About this content: What 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.
Reading the Psalms in Light of Jesus Christ
- We are created to be vessels of the Spirit and anointed of God.
- Christ is the eternal Word, who becomes flesh.
- We even claim this is why we are saved by Him, because He can and does, as a matter of fact, incorporate all of our lives in His own life, He experiences our condition.
- St. Irenaeus said “He became everything we are, so we could become everything He is.”
- We are human creatures, so He became one. But we are also cursed sinful and dead, so He became that too [via the Cross].
- Jesus Christ is not only the perfect Man and Teacher, He’s also the perfect Disciple too.
- Jesus Christ is not only the perfect Giver of the law, He’s the perfect Teacher of the law.
- By His voluntary will, Jesus Christ is even the perfect Penitent. You may ask “what does He have to be penitent for”? Nothing. But He had nothing to learn either. In fact, Jesus Christ doesn’t do anything for Himself. He does everything for us.
- The line from the Nicene Creed “...for us and for our salvation” covers everything that Jesus did.
- Jesus Christ took position as forsaken, abandoned, cursed, lost, and in darkness. He took it all upon Himself.
- The Bible and specifically the Psalms are the story about God’s search for lost man – and that lost man is us.
- That lost man is the man that Jesus became for us and for our salvation.
- The Scripture stories and particularly the Psalms, are the prayer of Jesus in His humiliation and identification with each one of us.
Reading the Psalms Spiritually
- The Letter to Marcellinus is an ancient introduction to the spiritual sense of the Psalms (see The Psalter post for many detailed examples).
- The Psalms speak of our condition – there’s a word for every possible situation that we find ourselves in.
- St. John Chrysostom preached about the Psalms [and by “David” he means the Psalms]:
- When you are happy – David
- When you are sad – David
- When you are mad – David
- When you are angry – David
- When you are grateful – David
- When you are quiet – David
- When you get up in the morning – David
- When you go to bed – David
- Everything we [do and feel] is in the Psalms.
- The Psalms teach us how to relate [each situation] to God.
- The Psalms and the Old Testament generally, as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, are a schoolmaster, a tutor, a pedagogue to Christ.
- The Old Testament is a pedagogical preparation to the life of grace in Christ.
- The Psalms are definitely pedagogical in the spiritual life and when one gets attuned with the spiritual life and one tries to get into a relationship with God, one discovers it’s all there in the Psalms.
- The Old Covenant is but a shadow of the New Covenant. This is confirmed in St. Paul’s epistles to the Galatians, Colossians, Hebrews and in the Apocalypse according to St John (i.e. Book of Revelation).
- Typology in the Old Testament including the Psalms is first and foremost about Christ, but it also applies to the life of the Christian when we read it in light of the Messiah.
- Romans 8 says that we don’t know how to pray, [but] the Holy Spirit comes into us and prays with “sighs too deep for words”, meaning that there’s a presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us to God in a level deeper than words.
- It is also the teaching of the Tradition that the words of the prayer, the words of the church service, the songs, the bible reading and even the hymns are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
- St. John of Kronstadt says that “the hymnology of the Orthodox Church is the breathing of the Holy Spirit”.
- St. John of Damascus says that “the Holy Spirit never breathes in a wordless way”.
- Whenever the Holy Spirit breathes there is meaning.
- We never have the Logos without the Holy Spirit breathing.
- We never have the breath of the Holy Spirit without the Logos and meaning.
- In the Orthodox Church, worship is rational, not just emotional.
- Even the instruments mentioned in the Psalms are spiritualized in Christ.
- Psalms must be chanted and understood in relation to the Messianic activity of Christ.
- [When reading the Psalms spiritually, ] physical elements should be translated to their spiritual reality (e.g. Old Covenant sacrifices in Psalm 50 translate spiritually to the greater sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross).
- An earthly king in the Psalms translates to the spiritual Lord Who reigns – Jesus is King.
- The earthly Zion and Jerusalem translate to the spiritual Kingdom of Heaven.
- The earthly queen in Psalm 45 translates spiritually to the Virgin Mary.
- The physical ark of the covenant translates spiritually to the Virgin Mary.
- All royal Psalms apply to Jesus, as King of Kings.
- Rebuilding the physical wall of Jerusalem spiritually means we should rebuild our own spiritual fortress in Christ. (St. Theophan the Recluse)
- Psalms are like a garden with many different things going on and you have to bring it all together.
The Centrality of Psalmody in the Ancient Church
- Exercise in psalmody is an essential aspect of the spiritual life.
- In the early Church, virtually all the prayers even of the daily rule were from the Psalms in addition to the Lord’s Prayer and the Trisagion prayers.
- The morning prayer of a person in the Ancient Church was not from the prayer book. It was certain psalms from Matins.
- The noonday prayer was a certain psalm (see Psalm 90).
- The evening prayers were psalms.
