Tuesday, June 16, 2009

psalms in the summer: part five

In an essay found in Wisdom from The Monastery, Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S. B., quotes the well-known passage from the Rule of Benedict that "nothing is to be preferred to the work of God". This work, he notes, is chiefly the reading and singing of the psalms, which has formed the core of monastic life for 1600 years. This has importance for protestant and evangelical Christians, however, in that it speaks to our need to read the scriptures in community (for an excellent resource on this subject, see Dennis Okholm's Monk Habits For Everyday People [Brazos Press]).

In the essay, Dumm reflects first on the importance of time, and the prior claim of God upon our time. This is a subject that distresses many parish ministers; not only the joke about a service of worship going five minutes beyond noon, but swimming against the stream in a culture that values other activities above worship. In a Benedictine monastery, such as St. John's in Minnesota, where I spent a week last summer, there are seven distinct periods a day, where the monks and guests drop what they are doing and gather for the reading and hearing of scripture.

It is all about time. Dumm writes:

"Time is one of the most precious gifts that we humans receive from God. It is clear that Benedicts wants his monks (my insertion: that God wants us) to acknowledge this gift by returning choice portions of their time each day to God. In this way, they will practice the most basic form of hospitality, which is to make room in their schedules for the entertainment of God's real but mysterious presence".

He then moves to the place of the psalms in the "work of God", answering, in effect the question "why the Psalms?"

"The constant chanting of the psalms is intended to immerse the monk in a world where God's presence is felt and where God's goodness is praised. The world is made accessible to the monk through personal faith, which finds the gift of God at the center of all reality, in spite of much evil and violence on the surface of human life."

What is the method for such a transformation? The author continues: "For the purpose of achieving this prayerful immersion, Benedict prescribed that his monks should memorize the entire Psalter." At an early stage in my Christian life I was involved in a program of scripture memorization. I found it to be helpful, if sometimes simplistic in its application. In hindsight, however, I now realize that I have the scriptures, because of that very experience. It is ironic that Catholics can teach us something about the memorization of the Word; our stereotypical perspective, that we are often more grounded in scripture, being called into question.

How does one get started in this? "This must have been a daunting task for the younger members of the monastery. But they would have been greatly assisted and encouraged by the older members, for we can well imagine that they were carried along, as it were, on the waves of biblical words provided by the elders. Over the years, the effect would be that the minds and memories of all the monks would be filled more and more with expressions of praise and gratitude."

How might the church be renewed? How might the faith be passed from one generation to the next? Our responses to these questions quickly go to style or method or technique, and we often ignore the matter of content. Could it be that we do not trust the scriptures themselves with the power to transform us, to ignite a new generation, to sustain our traditions of Christianity?

This summer we are reading the psalms, immersing ourselves in the 150 psalms. You are invited to join us here. Could a new generation of Christians be exposed to words that might fill them, more and more, with praise and gratitude? At a deeper level, might they discover, in even one psalm, the gift of God at the very center of all reality? And could they come to believe that God, and the word of God, does indeed have a prior claim upon us, upon our lives, upon our time?


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