First, last and central

Over these past few months many of us have had to adjust to some very challenging routines. We’ve lost the markers and structures that subtly orient us. If attending a church service on a Sunday was something that had become a habit, then that loss is perhaps felt on more levels than you might have expected. In many ways, the absence of the opportunity to gather physically in a church has provided an important opportunity to be creative in our understanding of prayer, worship and community. That opportunity to be creative isn’t always a place of comfort. It can often appear to offer more risk than comfort.

Uncomfortable though it may be, we have a golden opportunity to look afresh at our rituals, to examine how we use a liturgical space and to try to uncover what is essential in our worship. It’s no small task. And as any monastic will know, re-assessing liturgical practice touches us at a level that can be hard to articulate. We can know viscerally that we hold something very dear but be unable to put it into words.

From my monastic context I have come to experience the Psalms as one of the essentials of my prayer. When I think back to the time when I first discovered Turvey, it was the poetry of the Psalms that captivated me. As I took my first steps on the monastic path it was the images of the Psalms that kept me company. For there in the Psalter I found a tree ‘whose leaves shall never fade’, ‘a rock of refuge’, ‘silver from the furnace’. Here was a world with image upon image, a world which included and celebrated the complete spectrum of human emotions. In those early days I had an intuitive sense that it was in this Biblical world that I might find my path.

Praying the Psalter has certainly stood the test of time. Some form of the Psalter has been part of public corporate worship from the very beginnings of Church life. Monastic tradition embraced this practice and over centuries it grew and flowered. St Bede in the 7th Century is in no doubt as to the place of the Psalms in his life. St Bede would have credited King David with the authorship of the Psalms and in a stirring sermon says this:

If we keep vigil in the church, David comes first, last and central. If in early morning we chant songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, David is first, last and central.

It’s a beautifully uncomplicated vision. And strikingly exposure to the Psalms is not just the preserve of monastics:

O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the psalter by heart. Nor is only in cities and churches that David is famous, in the village market, in the desert, in uninhabitable lands or if girls sit at home and spin, he excites the praises of God.

There is something very compelling for me about this vision of texts learnt by heart and repeated while doing the ordinary tasks of the day. It may well be idealised, but is says something to me about integration and sacredness being woven through the day.

It looks as though it may be a very long time before it is safe for communities to come together and celebrate the Eucharist. I wonder if in that void we might be able to make a place for the Psalms? I wonder if we could allow the Psalms to be our voice? Much of the hard work of ‘what to say, and how to say it’ is done for us. We can walk a path that has already been smoothed out for us, where there are signposts and resting places, green pastures and bread to strengthen our hearts.

Read a Psalm a day and before long they may become ‘first, last and central.’