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The monk and the Psalms
From the very first day of monastic life the western monk receives a psalter that is to be his instrument, his principal means of praying. He is in fact called to "become prayer", and it is the psalmody, duly assimilated, that forms and transforms him.
There are, of course, a few obstacles to overcome in this process of assimilation and transformation. He cannot learn everything at once nor even in a year. Tradition dictates that the psalms should be learnt by heart. In the past this was the first duty of the novice to monastic life. Proselytes to Judaism also got to know the psalter as they prepared to become members of the the Jewish People. Immediately after his conversion, St. Augustine spent months learning these 150 psalms. The account of his journey to conversion - his Confessions - is a remarkable transposition of the psalmody that he learned by heart. He rewrote his life as a psalm, admitting his guilt and acknowledging that he owed everything to divine mercy - according to the double meaning of the word confiteri - confession. He became "psalm" - avowal and praise.
Knowing the Psalms by heart
Frequent repetition of the psalms helps to commit them to memory. For about fifteen hundred years, up to the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, monks (and not only monks) recited the whole of the Psalter every week. Certain psalms were said every day, such as the Invitatory (ps.95) or the Miserere (ps.51), nine of the psalms of Ascent, the three psalms of Compline (4, 91 and 134) and the final group of Psalms of praise (Ps.148-150). A novice could, therefore, learn about twenty psalms by heart in a few months. At Compline the three psalms were recited in the dark. The newly arrived novices were initially provided with a ray of light but after a few weeks it was extinguished. Each one kept the psalms in his well-furnished memory.
The Psalms and Prayer
This brings us to the second level: the book is only there as an aid to memory. Prayer comes from the heart. The monk prays during his office, prayer accompanies him effortlessly throughout the day, as anthem follows on from verse. Prayer becomes rumination. There is a free association of words, life within life, and this outpouring from the source takes on form. As soon as everything stops for a moment of pure silence or for a simple meditation, the word that has been mulled over comes to the surface and focuses heart and mind.
With the passing of the years the psalms become "flesh of his flesh, bone of his bones". As an Armenian apothegm says, "Prayer is the spouse of the monk". The monk sets aside a large portion of the night to continue his psalmody. At this time, he goes through the psalms from beginning to end - according to St. Benedict's Rule, twelve at each vigil. The custom in the East was to read a whole book (the first consisted of forty-one, which took about an hour of praying); and in the tradition of the hermits, the standard rhythm was a psalter every night (which took between three and four hours). The rule given to Syrian monks in the seventh and eighth century was: "The first year you will read a psalter every night - neither more nor less. From the second year on, just follow your heart!" It is clear where this leads: after a year, the young monk has become totally familiar with the order and the rhythm. At this point it is important to create anew the psalmody, no longer to follow the external form, but to follow his heart through the stream of words and listen, first of all to the injunctions of the Spirit and the rhythms, at times much faster at others much slower, of deep meditation.
Growth in and through the Psalms
Reading the five books in this way, week after week, night after night, he becomes caught up in a specific dynamic, inscribed in the text: the psalter is "a great ascension, in three stages of fifty" (St. Hilary). It is like climbing a mountain "from virtue to virtue" at the summit of which is perfect virtue, God himself (see St. Gregory of Nyssa). There is a progression from lamentation (especially in the first books) to praise (the final psalms), from supplication to thanksgiving. It progresses from a solitary and at times despairing cry to the celebration of communion in fraternal assembly (see Ps.22). It carries the monk towards a point where all nations are called to praise God and venerate the One Name (Ps.22; 67; 86; 102 etc.); he carries with him all the human family, the whole history of the people of God searching for peace, and finally all creation, of which the monk expresses its hidden praise. Note, for example, the significant progression in psalms 146 (an individual), 147 (Sion-Jerusalem) to 148 (all creation).
The secret of the psalter is that when we apply ourselves to it it transforms us into the poor, the anawim. It was the anawim who wrote it, adding one collection of psalms to another on their return from Exile. The communities of the poor have handed it down through the centuries. Only the truly poor are able to pray it for their whole lives. The psalter is not only a school of prayer, it is also a school of poverty. It carves out a space in us where all suffering under the sun comes to rest and turns towards the Only One, who alone can save us. The more unbearable world news becomes because of the insanity of man's unbridled violence, the more the monk throws himself into the great centuries-old psalmody and cries out: "It is indecent to pray for oneself." (E. Levinas). The psalmody opens up our hearts to the point where we no longer know who is imploring whom. We call out as much for God (that he may be saved), as for humanity (that it may not be destroyed). We realize that God's suffering is infinitely greater precisely because of human suffering. We cry "from the depths" (Ps.130) that are in the first place our own misery, but also the depths of his mercy - the depths here on earth as well as the depths of heaven, as the Jewish mystical tradition of the Middle Ages taught. The psalms become this mysterious place where God and the human person, creator and created, exchange attributes and pray one in the other, one for the Other. The word of the psalm, initially grasped, memorized, stored, is revealed as a constantly new ferment at the heart of interior life. It takes the form of a continuous divine revelation, clarifying the history that we are still in the process of living, opening up time to an unsuspected hope, penetrating the whole existence of an indestructible Messianic seed
So with time, the psalmody, like ripe fruit which comes from On High, transforms and transfigures those who apply themselves to it. The wisest and most holy here on earth have told us that this psalmody will be prolonged in heaven too. Jesus himself, according to the gospels, goes from this world to the Father pronouncing a verse from a psalm, accepting that everything will be accomplished in this way. The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroek, who saw the Paschal Christ in the psalter as "Leader" and "Choirmaster", said "Those who do not praise God here on earth will remain forever mute!" (Die God hier niet en loven, sullen eeuwiglijk stom blijven!)
Dom Benoît Standaert is a Benedictine monk of the Abbey of St. André in Bruges (Belgium).