Prayer Spirituality

Reading and Psalmody Pt 1

“The psalms are the prayer book of the Church.”

About this contentWhat follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”.  With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have  a sincere longing for God. 

  • Sometimes the question is asked “doesn’t the liturgy get boring because it’s the same all the time? How can you serve the same Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for fifty years?
  • The liturgy and the words of prayer are always the same or basically the same so that we can become used to them and not be surprised what’s coming next; so that [we can] use our energy and our attention to put ourselves, our world, our concerns and our prayer into the form that we are used to.
  • The liturgy is not for people [to be] creative and it’s not even the expression of the creativity of the congregation or the minister or the priest – in fact there are canon laws against being creative [in the liturgy].
  • Doesn’t it get boring ? Well… the teaching would be you don’t change things often or much. One of the rules about the [private] rule of prayer is that you don’t change it often.

A tree constantly transplanted doesn’t bear fruit. You’ve gotta let things grow, you’ve got to let it mature, you’ve gotta get used to it.

Even when it comes to… the Jesus Prayer or some type of monologia, …they recommend keep the same word for a while. Keep the same line of your Jesus Prayer for a while. Don’t keep changing it and certainly that’s true with the liturgy.

The same can be said, don’t keep reading different versions of the Bible. Don’t keep changing the text of the psalms. Get used to one, let it soak in, get used to it.

  • If you want to see what [different] meanings are [for] Bible study, then you can check other translations, go to the original [languages], but from the point of view of meditation or prayer it’s an overwhelming teaching of the tradition that you have to get used to it, you have to be in it, you have to make it your own.
  • You have to be familiar with it, especially with with the liturgy – even even with the ritual, even with the movement.
  • I believe…C.S. Lewis said, ‘and we should remember that we are likened in the Holy Scripture by our Lord in liturgy, not to a pack of trick dogs, but to a reasonable flock of sheep’.

The liturgy stays the same because we change each and every day we could be new and every day God could be new for us and every day as we are progressing and the world is changing and our own life is changing those words take on different meanings. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are different every day if we’re alive and they are adequate to our life.

  • We know very well why some liturgies are totally unbearable – because people who are in it don’t know what they’re doing, they literally sometimes don’t even know, rubrically what they’re doing. Then you feel it and everybody feels it and everybody knows it.
  • When we talk about praying in the liturgy, it does presuppose that the people who are doing it are alive.
  • Our spirits are alive, struggling, striving and the liturgy is familiar, clear and well prepared.

I can’t resist to tell this other story because it’s one that I’ll remember till I die literally. …I was involved in a …OCF (Orthodox Christian Fellowship) conference retreat in Chicago. We used to have a lot of those in those days it is sad we don’t have those as [much] anymore? We could gather together a lot of college students in a given place and have talks and liturgy and so on. And at that meeting, Bishop Demetrios, who had just become a bishop, was at that meeting and he was the main speaker. And he was at Harvard. At that time, he got his doctorate at Harvard and he is now head of seminaries in Athens, although this year he’s at Holy Cross, anyway, He was the bishop and he was there and was the main speaker and I was taking care of the services and there was another fellow there deacon just ordained a week or two and we were the only three people and the next day we were …going to have the divine liturgy in this room. There was no church building on this campus, or there was but we couldn’t use it because it was against the law or something, so we were using this …huge classroom and had …set everything up so Bishop said to me ‘before the liturgy starts tomorrow we have to go over and see what we’re going to do, how we’re gonna do things, so I said ok and he said let’s do it as soon as Vespers is over, so I said that’s fine but there’s gonna be confessions after Vespers, but he said ok as soon as confessions are over we’ll go over the liturgy. So we served Vespers and I started confessing, confessing and I finished confessing at 3AM in the morning, finally …the last person came and we’re finished. So being slightly weary it was kind of dark in the room so I went and switched on the lights to see where I was and then I see the bishop sitting there in the back of the room. So I looked at him… he saw that I looked surprised so I went to him and I said, oh you’re still up, your Eminence…and he said ‘yes Father Thomas, we decided that we would go over the liturgy after confession’. Then I said the terrible words – I said Bishop, you know, now having served the liturgy several hundred times, both of us by that time, I said to him oh, Bishop, I said to him that’s alright, we could have gotten through the liturgy. And he looked at me and he said, Father Thomas, liturgy is not something you “get through” now it was the liturgy literally that both of us had served all our life and nothing was going to be different except it was in that room and … that the table was there and we [needed] to find out who was going to read the Gospel, are we going to go through all that Bishop business or is he going to read it himself? So a lot of things just [had] to be decided and he said, ‘I don’t like once we start the liturgy’ he said, ‘I want to know what we’re going to do so that we can pray and not be giving each other signals picked’… We could have done that and gotten through … but my hunch is they would have noticed, they would’ve felt it for sure even if they didn’t see … but that’s really very important and that’s stayed with me my whole life, the liturgy is not something you get through, even if you’ve done it a hundred times. There’s that liturgy for that day in that place with that Gospel with those covers with this chalice … as a matter of fact we discovered at 3 am there weren’t any chalice covers, so we decided what we were going to do, but we didn’t have to discover that five minute before the liturgy started or fifteen minutes when [we] already needed them…So if we’re talking about the practice of prayer we have to say that these things have to be in place if in fact the people are going to do what is being done there so that when it says ‘let us pray to the Lord’ we pray, when it says let us pay attention ‘let us attend’, which shouted several time during the liturgy, I’m sure you’ve noticed, then it means we are to attend, you have to pay attention, everybody should stop their daydreaming at that point and begin to pay attention. Now when we are singing hymns, when we are singing songs, then specifically it’s not a time of attentiveness to a reading as such, it’s not a time even for a prayer as such, it’s time for something else.

