To pray is to be made ready to hear. This book [Worship as a Revelation] springs from the understanding that praying is a kind of hearing – not a mere opening of the ears, but a trained attentiveness in a habit acquired over years, even decades; a directedness towards in a particular manner. ‘I pray you …’ is a construction now rarely heard in contempoary speech, but once it meant a gracious form of address, attempting to draw towards one the attention of one greater than oneself, and an openness for them to speak, to act, to direct their attention to the one uttering the request.
Layrence Paul Hemming, Worship as a Revelation, p. 1.
Adelbert de Vogüé and saying the Psalms
Even though prayer is indeed a divine conversation it is also an act of us listening to God – our conversation partner. The content of prayer is structured around the Scripture and the Psalter. It has been observed by the great Benedictine scholar Adelbert de Vogüé that “like the other books of Scripture, the psalter is chiefly the word of God, inspired writing. It is on this ground that the psalm precedes the prayer at the office. Before man addresses the word of prayer to God, he listens to the word which God says to him (“The Rule of St. Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary,” p. 142-3).” This observation refers to the Egyptian (4th century) monastic form of Psalmody. Psalms or as, St. John Cassian says, about ten verses of a Psalm would be recited after which a silence and – a brief – prayer followed. Evidently the Psalm is not considered as actual prayer but as preparatory to prayer. The Psalm, read by one monk alone, is God addressing us by means of Scripture. The Prayer which follows the Psalm is the fruit of having read/heard it. De Vogüé makes the point with a quote from St. Caesarius: “Saying a Psalm is like sowing in a field: praying (orare) is like burying seed and covering it over by ploughing (arare) a second time (p. 143).” The word play can, sadly, not be translated. It stands to reason that the prayer following the Psalm is a reaction to the Psalm. The Psalm engenders prayer and it seems likely (we have no written records of those Psalm-prayers) that the prayer would be structured by images, concepts, even words of the Psalm itself (p. 144). De Vogüé observes that “this law of dialogue, in which God always takes the initiative, is the same which governs the most ancient prayer of the Church: the readings of the liturgical assembly precede the prayer of the faithful and priestly Eucharist (p. 143).”
That is certainly an interesting observation, and likely to be quite correct. But de Vogüé also observes that many Psalms have the character of man’s prayer to God. The Psalms evidently have a double function: 1. they prepare for prayer; 2. they are prayer. “To have said the Psalms is already to have prayed (p. 144).” This is why the Psalm-prayer eventually disappears from the Office and its place is now (in the West) occupied by the Gloria (Glory be to the Father. etc.). The conception of Psalmody as prayer prevails and is predominant – writes de Vogüé – in the Rule of St. Benedict and would eventually almost entirely crow out the understanding of Psalmody as God’s address to man (p. 148). Though I sympathize with de Vogüé as it concerns losing an important aspect of the Divine Office (Psalmody as word of God directed at us), I do not believe things are quite as dark as he seems to suggest. In my post concerning “Prayer as entering a divine conversation” I have spelled out quite clearly that prayer is not created by us, but is given to us. To view Psalmody as prayer does not necessarily eliminate the aspect of Scripture addressing us. A Psalm is simply both the word directed at us, and our prayer directed to God. Prayer is a conversation consisting of two-way traffic. We need to be made ready to hear.
(to be concluded)