III. You Are Starved Without the Psalms
+ The Divine Office: Sacrament of Time + “Learn to sing psalms, and thou shalt see the delightfulness of the employment. For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit” ~ St. John Chrysostom
III. You Are Starved Without the Psalms
“These ancient prayers, born of the Spirit, rise to join the heart of man to God the Father and form a communion, a river, through the ages from man to God.” ~ Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth
You are starved if you are not praying the Divine Office, or at least some portion of it. The Divine Office is a single voice, a solitary, universal prayer, as old as creation, as vast as the human heart, and the greatest therapy available for a human person. Does that sound too high a pitch? It is the reality, however, and the teaching of the Church since day one. Many of us may appreciate the psalms and antiphons to some extent, perhaps because of their quaintness, poetry, or historical value. Yet, this barely scratches the surface. These prayers, a combination of psalms and Christian hymns, harmonize and epitomize the spirit of the Old and New Testament saints. A life steeped in the Divine Office is the closest we can get, here on earth, to life in the eternal kingdom. Disenchanted and Unimpressed As a disenchanted, 21st century person, I find myself as easily bored as everyone else around me. We have all been desensitized, afterall, towards…everything. Bombarded by constant noise, buzzing lights, and flashing images, we have trouble sitting still for five minutes, let alone contemplating the psalms. We are addicts to the entertainment world, to explosions, dramatic sound tracks, and everything that titulates the lowest parts of the soul. It is no wonder that these prayers, which have forever been the center of a Christian’s life, are now relegated to the dusty corner of our bookshelves. We are unimpressed. Yet, something makes me wonder. Why is it that all the saints ran to the psalms? Why were the holy men and women in every part of the world, from Africa to Ireland, Rome, Russia, Egypt, you name it, determined to pray the psalms routinely, and oftentimes to memorize them front to back? Why have monks since the first century till the twenty-first spent several hours each day reciting the psalms? What do they get that we, such sophisticated modern Americans, do not get? It is a humbling moment when we stop and re-examine our values. If we seize that moment, and look how the righteous live, we can discover a powerful resource in that dusty book. The Value of the Psalms “Words that have been honed and purified and directed and filled by the Spirit of God, so that as we enter into the history of the prayers of God’s people we are entering into life.” ~ Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth The Old Testament is the story of God’s relationship with humanity pre-Christ. In the Early Church, there was a debate whether or not Christians should include the Old Testament in their scriptural canon. In the end, the Church affirmed boldly the profound place of these scriptures. A Christian without this first testament is like a tree without roots. The Old Testament tells us how God prepared humanity for his Incarnation, patiently nurturing, repremanding, and redirecting God’s chosen people until they would be ready to receive God in the flesh. The Old Testament takes everything that makes us human, all our emotions, lusts, drive, and personality, and directs that humanity to Christ. The Psalter is the culmination of all this. The Psalms embody the cry of the human heart as one, perfect, and beautiful prayer. Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth explains: “Centuries of the prayers of the people of God were brought together to form this prayer book that guided both the private and corporate prayers of Israel. The place of the Psalter in the life of Israel led the Church to a deep conviction that the Psalms come into their full vision, their glory, their wisdom and power as we see them as nothing less than the very prayers of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.” In his letter to Marcellinus, St. Athanasius describes the Psalms as a kind of “Christ-therapy.” As God shaped and prepared humanity through the Old Testament, God shapes and prepares us personally when we read the psalms. They realign our souls. “But they don’t speak to me!” When first witnessing an Orthodox service, people unaccostomed to our worship often respond by saying “It’s strange,” and, “It didn’t speak to me.” Afterall, we are natural consumerists, here in America, and we are used to picking and choosing whatever makes us feel good. The Church lovingly replies, “The worship doesn’t need to change. You need to change.” The same principle applies to the psalms. If the psalms “don’t speak to us,” then we need to change. The solution is doing it. Gradually, as the psalms pour through our ears and into our hearts, our souls change. Our hearts align with Christ’s heart. How the Divine Office Enhances the Psalms At first, the Psalter was the only prayer book in the Church. Over the first several centuries, Christians began to insert prayers in between the psalms. These are called Antiphons. Psalm reading was concluded with Christ-focused hymns and petitionary prayers called Collects. Eventually, these psalms and prayers were arranged around the Ecclesiastical Calendar. This allowed Christians around the world to pray the Psalter together, in one shared spiritual journey through the year, from Advent to Pentecost. These arrangements were codified around the 6th century, and have been the heartbeat of the Christian faith, East and West, ever since. The Divine Office is an garden of scriptural prophecies, poetic illustrations, and the highest, dogmatic teachings of the Church, woven together around the Psalms, and arranged along with the Church calendar. Monks, clergy, and laity, who have discovered this resource, wake up in the middle of the night and in the early hours of the day, with eagerness, to recite the Divine Office. Why? They have found, in saying these prayers throughout the day, an indissoluble link with all the saints of the past and present. They have experienced, personally, that without these prayers the day feels dry and empty, and the heart starved. Finally, they have discovered within the Divine Office the very presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is an opportunity readily available to us all. So How Can I Get Started? The first step is to realize that the Mass, alone, is not sufficient. The Divine Office is called the “Handmaid” of the Mass, because of the way it prepares us for the Mass. If our hearts are not in the right place, the Mass easily becomes vain religion and the Eucharist harmful to the soul. The next step is to start attending Saturday Vespers and Sunday Matins. We are all busy and can easily think up all kinds of excuses for not getting to Church (on this note, I recommend reading Ecclesiastes). Yet, in the end, making these services a priority will shower our lives with more blessings then we can imagine. When you make the habit, and get used to it, you will not even be able to imagine going to Church on Sunday without these “preparatory” services. We need Vespers and Matins simply in order to step out of our hectic lives, slow down, and retreat inward, in order to be ready for the profound mysteries of Holy Mass. The next step is to share your wish to pray the Divine Office with your confessor and work out a prayer rule. Do not try to live out a prayer life without frequent confession — it will not work.