The Psalms, are first, midst and last.


“David is first, midst, and last.” This phrase is (erroneously) attributed to St. John Chrysostom and can be found cited in St. John Mason’s Neale’s Commentary on the Psalms (Vol. 1). The importance of Psalmody for Christians can be easily deduced from the the old Psalters. The entire book of Psalms is recited once every week … and more!

The first thing that strikes us in the primitive and medieval use of the Psalter, is the large proportion of time which its recital employed out of the whole period disposable by ordinary human strength for the service of God.

St. John Mason Neale, “Commentary on the Psalms” vol. 1., p. 3.

The reform of the Psalter, as introduced by St. Pius X, is a measure aimed at reducing precisely this “large proportion of time” required to recite it. More recent reforms reduced this burden further. The Pian reforms made sure that all 150 Psalms were, in principle, recited every week. The redistribution of the Psalter reflects another principle: each Psalm is said once, and only once in the course of a week. This, so the Pope seems to have thought, is simply following ancient precedent.

To say that the Psalms were weekly recited by every ecclesiastic, falls far below the truth. For, additionally, the 119th Psalm was said daily: three of those in Lauds scarcely ever varied; while the four at Compline remained unchangeable. The decrease of devotion and the increase of worldy business, necessitated, as we shall see, a rearrangement, so that each Psalm should be said once, but only once, in the course of a week. But from the sixth century to the sixteenth, it is scarcely an exaggeration to assert that a portion of Psalms equal in bulk to twice the whole Psalter, was hebdomedally recited.

Ibid. p.4.

The saintly Pope was only half right. The weekly recitation of the Psalter is a principle built into the Roman and the Monastic Psalmody. But this is not the only principle we find in the old Roman and Monastic office. Incorporated into them is what might be called “the Cathedral” or “Selected” Psalmody. These are Psalms that are often recited daily (Psalm 95, 51, 148-150, at Matins & Lauds 52, 23, 24, 25, 26, 54, 98, 119 (Beata immaculati vs. 1-16), 119 (Retribue servo tuo vs. 17-32) at Prime, the rest of Psalm 119 ditributed over Terce, Sext, and None, and finally 4, 31 1-6, 91, and 134. From about the 8th century this would also include the Vespers of the Little Office of the B.V.M., the Vespers of the Dead, The Matins and Lauds of the Little Office of our Lady and of the Dead (usually one Nocturn only), the Gradual Psalms (15 Psalms), Penitantial Psalms (7 Psalms). In short: the ancients took the Psalter and its recitation very seriously and did not mind taking their time for its recital.

We have no hesitation in urging that, if any are dissatisfied with this distribution of psalms, they should arrange them in whatever way seems better, provided that one principle is preserved, namely, that the whole Psalter of one hundred and fifty psalms should be recited each week and that the series should start again at Sunday Vigils. Any monastic community which chants less than the full psalter with the usual canticles each week shows clearly that it is too indolent in the devotion to its service of God. After all, we read that our predecessors had the energy to fulfill in one single day what we in our lukewarm devotion only aspire to complete in a whole week.

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 18.

The Benedictine distribution of the Psalms, as given in The Rule chapters 8 to 18, appears to be an adaptation of what was done in the Roman Basillicas of his time. An obvious departure from the Roman distribution is that Benedict begins the Office not with Vigils as one might suspect from the citation above, but with Psalm 1 at Prime. It would seem that Benedict reconsidered the distribution of the Psalms  on at least two occasions. Once in not adopting the Roman custom but revising it, and again in ordering that the weekly Psalmody ought to begin with Vigils (anciently Matins was called “Vigils” or “Nocturns”). It would appear therefore that at the time Benedict wrote his Rule the Roman distribution of the Psalter was not (yet) sacrosanct and likely to have been relatively recent in the 5th / 6th century.

It has been suggested that this ancient psalter distribution caused double feasts (which in the Roman custom only has 9 Psalms at Matins) to multiply exceedingly, so that only a select few Psalms (selected for the feast being celebrated) were ever recited. Since there is no specific rule I am aware off that legislates the suppression of the ferial office in favour of the festal, it seems to me this line of thought remains speculative.

One must first consider the end which this book [the Psalms] has in view; one may then clearly see the system of ideas set forth which the well-thought-out order of the psalms indicates for realizing their goal. … The divine book of psalms wonderfully shows us the way [to blessedness] by a systematic, natural ordershowing the various means for man to attain blessedness both  by a simplicity which is evident and a teaching that is plain.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, Peface & Chapter 1).

The reason that the bare minimum set by St. Benedict is at least the entire Psalter weekly might very well be what St. Gregory tells us is the goal of Psalms as a “divine” book. Our attaining of “blessedness” or more simply: our transformation (one might say “deification”). It is well-worth our while to take the time to recite the Psalter and not too quickly to look for ways to reduce the “burden” of Psalmody. In fact it is much better to look at reducing other things consuming our time. T.V, games, hobbies, facebook, or what else may be the case. Shaping our life to fit our recitation of the Psalms holds the promise of the Psalms shaping us to conform more closely to Christ. It puts “Christ” into the Christian.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


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