As a young man living and studying in Minnesota, I accidentally stumbled upon a form of prayer extending back to the early church and into biblical times. I was browsing in the bookstore of Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul and found a red paper-bound volume titled The Daily Office, with a lengthy subtitle: “Matins and Vespers, Based on Traditional Liturgical Patterns, with Scripture Readings, Hymns, Canticles, Litanies, Collects and the Psalter, Designed for Private Devotion or Group Worship.” A compact book, it nevertheless had nearly 700 pages, packed with scripture, psalms, hymns and prayers organized around the church year. I purchased the book and began to pray according to the patterns laid out in its pages. It ended up changing my life and my relationship with God.
What I was most impressed with was its use of the Psalms, prescribing two per week at morning and evening prayer to be repeated throughout until the following Sunday when the Psalms would change. I discovered that this pattern of praying through the Psalms went back as far as St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) and his famous Rule intended to order the life of monastics in the early centuries of the Christian era. But it can be traced even earlier than this, as God’s people of the Old Covenant prayed at specific times of the day, as recorded in key places in Scripture, such as Psalm 119:147-148, 164; Daniel 6:10; and Acts 10:3, 9, 30. These texts are easy to miss on a superficial reading, but they testify to a time when entire communities paused for corporate prayer several times a day, a practice that appears to have fallen out of use after the collapse of Rome in the west but continued in the monasteries.
Jesus prayed the Psalms
Over the past four decades my prayer life has developed further, and I have acquired a small collection of prayer books and psalters, reflecting the patterns of daily prayer as practised in several traditions. Some of these, especially those with Lutheran origins, prescribe praying through the Psalms on a weekly basis. Others, following the Book of Common Prayer, organize the Psalms to be read every 30 days. In recent years I have followed the latter plan, taking me through the biblical Psalter 12 times a year, giving me a thorough acquaintance with the principal liturgical collection in the Bible.
The introduction to the Psalms in the New Jerusalem Bible tells the reader: “The spiritual riches of the Psalter need no commendation. . .. They were recited by Jesus himself, by the Virgin Mary, the apostles and the early martyrs.” We sometimes forget that Jesus was an observant Jew, immersed in the liturgical patterns of his faith, including daily prayer. Some Christians prefer to see Jesus as a radical departure from the ethos of the Old Testament, preaching love and compassion instead of judgement and condemnation. Yet the fact that Jesus prayed through the Psalms, including those calling down God’s judgement on his enemies, is further indication that Jesus came, not to abrogate the Old Covenant, but to fulfil it in himself (Matt. 5:17-20).
Personally, I have come to love the biblical Psalter. As a child I learned some of the Psalms by heart, including numbers 23 and 100. Our congregation sang from a hymnal based on the 1912 Psalter. And more than 30 years ago, I fell in love with the Genevan Psalter, which has formed the basis for Reformed liturgies in several countries over the past four and a half centuries. So much have the Psalms become the centre of my prayer life that I have taken up their study and liturgical use as an avocation, to which I will return in a future column.