In the Old Testament, the Book of Psalms is a collection of writings that are prayed in prose or to music, acknowledging the grace of God for his people throughout the years. There are 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms. Psalms have always been a component of liturgical worship, and there is almost always at least one psalm prayed during the Daily Office and during the liturgy of the word portion of a service of Holy Eucharist. The Psalter (or the collection of psalms) was translated into English so that the psalms could easily be set to music. It is not uncommon for the psalms to be chanted during corporate worship in a style known as Anglican chant. Anglican chant is a useful tool for adding music to texts that do not necessarily flow well metrically. It adds music to the flow and cadence of the spoken word, and it adds depth to the psalms. They also can be projected at a higher volume and prayed more reverently. You have likely noticed that lectors at St. John’s have recently begun inviting the congregation to pray the psalms in different ways. I thought I would use today’s Aloha Friday to explain this to you in greater detail.

               When we pray liturgically, we always want to be mindful of intention. The really cool thing about intention is that we don’t always have to do things the same way in order for it to be meaningful. For example, one person might be intentional about creating a silent space for worship, free from noise or distraction. Someone else might be perfectly comfortable praying in a noisy, chaotic setting. Believe it or not, neither person is wrong! If it brings you closer to God, then it is a good practice! Praying the psalms is something we do in corporate worship that is intended to bring us closer to God. So however we do it, if it brings us closer to God, then we are doing it the right way.

               The Psalms are so important within Anglican worship that the Book of Psalms is included in our Book of Common Prayer in its entirety. There are tables and charts that tell us which psalms to pray during which services on which days. If you peruse the psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, you will notice they are printed with an asterisk approximately midway through each verse. The asterisk can serve as a stopping point, which allows us to pause and reflect on the portion of the verse that we just finished praying. Many monastic communities still pause for a few moments at the asterisk as they pray the daily psalms. Again, there is not a right way or a wrong way to use the asterisk, but it is important that we are intentional when we choose to use it or not.

               We also have the option to pray the psalms in different formats. The options available to us depend on how many people are present. Sometimes we pray the psalm in unison¸ meaning we pray out loud together at the same time. Sometimes we pray the psalm responsively, which means the lector and the people respond to one another, alternating either after a verse or at the asterisk (by half verse). Sometimes we pray antiphonally, meaning one group of people speaks a whole or half verse, and a second group of people answers. The psalm can also be set to music or it can be prayed responsorially. A responsorial recitation of the psalm means a piece of scripture is refrained by the congregation after every verse or every second verse, while the lector reads the verses of the psalms. Customarily, we have prayed the psalm responsively by half verse here at St. John’s. However, from time to time, it is nice to do things a little differently so that we do not get overly stuck in a routine.

               Did you watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral last week? If you did, then you might have noticed that the choir was divided into two parts with one half directly facing the other. This type of seating is known as choir-style seating. It is a setup that yields itself perfectly for an antiphonal recitation of the psalm. But why don’t both halves of the choir simply sing the entire psalm? Because there is value in both speaking and in listening. When we pray responsively or antiphonally, we allow ourselves time to speak and time to listen. When we pray the psalms, we pray with our whole bodies. It is important to speak and it is important to listen. The instruction given to the lectors has been offered in an effort to give you different experiences of taking time to speak and to listen.

               I have heard people tell me that the liturgy feels “clunky” when people are not familiar with other ways to pray the psalm. I understand this, and I ask you to extend grace to your lectors as they continue to become comfortable inviting the congregation to use different styles to pray the psalm. As we all become more familiar with the flow, the “clunkiness” will dissipate and it will feel more normal and natural. I invite you to acknowledge to yourself if you notice feelings of discomfort. If you do feel uncomfortable, I encourage you to explore that discomfort. Why do you suppose you are having the reaction you notice? What in your past may have influenced your reaction? If you put yourself in a position of curiosity, I guarantee you that you can learn a lot about yourself!

               Soon enough, it will feel completely normal for the lector to announce that the psalm will be prayed antiphonally by whole verse beginning on the lector’s side, or responsively by half verse. We will find ourselves in different groupings from time to time and we will both speak and hear portions of the psalms that we have not had the opportunity to experience in the past. However we choose to do it, we will continue to do it with intention. We will continue to pray together and to glorify God. If we open our hearts during this journey, I promise we will find our prayer lives enhanced. We will learn more about ourselves, more about each other, and become closer to God. All of those things are wonderful, and we are on a journey of faith together.

Praying the Psalms with Intention