Approach to the Psalms

The 150 Psalms of the Old Testament are the principal element of the entire Opus Dei, however short or long it may be. Other Scripture texts are used at the Offices as well, such as canticles, verses and responses, as well as in the readings or lessons themselves, which are longer at Vigils and shorter at the other hours. The main bulk of the office, however, remains the psalms. How should we approach them? The most common monastic approach is to use the psalms as our prayers directed to Christ, though the notion of Christ praying them to his heavenly Father may also be used.

In the first-mentioned method–the psalms as our prayers directed to Christ–the “I” of the psalms is the monk himself. Some examples will illustrate this. “I lie down to rest and I sleep. I wake for the Lord upholds me” of Psalm 3 is easily applied to us who have been resting and now rising in prayer. This psalm is traditionally used at the beginning of Vigils each day. “The Lord is my Shepherd there is nothing I shall want,” of Psalm 22 is another example of our prayer to Christ. “I am a worm and no man,” of Psalm 21 is also a fitting expression of our fallen nature, which depends on Christ’s redeeming work.

The voice of the monk speaking to Christ is but one of many ways to approach the psalmody of the choir, but again one of the most traditionally monastic forms. In this context, when we find the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ we can be thinking of Christ our Lord, who holds first place in our life. Saint Cyprian of Carthage put it thus: “Prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, for he has preferred nothing to us” (domin. Orat. 15).

In praying the psalms day in and day out, it is Christ to whom we have recourse, upon whom we depend for life and light. We turn to Christ as God, Lord, Shepherd, Physican, King, Teacher, Rock, Bulwark, Hiding-Place. That in no way excludes our devotion and adoration of the Father and the Holy Spirit, nor discounts their equality with Christ. But it is to the Person of Christ that we fittingly turn in our life of prayer and at other moments in the office, whereas at the Our Father, we turn our gaze especially to God the Father. The Holy Spirit is traditionally invoked at Terce, in the hymn, at every doxology (Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and of course in a special way the Holy Spirit is invoked and worshiped on the Solemnity of Pentecost. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit has to be remembered as moving among the praying community in all its liturgical activities.

But for the monk it is to Christ that we especially pray and give thanks and turn to for help. Prayer directly to Christ was the most frequent form of the early monastic spirituality, and is still valid for our time. The psalms are the voice of the human heart longing to be with God, the cries of distress and joy, of hope and yearning. Ultimately it is only God who can fulfill the longings of the human heart. “It is God who awakes and God who slakes our thirst” as Baron Von Hugel so wisely put it. It is Christ who most directly slakes that thirst, especially in the Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ for the life of the world. And even there a psalm verse readily comes to mind: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 33:9). Gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus.

We can also legitimately approach the psalms as the prayers of Christ to the Father, and thus join our voices with Christ in praying to the Father. But once again, praying the words of the psalms as our prayers to Christ is probably the most typical form used by monks through the centuries.