Dawn of Sunday begin early for you.

19:30 - And, so when you do join us. If you do join us, please do.

19:35 - Don’t be shy. I mean, no one’s gonna hear you, but God.

19:39 - And maybe your family or your cat and your dog.

19:42 - But, do sing with us. And, yeah.

19:51 - This has been a lovely chance to share with you.

19:54 - We’re very grateful. We’re thankful to Kristin for helping facilitate this.

20:00 - - [Kristin] Thank you. - And to you for joining us for participating with us in this Lenten walk.

20:07 - And looking at these aspects of our praying life together as a body.

20:13 - So, as you join us, and as we go. I hope that the sweet melody of the Psalter will refresh each of your hearts in the days and weeks to come. .