- There were even debates about how many psalms should be sung (e.g. twelve, then six, then three).
- The daily prayer of the normal Christian was a certain psalm sung at certain times.
Why We Chant the Psalms
- The Psalms were [and still are] chanted / sung because they are poetic.
- We are affected differently when we sing them instead of just saying them.
- We have dissonant chords [spiritually] in us and the chanting of psalms restores [spiritual] harmony and integration to [our beings].
- Singing of the liturgy is considered an essential element because the delivery affects the message. Especially with the Psalms.
- We use the Psalms with total absence of any sentimentalism or romanticism.
- [For the spiritual person seeking God with love, faith and humility] in the Psalms, that person will begin to sing them in such a way that he or she will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart, not as if they were the composition of the psalmist, but rather as if they were his or her own utterances and very prayer.
- The Psalms can be brutally honest but they are always authentic.
- The Psalms are emotional in a deep sense as they seriously consider worship, love, anger, intense desire, yearning, joy, sorrow and grief -which are all very real emotions to all people.
- Every possible human state is found in the Psalms because these are all real before God including hatred. The Psalms teach us where to direct our hatred – not towards man but towards our own sin.
- In the Psalms, sometimes we fight with God, sometimes we delight in God, but we never lose sight of God.
- You might find yourself chanting psalms with sharp words even when you are not feeling that way, but this is so that when you are feeling that way, you know they are there.
- The Psalms provide a strong sense of righteousness and unrighteousness [often juxtaposed in stark contrast].
- The Psalms [must be] read in the light of Christ.
- In the Psalms we have a response to our own emotions when we read them in the light of Christ.
- Even emotions such as “I hate them with a perfect hatred” (Psalm 138) are informed [and superseded] by the Law of the Gospel because Christ said “love your enemies” (see Matthew 5:43-46).
- In the Psalms, references to earthly warfare, violence and enemies always translate to our spiritual warfare, struggle against sin or the podvig and asceticism of the Christian.
- Psalm 136 is easily [and often] found disturbing and misunderstood if not read with spiritual understanding. To “smash the heads of their young against a rock” is a jarring phrase on the surface, but translates spiritually as follows:
- Enemies of the Christian are not people, especially children (see Matthew 19:4).
- Enemies of the Christian are the devil (i.e. the adversary), demons and our own sinful passions.
- The Rock [on which our enemies are defeated] is Christ.
- We humbly sing this psalm each year before Great Lent in preparation for our own unseen spiritual warfare as we strive [with God’s help!] to cut away sin from our own lives.
- Again, a spiritual translation of Psalm 136/137:
If we do not smash the heads (i.e. cut off our own sinful passions) of their young (when our sins are just beginning) against the Rock (with the help and salvation of Christ and the power of the Cross), they (our sinful passions) will grow and ultimately kill us spiritually if not physically as well.
Further explanation of the Orthodox spiritual reading of Psalm 136/137 from St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic:
“Every assent in thought to some forbidden desire, that is, every submission to self-indulgence, is a sin for a monk [and all Christians]. For at first, the thought begins to darken the nous [Greek meaning the eye of the spirit] …then the soul submits to the pleasure, not holding out in the fight. This is what is called assent…When assent persists it stimulates the passion in question. Then, little by little, it leads to the actual committing of the sin. This is why the prophet calls blessed those who dash the children of Babylon against the stones. People with understanding and discretion will know what is meant.”
– St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic (from the Philokalia Vol.2)
Let God Work in Us through the Psalms
- Psalms make up 80 percent of the Divine Liturgy.
- Christians still need to psalmodize, for some this will be longer others it might be shorter according to our strength, but the Psalms should be a regular part of our spiritual life.
- Psalms lead us into prayer but they are not actual prayer.
- Psalms warm us up to prayer.
- When we psalmodize, we should let the Word of God enter us, do not try to put yourself into the Word of God.
- We want the Word of God that is fire to burn us in a purifying way.
- We want the Word of God that is a two-edged sword to cut us in a healing way [i.e. like surgery].
- We want the Word of God to purge the garbage from our lives.
- When we psalmodize – strive to stop thinking and take [the words of the Psalms] in and let God do what He will do from there.
- In the monastery, the Psalter is divided into twenty kathismata and each kathisma is divided into three stasis.
- In the monastery the Psalter is read in its entirety each week following the prescribed kathismata for Matins in the morning and Vespers in the evening.
- Christians in the world (i.e. non-monastics) can follow this prescribed chanting too according to their strength and available time.
- The Psalter is like a garden, you will notice beauty differently each day but you will never be able to take it all in at once.
- It is not expected that you will get the full meaning of each Psalm every time you chant them.
- It is expected that we chant the Psalms regularly to give them a chance to absorb into our being.
- It is better to chant six psalms at a normal pace to become familiar with them, than to slowly read or chant one psalm.