More than half of the psalter is prayed at the office of matins (12 differing psalms–or parts of the longer ones–each day). That is quite a lot of psalmody and Saint Benedict wisely instructs that those who need it should spend the time after matins in their study (Rule, ch. 8), for we are to “sing knowingly/wisely,” with mind and voice in harmony (Rule, ch. 19). In truth, there are few amongst us, or in any monastery, who can exempt themselves from this command. Whilst there are many other truly good resources for our precious hours of lectio divina after matins, the monk who uses that time to immerse himself in the psalter cannot be going far wrong at all.
One recent ‘surprise’ was yielded by the psalter early in matins one Saturday morning—in its first psalm in fact, psalm 101. Perhaps I had not been sufficiently awake to appreciate it before, or perhaps God the Holy Ghost had been keeping it in store for His own good purposes. "Percussus sum ut fœnum, et aruit cor meum: quia oblitus sum comedere panem meaum,” we sing in the fourth verse (I am smitten as grass, and my heart is withered: because I have forgotten to eat my bread).
Who forgets to eat their bread? What is this about? How is it in any sense prayer?
But what is our bread? “What else is God’s Word but bread for the soul?” asks Saint Augustine (Exposition of Ps. 101, 5). And how many of us, monks by no means excluded, “forget” to eat our bread when we should, putting other things, even seemingly important ones, before that nourishment without which our hearts shall indeed wither?
Going further, grounded in the reality of the Christological nature of the psalms, Saint Augustine teaches us that “the True Bread has come, He in whose Body you can recall your forgetful condition,” and enjoins us: “cry to Him now from your poverty, that you may receive His riches. Eat now, for you are within the Body of Him who said ‘I am the Living Bread which has come down from heaven’ (Jn 6:41). You had forgotten to eat your bread, but now that He has been crucified all the ends of the earth will be reminded and will return to the Lord. Let remembrance succeed forgetfulness…” (Exposition of Ps. 101, 5).
In his chapter on the observance of Lent (ch. 49) read at the beginning of this Chapter, Saint Benedict directs us to “expiate the negligences of other times” in this sacred season. If we have forgotten to eat of the bread that is God’s Word, if we have partaken of it too lightly, I ask, I urge, that this Lent be the time that we correct that lest we wither from within.
The psalms sometimes proffer seemingly bread that requires quite some digestion. This is particularly true of the imprecatory (or “cursing”) psalms. We may prefer simpler, more straightforward, fare thank you very much, to something so nasty.
I confess that, whilst understanding its historical context, and accordingly its content, the penultimate psalm of this evening’s vespers, Super flumina Babylonis (Ps. 136), has always been one I would rather not spend that much time on pondering… It was, no doubt, an appropriate prayer upon the lips of the People of God during the harsh vicissitudes of the Babylonian captivity, but how one could pray words wishing babies heads dashed to pieces against rocks in a Christian context is something that always seemed difficult to say the least. Perhaps this psalm is even best avoided? (We know that the reformers of the breviary following the most recent Ecumenical Council induced the then pope to decide that this was a too difficult a problem and simply to edit the Word of God in the breviary he promulgated.) This seemingly indigestible bread is, however, capable of providing the most extraordinarily rich nourishment.
A good Christian layman, unfortunately never received into the Catholic Church, wrote much that is good, the good of which perdures. In his Reflections on the Psalms, Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), reflects on the “horrible passage…about bashing the Babylonian babies against the stones.” I apologise for some of the language, but the author does nothing than reflect the gravity and reality of the issues under question:
“I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleading and which seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel like we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us ‘I don’t ask much, but,’ or ‘I had at least hoped,’ or ‘you owe yourself some consideration.’ Against all such petty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the psalm is best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And ‘blessed’ is he who can, for it is easier said than done.” (Reflections on the Psalms, Geoffrey Bles, London 1958, p. 136)
Saint Benedict, of course, is in prior agreement instructing us in the Prologue of the Rule to grasp evil suggestions as they arise and to dash them against the rock that is Christ. Decisive action is sometimes absolutely necessary. Perhaps even this Lent.
The psalms are true bread indeed. They may take some digestion, but they yield the necessary nourishment for those who would live from the bread of God’s word now and for eternity. My brothers, this Lent, and beyond, let us not forget to eat our bread, and to digest it well, for this is the very food of the path of salvation. +