Psinging the Psalms

Jul 07

Psinging the Psalms

Following on from my last blog post, when I’m learning something new I think context helps with the memory process. My kids believe context helps with the communication process as well, and would be thrilled if I could add context to any of my communications…

To serve this end I took a whole stack of books out of our amazing library about the Psalms. When they arrived I went through them and discovered that one of the ones I’d put on hold was “Chanting the Psalms: A Practical Guide with Instructional CD” by Cynthia Bourgeault. I remember at the time I was reserving it that I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted – I was looking more for history, literary style, theology, etc. – but I got it anyway, and I’m glad I did. I was not expecting it to be this fascinating!

The Christian Tradition of Chant

The first part of the book goes into the purpose of the Psalms. Bourgeault says that unlike most chant traditions where you use a mantra to carry you into an immediate experience of oneness, the flow of the language of the psalms keeps the mind and emotions engaged, which is quite the opposite. Psalm chanting is more along the line of discursive meditation, or the beginning of Lectio Divina.

Father Theophane, choirmaster at St. Benedict’s monastery likes to think when he’s chanting the Psalms, he’s praying in the same words that Christ used. That’s a pretty cool idea…

A closer look at the psalms will show that some are quite violent. They stem from another time, another place, and another culture. This can be disturbing, but Bourgeault deals with that too when she speaks of the contemplative Katherine Norris, author of The Cloister Walk and says “She rightly intuits that the psalms are in some sense psychological tools, functioning within the contemplative milieu primarily as vessels of interior work, whose ultimate goal is to produce a mature and tempered human being.”

I’m not sure how it all works out. Like everything in my life I’m learning to focus on situations as part of a journey, not as end destinations. This helps me develop a much greater clarity and solid ground as I explore things.

Learning to Chant

The second half of the book is the instructional part – how to actually chant the Psalms – different styles, modes, etc., and the DVD walks you through the art of chanting each one.

Of course I had to try this, but my new computer doesn’t have a Disc drive, so while I’m working on unearthing the ancient Discman from some lost corner of the house, I did some research and found this site: Psalm Tones which has a recorded chant version of every Psalm. I decided to use this as a memory tool, and have learned to chant my first Psalm 117. This is the shortest book in the Bible with only 2 verses, but it was still challenging. The version of the Bible that I’m using to memorize (NLT) is not the same version as the text in these Psalms, so I have to adjust the words and melody accordingly. It’s too confusing to sing with the recorded version when I’m adjusting both, so I’m using my Livescribe Sky SmartPen piano setting to learn to play the original version, and then play the adjusted version and notate the new version with words into my notebook. I have both the musical notation, and the livescribe hand-drawn keyboard on the same page so I can play and sing at the same time. This is very helpful. This is also incredibly tedious to set up, so I do one verse a day. Thankfully unlike this description of my technological challenges, these verses are very short!

To my delight, this does vastly speed up my ability to learn the Psalm, and when I practice the Psalm in the morning I find it sticks with me through most of the day.

Some liturgies have created a plan for reading through of the entire Psalter every month, so as I complete the learning of my Psalms I am putting them into this same rotation for review according to this monthly schedule. By the time I finish learning the entire book of Psalms I’ll be able to chant through each day’s Psalms, and recite the whole Psalter every month. Cool…

I know, weird goal, and it is not beyond consideration that an intervention might be in my future…


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