  • Generally speaking, singing songs and chanting psalms in the tradition are essential elements in the Christian life.
  • As a general rule, certain elements which are done at the liturgy may also be done outside if a person cannot come to the liturgy and must be done outside at other times.
  • For example, reading the Gospel, reading the Bible cannot only be done liturgically, …[which has] a very sacramental character, but spiritual reading is [also] part of the spiritual life.
  • Reading the Bible, reading the saints, reading the holy fathers and mothers is part of the Christian life and anyone who going to get into prayer at any depth at all must be a reader.
  • Isaac of Syria says read assiduously, however, … can become a form of idolatry…and even prayer can be that too [a form of idolatry, instead of a means to an end].
  • Reading is essential, done in the proper manner and it must accompany prayer.
  • Singing psalms (psalmody) [should also accompany prayer] and everyone should be familiar with psalms and using the psalms not only at the liturgy.
  • My own [Fr Thomas Hopko] personal opinion [is] that one of the tragedies of our time is the loss of the psalmody at our corporate liturgy, in most parishes, the first thing that they cut out, are the psalms – we keep the hymns, and cut out the psalms and probably some type of greater balance should be kept.
  • It seems to me [Fr Thomas Hopko] that a greater attempt would be made to preserve the psalms, after all, the songs that God had written in His inspiration, as part of the word of God, with a very definite particular function.
  • It seems to me [Fr Thomas Hopko] that there is a task of restoring the psalms just to our spiritual life and to use them in the proper manner again, I would claim according to the books this is absolutely essential.
  • The psalms are the prayer book of the Church.
  • Our liturgy is the liturgy of Israel, the liturgy of God, now conflated in the light of the Messiah, the Christ.
  • The liturgy, the songs and the psalms were given to the people to chant and to sing in the Christian perspective.
  • Just like the entire corpus of the Hebrew scriptures, the psalms are chanted in the light of Christ.
  • The whole Old Testament for the Christian is interpreted in the light of Christ; in the living experience with the risen Christ; in the Church and in the spiritual life itself.
  • In the Bible you have the clear teaching … that one of the functions of the Messiah is to enlighten the Scriptures; to show the meaning of the Scriptures and particularly the psalms.
  • Reading the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, has to be done in the light of the New Testament and has to be done within the experience of the Church – particularly the Pascal, Baptismal, Eucharistic experience of communion with God through Christ the Word and the Sacrifice – the Word and the Lamb, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
  • [Consider] an example from the New Testament at the end of the Gospel of Luke: Jesus comes to the disciples and is known in the breaking of the bread which is an expression for the Eucharist.
  • [Jesus] opens their minds to the understanding of the Scriptures -beginning with Moses and all the prophets He interprets to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.
  • Then when [the disciples] go back to Jerusalem and tell how He is known in the breaking of bread, as they were telling about it, Jesus Himself stood among them. They were startled. He then eats with them, and drinks with them.
  • And then He said to them, “…these are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled”.
  • Then [Jesus] opened their mind to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “…thus it is written that the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things”.
  • So the risen Christ comes in our midst, and opens our mind to understand how the Law, the prophets and the psalms speak about Him now.
  • We… have the same thing in St John’s gospel where they said “we have Moses” and [Jesus] said “if you had Moses you would have Me because Moses wrote about Me”.
  • II Corinthians chapter 4, St Paul says that those who are not in Christ read the Scriptures and a veil hangs over their face but when they are turning to the Lord and recognizing Him as the Messiah and receiving His Spirit, then the veil is taken away.
