During the winter season, Vigils begin with the verse: “O God, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Ps. 51:17). After this has been said three times, the following order is observed: Psalm 3 with doxology; Psalm 9 with a refrain, or at least chanted; an Ambrosian hymn; then 6 psalms with refrain.
After the psalmody, a versicle is said and the prioress or abbot gives a blessing. When all are seated on the benches, the members in turn read three selections from the book on the lectern. After each reading a responsory is sung. The doxology is not sung after the first two responsories, but only after the third reading. As soon as the cantor begins to sing the doxology, let all 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 writers.
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 “Christ, 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. Night Prayer 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 Psalms 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. At the house 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 repression 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 helps the intellect in 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 allow us to grow into this divine image: our loving selves.
This way with the psalms spreads, like ink in paper, into time ‘outside’ of prayer. We become, more consistently, this image present and expressed in human form, loving without needing to know why. This is what it is to pray constantly. The psalms help develop this life, a life that is grounded in silence and expanding during meditation.
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 object, 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.
All this is new for many of us. It is all a part of being formed in the monastic way as oblate of The World Community for Christian Meditation. 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.
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, admonish the undisciplined, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient toward all. See that no one pays back evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. Always rejoice, constantly pray, in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess: 5:14-18, NET)