Liturgical Prayer

Fragrant with God's grace

It was long ago that my study of the Book of Psalms began. I’m motivated by the fact that I can pray them, just as Jesus did. Saint Ambrose, who was born about 300 years after Jesus' death, wrote about the appeal of the Book of Psalms. I wonder if Benedict, who was born about 140 years after that, was influenced by this reflection.

Ambrose writes,

Though all Scripture is fragrant with God’s grace, the Book of Psalms has a special attractiveness.

In the Book of Psalms there is profit for all, with healing power for our salvation. There is instruction from history, teaching from the law, prediction from prophecy, chastisement from denunciation, persuasion from moral preaching. All who read it may find the cure for their own individual failings. All with eyes to see can discover in it a complete gymnasium for the soul, a stadium for all the virtues, equipped for every kind of exercise; it is for each to choose the kind he judges best to help him gain the prize.

If you wish to read and imitate the deeds of the past, you will find the whole history of the Israelites in a single psalm: in one short reading you can amass a treasure for the memory. In the psalms not only is Jesus born for us, he also undergoes his saving passing in his body, he lies in death, he rises again, he ascends into heaven, he sits at the right hand of God the Father. What no man would have dared to say was foretold by the psalmist alone, and afterward proclaimed by the Lord himself in the Gospel.

A psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, a hymn of praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song. It is the voice of complete assent, the joy of freedom, a cry of happiness, the echo of gladness. It soothes the temper, distracts from care, and lightens the burden of sorrow. It is a source of security at night, a lesson of wisdom by day. It is a shield when we are afraid, a celebration of holiness, a vision of serenity, a promise of peace and harmony. It is like a lyre, evoking harmony from a blend of notes. Day begins to the music of a psalm. Day closes to the echo of a psalm.

In a psalm, instruction vies with beauty. We sing for pleasure. We learn for our profit. What experience is not covered by a reading of the psalms? I come across the words “A Song for the Beloved” and I am aflame with desire for God’s love. I go through God’s revelation in all its beauty, the intimations of resurrection, the gifts of his promise.

What is a psalm but a musical instrument to give expression to all the virtues? The psalmist of old used it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to make earth reecho the music of heaven. He used the dead gut of strings to create harmony from a variety of notes, in order to send up to heaven the song of God’s praise. In doing so he taught us that we must first die to sin, and then create in our lives on earth a harmony through virtuous deeds, if the grace of our devotion is to reach up to the Lord. We must fashion our lives and shape our actions in the light of the things that are above.

Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God – Rule of Benedict 43:3

Excerpts from Explanations of the Psalms by Saint Ambrose (340 - 397 A.D.), a part of the Office of Readings for Friday and Saturday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time