  • [When] the veil is taken away, then they can penetrate the meaning of the Scriptures and St. Paul himself was doing that in Galatians with the allegory of Hagar and so on and in the letter to the Hebrews – this is nothing but [asking] “how do you understand the Scriptures in the light of the Messianic event”?
  • Christian are not Marcionites – for us the Hebrew scriptures are and will be till  the end of the world.
  • In the Word of God we still contemplate God in Scripture in the Law, the psalms and prophets and I [Fr Thomas Hopko] would even dare to say that as far as Scriptures go that’s all you need.
  • We don’t need any more Scripture and the Messiah didn’t come to bring more Scriptures; He came to be the Word of God Incarnate.
  • The twenty seven writings of the New Testament that we also read – and need to read if we’re going to pray properly – are not more Scriptures; they are a particular scriptural witness to the living presence of the Word in our midst.
  • [The Word] who comes to us in the Eucharist gives us His Spirit and opens our eyes to understand the Scriptures and when the so called New Testament uses the expression “the Scriptures”; when Jesus uses the expression “the Scriptures”; when Paul uses the expression “the Scriptures” [it refers to] what we know as the Old Testament.
  • Reading the Bible and certainly in psalmodizing, for the Christian is chanting and reading and meditating and contemplating these life giving words, purifying words, challenging words, judging words, fiery words – we put ourselves in touch with them or even better to say we take them into ourselves.
  • We take these words into ourselves because they speak to us of our Lord. They speak to us of the Christ. They are the words that refer to the Christ. They are Christ’s own words.
  • As Maximus the Confessor would say “you have the incarnation of the Word in the words”.
  • The Bible is an incarnation of the “Word in words”.
  • Christ Jesus the Messiah is an incarnation of the Word as a person in the flesh.
  • The Word becomes flesh in Him and it’s in communion with the Word made flesh that we now contemplate the Word incarnate in the words.
  • There is a kind of circle – it’s not a vicious circle, it’s a beautiful circle, its a wonderful circle, its a happy circle but there’s a circle definitely between our encounter with the living Lord and the scriptural meditation and the spiritual reading and the psalm singing and being in touch with the Lord.
  • For example, in the Eucharist or in prayer, because prayer is literal contact with the Lord Himself, that’s what makes it different from reading.
  • The more we pray, then the more we understand the Scripture.
  • So the teaching is prayer, liturgy, sacrament, psalmody, reading all go together all the time.
  • Each element inspires instructs challenges purifies, tests the other, and hopefully as we progress it all becomes deeper, it all becomes more clearer, it all becomes more our own.
  • In the tradition, a double claim is made about the psalter as understood clearly in the light of Christ:
    • The psalms ultimately refer to Christ
    • Ultimately they are even His prayer
  • If we say that the liturgy is the prayer of the Son to the Father and the Son in the flesh being the Messiah Jesus, then we would say the psalter is Jesus’ prayer and as a matter of fact He is quoting the psalms all the time.
  • Whenever [Jesus] prays He’s using the psalter, even such important words like “My God My God why hast Thou forsaken Me?”, it’s a quotation of a psalm, or “I thirst” is also a quotation of a psalm or His answers to the devil and so on they’re quotations from the Bible.
  • [These] are Jesus’ words, but they’re also about Him, ultimately they’re about Him and they’re about the ultimate Christ event that takes place on the Pascha – His death and resurrection.
  • Israel is our story. It’s a story of every soul, the Exodus event is about me and you, the psalms are about me and you, that’s why when we get into it, we learn who we are because we don’t know who we are – we have to find out who we are. One of the things that the Messiah does is He shows us who we are. 
  • We don’t know how we are. We think we know who we are, but we don’t; so to discover our true, authentic self before God is the fundamental meaning of life a spiritual life.

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