Where Have All the *!*?ing Psalms Gone?

The cursing psalms are not in the modern divine office  – how does this omission affect the psychology of  those in the Church? I was recently given a copy of the St Dunstan’s Psalter. It contains a 16th century arrangement of the psalms set to modal tones set to an English text. The tones are taken directly from the traditional English pre-reformation liturgy.

This has been a great resource for me. As a result I now have a source of over one hundred psalm tones that are traditionally English. Some are unique to the traditional English Church and have  such as ‘Gisburn’ and ‘Gloucester.’ The allocation of psalm tones – which mode and which particular tone is appropriate for a particular psalm – is in accordance with the traditional English form as well. There is an appendix that lists all 150 psalms along with its own tone. They are called Sarum tones after the ancient English Sarum liturgy. Sarum is the old name for the town of Salisbury. The introduction says that the allocation of the tones is in accordance with the ancient and illustrious churches of Salisbury and York.

As a consequence I have now adapted each of these tones to the Clayton Psalm Tone method of pointing. This means that you can point any English text of the psalms that you have and then sing these tones to it. If you learn to sing just one tone, you will be able to point (ie mark emphasised syllables) any of the 150 psalms and apply the tone to it. You can see a video explaining this here.

I made one other discovery while doing this. I generally sing the Office according to the 1973 structure, which in England is in a three volume set, in the US it is a four-volume. What I hadn’t realised until I systematically compared with the St Dunstan’s Psalter is the degree to which the Roman revised version omits text. There seem to be something like 20 psalms with text missing and three whole psalms missing altogether. I had heard before this that there had been, regrettably some omissions. The introduction says that they are texts that the lay faithful might find difficult. What I didn’t realise was the extent to which this had been done. There are three whole psalms missing and about 20 or so have verses here and there just missed out.

The portions that have been removed are those in which enemies of psalmist are cursed.

For example, in Day Prayer for Thursday week 3, we see ‘Psalm 78 (79): 1-5, 8-11, 13′. The missing verses are as follows: Pour out thine indignation upon the heathen tht have not known thee; and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy name For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place. (vs 6-7)…And for the blasphemy wherewith our neighbours have blasphemed thee, reward thou them O Lord seven-fold into their bosom. (v12)

This is short-changing the faithful. I wonder also how this has affected the psychology of members of the Church and therefore how it has affected the Church as a whole? There are so many aspects to the psalms that make them the vehicle, par excellence, for praising and worshipping God in the liturgy. One way in which they speak to me very strongly is by engaging emotions and directing them towards God. I find they engage me by articulating exactly how I feel in response to everyday situation. they do this be describing very human and unsaintly thoughts and emotions. This is the Christian way. We do not detach or deny the reality of evil and suffering, we engage with it and through God’s grace can move forward to something better. Once engaged, they are resolved healthily by working them out with the psalmist. Sometimes this is within a single psalm, sometimes it is when we place it in the context of the psalms as a whole.
The liturgy is the powerhouse of the Church. When individuals pray the liturgy they are praying for and with the Church as part of the mystical body of Christ. This has a profound effect not only on the whole Church, including those who never, for example, pray the liturgy of the hours, and also on the whole world, for it makes Christ present here in a special way.
What effect, I wonder, does the denial of feels and anger towards enemies, which every person feels at some point in their lives – and which some will experience very strongly – have on the person, on the Church, on the world? It cannot be good, it seems to me. All of us, but men particularly it seems to me, must have a healthy outlet that resolves such feelings. In the Church we are facing increasing hostility from secular forces and from those of other religions. We need people of virtue (virtue means strength in following what is good) and courage to face these challenges directly. We need people whose passion for the good is strong, but know how to direct that passion with reason.
What to do about it. First, pray that the proposed revision of the Divine Office will re-institute the missing texts. Second, pray the cursing texts. As a lay person I am not bound to this version of the Office. I can mark the hours with any pattern of the psalms that I wish. The structure of the Office as revised in 1973 is in many other ways useful for lay people. The 28-day cycle allows for less psalms per office and so each Hour is smaller and more practical if I don’t have a lot of time each day to devote to it. My solution is to note when there are parts of psalm missing and consult another text to fill it out. I have worked out set times when I add the three whole psalms that are omitted. This way I can curse my enemies with a clear conscience!

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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