February 11, June 12, October 12
During the winter season, Vigils begin with the verse: “O God, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Ps. 50:17). After this has been said three times, the following order is observed: Psalm 3 with “Glory be to the Father”; Psalm 94 with a refrain, or at least chanted; an Ambrosian hymn; then six psalms with refrain.
After the psalmody, a versicle is said and the abbot gives a blessing. When all are seated on the benches, the monks in turn read three selections from the book on the lectern. After each reading a responsory is sung. “Glory be to the Father” is not sung after the first two responsories, but only after the third reading. As soon as the cantor begins to sing “Glory be to the Father”, let all the monks rise from their seats in honour and reverence for the Holy Trinity. Besides the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox catholic Fathers.
When these three readings and their responsories have been finished, the remaining six psalms are said with an “alleluia” refrain. This ended, there follows a reading from the Apostle recited by heart, a versicle and the litany, that is “Lord, have mercy.” And so Vigils are concluded.
There is a quality of stillness that is the night before the dawn. It is as if life is holding its breath, waiting for the birth of light. Vigils places us in this stillness, this silence, and emerging light. In this time before the dawn, accompanied by the human journey of the psalms, we are soothed and softened by grace.
The Desert Father Evagrius spoke of this when he wrote: ‘Singing the Psalm pacifies the passions and calms the intemperance of the body; on the other hand, prayer prepares the intelligence to operate according to its own nature’ (Chapters on Prayer, 83).
There is a depthing that happens as we go with the psalms into prayer. Maybe we do not use all the psalms in the way that Benedict recommends. Yet the story of God and humanity that is the psalms still draws out what is hidden in us. Be it anger, be it joy, as this happens, we do not analyse; we simply give attention to the words of the psalm. This gives space for the divine life, active in us and the psalms, to love and to heal.
Praying the psalms is not about the supression of emotion and feeling so that we say and do the ‘correct’ things during prayer. The psalms enable prayer to be humane because the psalms, warts and all, are thoroughly human. To pray with the psalms is to meet our own humanity and all humanity. It is an exercise in a coming to awareness, both of ourselves and the grace operative in life.
Over time, praying the psalms together in this way has the intellect becoming silent. In this silence is our true nature. It is a nature to be lived, not to be observed; it is an image of divinity. Attention on the words of the psalms and on the word of the mantra both allow us to grow into this divine image: our loving selves.
This way with the psalms can be undermined if all we do is see the psalms with a rational and critical eye. What of the talk about killing your enemies, about an angry and vengeful God; about conquest and separation, a God putting conditions on love and presence? Should we use these parts of the psalms during prayer?
The psalms are a chronicle of the whole human journey into the truth of God and ourselves. It is a journey that weaves through differing ideas of God and the human, and how we all live. As we pray the psalms, sometimes it is necessary for the psalms to not be our way of praying; we pray contrary to our values and spirit, to our ideas of prayer and of God. This can be a reminder that God is never an image, never an idea to be idolised, and that people pray in ways and for things that are foreign to us.
And we may discover something of what is foreign in the psalms living in us. Here again is an opportunity for grace to work, healing us and opening us to differing ways of seeing and living. With this, in time, compassion and acceptance of difference can grow – important things for human and community living and the fruit of praying the prayer of others as your own.
It is important that we experience together this way of prayer in all its wonder and paradox, otherwise we risk doing it for the sake of doing it, out of obligation or identification, or not doing it at all. The lived experience of the rule shows us the value of the psalms as a way of prayer.
Come, let us ring out our joy to the Lord; hail the rock who saves us. Let us come into his presence, giving thanks; let us hail him with a song of praise. (Ps. 95:1-2, RNJB)