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The starting point for singing the psalms is silence--at least, if we want to experience them as prayer, not just as piety.

John of the Cross, that wonderful 16th-century mystic, once said, "Silence is God's first language." The way we learn to speak the language of the psalms is to learn to speak the language of silence.

"Silence is God's first language."
--St. John of the Cross

Today there are many simple methods of contemplative, or what some people call, stilling prayer available to Christians on the spiritual journey. Like spokes of a wheel--centering prayer, Christian meditation, Christian vipassana--all lead to the hub, which is interior silence. Silence is really the starting place for the understanding of the Christian path. It is the matrix out of which the Word comes--and to which it ultimately returns.

So I would encourage each of you to begin your journey into the rich wisdom of the Christian tradition by adopting a practice of contemplative prayer. Once that's established, psalmody will have a natural and beautiful place from which to flow.

You can lead yourself into your contemplative prayer or lead yourself out of it with a couple of chanted psalms. Perhaps you might start by chanting that classic versicle from Psalm 70, "Oh God, come to my assistance; oh Lord, make haste to help me," with which all monastic offices begin.

Then you might sing one or two of the psalms we've already looked at in this series.

Like incense
let my prayer rise before you, Oh God,
the lifting of my hands
like an ev'ning oblation.

Come, let us sing for joy in Christ our God;
Let us praise him with all creation!

Like incense
let my prayer rise before you, O God,
the lifting of my hands
like a ev'ning oblation.

Or you can simply pick up your Grail Psalms, your Book of Common Prayer, or your Bible and chant a few in the way we worked in the article of "Suzuki Psalmody."

Leading into silent prayer by first chanting a couple of psalms has made a night-and-day difference in my own prayer life. Previously, I had struggled to find time for this kind of prayer. It always seemed to fall to the bottom of the list of the things I had to do that day. I would ask myself, "Do I feel like it? Does it fit my schedule? Am I going to have a good experience of prayer?" Singing the psalms before I settle down to my centering prayer has completely changed the context for me.

Now when I sit down to centering prayer, I am no longer just "doing meditation." I am participating in the divine office. I sing in unison with men and women all over the world who are using the same libretto, participating in this same great universal tradition--for at any time of day or night, somewhere in the world, some monk or nun or oblate is chanting alongside me. With my small voice and heart I join in what the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly called "the great orbit of prayer."

The psalms are not necessarily better than anything else, but 3,000 years of wisdom along the Judeo-Christian spiritual path make the psalms indispensable tools of spiritual transformation. You disregard them at your own peril because if nothing else, they offer a profound sense of being anchored in a tradition.

As Father Theophane of St. Benedict's Monastery said, "I like to think I'm praying in the words that Christ used." There is a profound companionship in knowing that many others, some of them the spiritual giants of our Christian lineage--St. Francis, Julian of Norwich, St. Augustine--have drawn water for their lives from this same well, have prayed these psalms, felt these same emotions. Psalms become our lineage, the universal language of our Christian path.

"I like to think I'm praying in the words that Christ used."
--Father Theophane

This perspective shifts the attention off myself, off my mood, my state, my personal transformation. Chanting the psalms anchors me in a reality richer and deeper than my own personal melodrama and carries me into those deep archetypal waters where my own story flows into the human story and there finds its real coherence.

A friend, an experienced practitioner of centering prayer, joined me for meditation one day. As we sat down on our prayer mats, I said, "Let's begin by chanting a psalm or two." So we did. Then we went into our time of silence. When we came out, she said, "You know that made a real difference. "At last I know what it means to pray from the heart."
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