Introduction: Praying the Prayers Jesus Prayed
Learning to sing the psalms.
Father Theophane, choirmaster of St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, has a ready answer for those who ask him about monastic tradition's great affection for psalmody: "I like to think that I'm praying in the words that Jesus himself used," he says.
The psalms go back a long, long way. They are attributed to King David in the same way that Gregorian chant is attributed to Pope Gregory: a combination of history and mythology. By the time the young Jesus was learning to sing the psalms, he was being formed in a tradition that was already a thousand years old, and the psalms became a basic vessel for his self-understanding. Again and again Jesus responded to questions about himself and his mission through reference to the psalms, most poignantly in his last words on the cross: in Matthew, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Psalm 22:1); and in Luke, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Psalm 31:5).
The tradition of monastic psalmody was very clearly in place by the third century A.D., when the curtain rose on the Desert Fathers and Mothers whose ascetic experiments in the deserts of Syria and Egypt constitute the most powerful and sustained exploration of the path of inner transformation ever to have arisen in Christianity. Those haunting psalm tunes became the lifeblood of Desert spirituality and laid the groundwork for nearly two millennia of Christian spiritual practice. "The psalms are the path you must follow," said St. Romuald, the 11th-century founder of the Camaldolese Benedictine order, "--never leave it."
So as Father Theophane pointed out, when we work with the psalms, we're working with a tradition of sacred poetry that has been hallowed by usage. The psalms are made holy by the fact that so many people on the Christian path have used them, loved them, processed their own spiritual journeys through them. When we sing the psalms, we are walking on a well-trod path.
The easiest place to find the psalms is early in the Bible--which means they are a tradition common to both Jews and Christians. They are the sacred poetry of ancient Israel, 150 of them altogether. Some of these are brief (two or three verses); others go on for pages.