Receptivity to God
I have described de Vogüé’s insight at some length because it seems to me that it is important to realize that “saying the Psalms” or Psalmody has two characteristics. It is our prayer to God, but it is so only because it is first word of God: Scripture. As word of God the Psalm speaks to us, “ploughs the soil of our hearts” to paraphrase St Caesarius to prepare us for prayer as such. The Scripture directed at us – and our meditative reading/singing of it – enables us to actually pray and commune with God the Trinity in the most intimate (Evagrian) meaning of the word “prayer.”
What is it, therefore, that Psalmody (as Scripture directed at us) does in us? “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you (John 15, 3).” It seems to me that our Lord is not referring to our physical appearance but rather concerning the condition of our hearts. Our hearts must become receptive of God. This is what the continuous flow of the words of Scripture and our trained attentiveness are to accomplish: receptivity to God. St. Isaac the Syrian wrote:
When a man’s thoughts are totally immersed in the delight of pursuing the wisdom treasured in the words of Scripture by means of the faculty that extracts understanding from them, then he puts the world behind his back and forgets everything in it, and he blots out of his soul all memories that form images embodying the world. Often he does not even remember the employment of habitual thoughts which visit human nature, and his soul remains in ecstasy by reason of those new encounters that arise from the sea of the Scripture’s mysteries.
St. Isaac the Syrian, “Ascetical Homilies,” I.
The mysteries of Scripture (especially as contained in the Psalms) draw our thoughts in with an incredible power – provided we let it. Attentive hearing of the word pushes out the thoughts, memories, concepts, and other distractions of the world from our thoughts. Whatever thought-world exists in our thoughts it is built up by the concepts, memories, etc. of things we have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt in the world in which we live. Attentive hearing/reading of Scripture provides concepts and memories from Scripture so that the “memory of God” could be firmly planted in our minds. “By establishing the memory of God within the mind, prayer makes one’s thinking ‘become heaven’; in this way, prayer activates the mind’s function of being the ‘temple of God’. This, it seems to me, is what Jesus was talking about when He said that we are clean because of the word He has spoken to us.
Scripture is given to us first as God addressing us. Scripture, even in the Anglican Breviary, comes to us as a given. As such it impacts us. Cleanses us. It transforms the cluttered pagan temple that our minds are into the Temple of God. Praying the Psalms and Scripture by means of the Breviary (in sharp contrast with such derivative and minimalist things as the Book of Common Prayer) is first God’s addressing us by Scripture. Furthermore the way Scripture is itself read according to the lectionary (or in antiphons, responses, graduals, etc.) narrows the exegetical possibilities. In other words Scripture is not just given as a book, it is given as distributed over the seasons and feasts of the Church so that we might rightly interpret it. Though reading Scripture from cover to cover is commendable, it is not understood in that way. Scripture is to be understood as given in the context of liturgy. Viewed in this way, we do not lose the Psalms (or any other parts of Scripture) as reading of Scripture where it addresses us, rather there is a double movement. From God proceed His words addressing us. Being God’s words they remain His and return to Him but bringing those of us who have accepted the address with it. So that as we are addressed by God via Scripture (reading Scripture as Scripture), we are (re) united with God via Scripture (Scripture as prayer).
It seems to me that de Vogüé’s lament above, is inaccurate. By gaining the Psalter as prayer, we have not lost it as Scripture directed at us. Rather the Psalter remains Scripture addressed to us, but by gaining the Psalter as prayer we have a means to pray according to the will of the Father (John 14, 13-14) which is the same as praying in the name of Jesus (John 16, 23-28). In this respect it is interesting to note that in vs. 28 Jesus – who is the Word of God – came from the Father and returns to Him. Notice the dynamics here: the Word of God proceeds from the Father > addresses us > returns to the Father. What is Jesus? is he not the Word become flesh ? (John 1, 14) Who is Jesus addressing? and to whom is He returning? What does His coming and return mean in the context of praying in His name ? I find it impossible to believe that there is no significance in Jesus framing prayer in His name in the very context in which He speaks of His coming and return to the Father – especially since we know that He is in fact the-Word-of-God-made-flesh. The Word of God comes to us, addresses us. The word of God returns to God. Praying in Jesus’ name, it seems to me, is to pray as Jesus would. The Word of God addresses us in the Incarnation, having become flesh (human) the Word returns to the Father. The Word does not return empty but brings humanity with Him (Isaiah 55, 11). When asked to teach us to pray Jesus gave us the Our Father. We pray the words the Word gave us. Surely the Our Father is both Scripure addressed to us, as well as prayer addressed to God. The word is given to us and retuns to Him who gave it. The opening of John’s Gospel the Word was with God contains a sense of orientation of the Word toward God (more noticeable in the Greek). It is that orientation toward God that the addressing of the Word accomplishes in us, and is expressed by us when we pray. Our (re) connection with the Father is in Christ and that is very well seen in how Scripture is both directed at us and used as prayer directed back to God who sent it. Because Jesus Christ is the Word of God addressing us, while simultaneously being oriented toward the Father.
Scripture makes us ready to hear. Makes us receptive to God (if we let it). Having become receptive to God Scripture orients us to God because the Word of God is so oriented. Psalmody is therefore hearing and praying. Not one or the other.