Reading from the Psalter

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

As some of you have noticed, we have recently begun to read some of the psalms after the Great Litany at Vespers. After consulting with the ecclesiarchs of the diocese, we have reinstituted the reading of the psalms at this point because of their importance in the liturgical life of our church. The reading from the book of psalms or Psalter is one of the most ancient practices in both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The rubrics for virtually all Orthodox Christian churches direct that the Psalter be read or chanted beginning at the Vespers on Saturday night. Here are just a few words from the Holy Fathers on the importance of the psalms:

St. John Chrysostom

If we keep vigil in the church, David comes first, last, and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last, and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if the virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last, and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last, and central. In the convents of virgins, where there are the communities of those who imitate Mary, in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last, and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep; David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

St. Basil the Great

When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age, or even those who are youthful in disposition, might to all appearances chant, but in reality, become trained in soul. For, never has any one of the many indifferent persons gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message, but they do chant the words of the psalms, even in the home, and they spread them around in the market place, and, if perchance, someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, when he begins to be soothed by the psalm, he departs with the wrath immediately lulled to sleep by means of the melody.

A psalm implies serenity of soul; it is the author of peace, which calms bewildering and seething thoughts. For, it softens the wrath of the soul, and what is unbridled it chastens. A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity. Who, indeed, can still consider as an enemy him with who he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining people into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, love. A psalm is a city of refuge from the demons; a means of inducing help from the angels, a weapon in fears by night, a rest from the toils of the day, a safeguard for infants, and adornment for those at the height of their vigour, a consolation for the elders, a most fitting ornament for women. It peoples the solitudes, it rids the market places of excesses; it is the elementary exposition of beginners, the improvement of those advancing, the solid support of the perfect, the voice of the Church. It brightens feast days, it creates a sorrow which is in accordance with God. For, a psalm calls forth a tear even from a heart of stone. A psalm is the work of angels, a heavenly institution, the spiritual incense.

From the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus

Pambo, our holy father, being an illiterate man went to one of the fathers who knew letters for the purpose of being taught a psalm. And, having heard the first verse of the thirty-eighth psalm, “I said I will take heed to my ways lest I sin with my tongue,” he departed without staying to hear the second verse, saying, “this one will suffice if I can learn it in deed.” And when the father who had given him the verse reproved him because he had not seen him for the space of six months, the blessed one answered that he had not yet learned in deed the verse of the psalm. After a considerable lapse of time, being asked by one of his friends whether he had made himself master of the verse, he answered thus, “In all of nineteen years, I have only just succeeded in accomplishing it.”

Glory to God for all things!

Fr. Michael Tassos

 

All quotations are from The Psalter According to the Seventy, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, MA, 1987.

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