Category Archives: Psalms

The mood and the glow.

Today was Palm Sunday for us Orthodox Christians, and tonight I attended the first of the Bridegroom Matins services. Until this year, at least as long as I’ve been a member, our parish has held this service in the morning, but this year we are doing it in the evening. Here is an explanation of the tradition:

“Bridegroom Matins is a service specific to the first four evenings of Holy Week and commemorates the last days in the earthly life of the Lord. Incorporated into these services is the theme of the first three days of Holy Week; which is the last teachings of Christ to his disciples. As such, these services incorporate readings and hymns inspiring this theme. The mood of the services is to experience sorrow and to feel Christ’s voluntary submission to His passions and highlight the purpose behind the evil that is about to take place against the Lord. The atmosphere is one of mourning (for sins) and is symbolic of the shame the Christian should feel for the Fall of Adam and Eve, the depths of hell, the lost Paradise and the absence of God.”

Those mornings that seem so long ago, I would arrive in the dark, and come out from the service after the sun had risen; many times I’d walk around the church property and take pictures before driving home. This evening, I came straight home and visited my own garden, which was radiant with the setting sun after a rainy day.

One of the Gospel stories featured in today’s Matins service is the parable of the barren fig tree. Here is my own tree, that is not likely to be fully illustrative of that parable, come fall.

At least seven Psalms are read at every Orthodox Matins service, and tonight two more were read, including this one:

Psalm 19 (20)

May the Lord hear thee in the day of tribulation:
may the Name of the God of Jacob protect thee.

May he send thee help from the sanctuary:
and defend thee out of Zion.

May he be mindful of all thy sacrifices:
and may thy whole burnt offering be made fat.

May he give thee according to thine own heart;
and confirm all thy counsels.

We will rejoice in thy salvation;
and in the Name of our God we shall be exalted.

The Lord fulfill all thy petitions:
now have I known that the Lord hath saved his anointed.

He will hear him from his holy heaven:
the salvation of his right hand is in powers.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses:
but we will call upon the Name of the Lord our God.

They are bound, and have fallen,
but we are risen, and are set upright.

O Lord, save the king:
and hear us in the day that we shall call upon thee.

Natan’s Psalter

A podcast I listened to at the beginning of Lent encouraged me in my desire to spend more time reading the Psalms. It was Fr. Patrick Reardon’s homily in which he exhorted his own parishioners on three points, one of which was the need to pray more during Lent. He suggested the Psalms, because the use of them is a tradition that was without doubt handed down to us by the Apostles.

Fr. Patrick told the moving story about the book of Psalms that Natan Sharansky‘s wife gave him the night before he was put in a Soviet prison, and how much it meant to him during the many years he spent there. Sharansky’s story of it is on the site of the National Library of Israel, where I found this photo.

If you would like to listen to Fr. Patrick’s homily yourself it can be found here: “As Though it Were Our Last.”

As with marrow and fatness.

The Psalms of the Bible are the poetry that I am focusing on this year in National Poetry Month. They are helping me to also keep a Lenten focus. I’ve had my eye on two Psalms in particular that I wanted to memorize, but deliberately working at memorizing  seems to “not be happening.” Maybe if I at least read them (a little) more frequently some of the lines and verses will start to stick. I love this green pocket Psalter so much. It is from Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

For years I’ve also made heavy use of a recording of the Ancient Faith Psalter, available from Audible. Before John Oliver begins the actual reading, there is this encouraging introduction from Fr. Michael Gillis, which I have transcribed:

Introduction to the Ancient Faith Psalter

The Psalter is a prayer book for the church. It has been so before there was a Christian church. There is an ancient saying attributed to St. Athanasius the Great that the Psalms are different from the rest of Scripture in that while the rest of Scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us. When we pray the Psalms we are praying the words God has given us to pray.

It has also said that the whole story of God’s dealing with Israel is an allegory of each person’s spiritual journey, the story of God’s dealing with every human soul. Therefore, inasmuch as the Psalms sum up and interpret the story of Israel, the Psalms also sum up and interpret the spiritual journey of every human being. The Psalms touch every experience of human life in our fallen world; every joy and every terror, every fear and every hope are found expressed in the Psalms. Some Psalms are beautiful, to the point of seeming sentimental. Other Psalms are bloody and apparently vindictive.

Such a range of emotion and experience is offered to us in prayer because in some inner or outer way, at some time in our life we will all experience this full range of thoughts and feelings. In fact, because some of these thoughts and feelings are so extreme, so evidently horrible, it is only through praying the Psalms that we come to realize and then confess both to ourselves and to God in prayer that yes, even such terrible things as these at one time or another have passed through our minds and perhaps even our hands.

This literal reading of the Psalms however is only the beginning. As one prays the Psalms one soon begins to realize that the enemy, the Amalekite or the Philistine, the nations that rage against God, are not people or situations outside myself, but are most poignantly referring to the wicked impulses and evil thoughts that I must battle within myself. The psalmist’s cry for deliverance becomes my own as I see within my own heart and mind the struggle between good and evil; the betraying thought, the accusing word, or the mocking laugh.

The Psalms give us words, images and metaphors by which we can cry out to God for help in the midst of our inner struggles. What the psalmist describes as external speaks to our internal struggles, because all outer conflict is a reflection of an inward struggle. Is this not what Jesus told us when he said it is out of the heart that murders and adultery flow?

The Psalter is a prophetic book; it is prophetic of Christ but it also speaks prophetically of all who are in Christ. Just as “strong bulls” surround Christ on the Cross, so too all who pick up their cross and follow Christ experience in one form or another this attack of the strong, and come to know their own weakness in resisting it, their own need to be delivered from the “power of the dog,” “the mouth of the lion” and “the horns of the wild bulls.” Similarly, the prophetic declaration of the Resurrection of Christ, “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered;” this also is our declaration as we experience moments of deliverance and help over our inner enemies.

The Psalms speak of God and man, Christ and Christian, inner and outer conflict, victory and defeat, heaven and earth, wisdom and foolishness. With few words and much meaning, the Psalms provide the images and words for every prayer, every need, every celebration on our journey through this world.

-Fr. Michael Gillis

We were filled.

We were filled in the morning with Thy mercy, O Lord,
and we rejoiced and were glad.

In all our days, let us be glad for the days
wherein Thou didst humble us,
for the years wherein we saw evils.

And look upon Thy servants,
and upon Thy works,
and do Thou guide their sons.

And let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us,
and the works of our hands do Thou guide aright upon us,
yea, the work of our hands do Thou guide aright.

From Psalm 89/90