Tag Archives: psalms

A Divine School of Solidarity: The Hours

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Each morning at 5:00 AM, I rise and plop down upon the couch in my living room to greet the new day. My deepest desire at the time is to consume a cup of coffee and to gaze mindlessly at the television as I recover from slumber. Yet, more often than not, I pass by this temptation to spend the morning “doing” the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer (with a cup of coffee in hand, of course). Before 5:30 AM comes around, I have acknowledged to God the sin that I am responsible for; I have  asked God to let me hear the voice of the Lord thundering over the mountains; I have lamented the sorrows that inflict not only me but the entire People of God; and, I have praised God for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s recreation of the world.

HoursThe gift of the Liturgy of the Hours as a daily practice is that the Christian is schooled in the fullness of the spiritual life as we meditate morning after morning, night after night upon the Psalms. And these Psalms are given to us. We do not get to choose which ones we pray. We do not simply praise God with timbrel and harp but must also acknowledge our deep woundedness, the injustice of the world, and the sorrow that comes with hearing only silence in the midst of our prayer to God. If I could create my own personal ordo of Psalms that I would pray each morning, I would avoid anything that could be construed as “negative.” I would sip my coffee in peace and sing to God a new song but never acknowledge the depths of mercy that I need in order to love God and neighbor alike. Yet, the Church’s construction of the Liturgy of the Hours is wiser than my personal ordo. It is a school of prayer.

And when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it should be noted that this action is never simply about the individual Christian offering his or her prayers to God. The General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours notes that praying each morning with the Church is never a private act:

There is a special and very close bond between Christ and those whom he makes members of his Body, the Church, through the sacrament of rebirth. Thus, from the Head all the riches belonging to the Son flow throughout the whole Body: the communication of the Spirit, the truth, the life, and the participation in the divine sonship that Christ manifested in all his prayer when he dwelt among us.

Christ’s priesthood is also shared by the whole Body of the Church, so that the baptized are consecrated as a spiritual temple and holy priesthood through the rebirth of baptism and the anointing by the Holy Spirit and are empowered to offer the worship of the New Covenant, a worship that derives not from our own powers but from Christ’s merit and gift.

“God could give us no greater gift than to establish as our Head the Word through whom he created all things and to unite us to that Head as members. The results are many The Head is Son of God and Son of Man, one as God with the Father and one as man with us. When we speak in prayer to the Father, we do not separate the Son from him and when the Son’s Body prays it does not separate itself from its Head. It is the one Savior of his Body, the Lord Christ Jesus, who prays for us and in us and who is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest, in us as our Head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize therefore our own voice in him and his voice in us.”

The excellence of Christian prayer lies in its sharing in the reverent love of the only-begotten Son for the Father and in the prayer that the Son put into words in his earthly life and that still continues without ceasing in the name of the whole human race and for its salvation, throughout the universal Church and in all its members (7).

TheAgonyIn other words, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is never private prayer. To pray these Psalms and intercessions day after day is to join our voice to Jesus Christ’s continual prayer of praise and lament to the Father. For Christ’s voice still calls out to the Father through the Church. Jesus knows our sorrows, our joys. He knows the suffering of a world where many are forced into migration because of the injustice enacted by political regimes. He knows the sorrows of those who experience radical loneliness, who cry out for God’s help but hear nothing; a nothingness that becomes a taunt. Jesus Christ knows the fullness of the human condition. And through our praying the Psalms within the context of the Church’s prayer, we let his voice resound in our own, offering to the Father a sacrifice of sorrow and praise for the world.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours each morning is, thus, not ultimately about the development of my individual religious life. Rather, it is an occasion to exercise my baptismal vocation to let Christ’s voice echo throughout the world.

It is to become aware, in praying a Psalm of Lament, that there are fathers and mothers in the world, who have to look upon the body of their child, who drowned while trying to escape from the horrors of a war that no one deserves but those in power feel necessary; it is to take up the voice of my student, who is experiencing deep homesickness and loneliness, afraid that he or she will never find a trustworthy friend; it is to make my own the fear of a colleague, diagnosed with cancer; it is to consider those fathers and mothers, who have made a decision to have an abortion and now deal with the painful consequences on a daily basis; it is to cry out to God in the voice of all those who are denied even the most basic forms of human dignity; it is to recognize my own callousness in the midst of these sorrows, the sin of indifference that becomes my bread. Lord, rouse up your might and come to our help.

To pray these Hours each day, therefore, is to enter not simply into a school of prayer but a school of divine solidarity. For God has taken up in Jesus Christ, the Son, the fullness of the human condition. And even now, the mercy of the Incarnation continues as our voice becomes the voice of the Son.

Of course, the consequence of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is that we must learn to love the world aright. Hans urs von Balthasar notes again and again in his theological aesthetics that the purpose of the Christian life is not “delight” in beauty. It is discipleship. If we are to give our voice over to the sorrows of our brothers and sisters, then we must also give our bodies to their plight. We must care for the sick. We must cry out to those in power to come to the aid of those on the margins. We must go to the margins ourselves, letting the words that we pray echo now in our commitment to love aright. The Liturgy of the Hours invites us not simply to “imagine” solidarity but to practice it on a daily basis.

For each day, we are invited again and again to hear the voice of the Lord, to refuse to let our hearts be hardened. And to enter into radical relationship, through Jesus Christ, to all those who share with us the humanity of the Son.

The Wonder of God’s Becoming

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.

Program Director, Human Dignity and Life Initiatives

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Every year I try to give each of my godsons something to mark the anniversary of their baptism. This year I gave my oldest godson and nephew a small, illustrated abridged book of the Psalms adapted for young children. Last night as he lay in bed with a fever we read one, then two, then three, then all the Psalms. Occasionally, I would pause and ask him a question. When the Psalmist expressed the desire to sing God’s praises, I wondered aloud, “What song would you want to sing to God?” The answer: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” When the Psalmist spoke of conversing with God each day, I asked, “Do you ever talk to God?” This child, who earlier in the day declared amid a flood of tears that he only likes to go to Mass if there are doughnuts, raised his eyebrows over his glassy half-shut eyes, as though the question I had just asked was more than a little absurd, and replied matter-of-factly, “Of course.” And with that we read on.

As we made our way through the book together, I was struck by the way in which the Psalms seemed to speak to his six-year-old heart, touching on themes of fear, comfort, safety, consolation, abandonment, joy, vulnerability, beauty, mercy, and thanksgiving. This small act, of reading and listening to these brief bits of Scripture with this child on this quiet evening, filled me with a renewed sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation.


God has become human. Sure, he never refused to go to the Temple in Jerusalem unless promised the first-century equivalent of doughnuts, but he really and truly took up our human nature. Indeed, the one of whom the psalmist sings—“O God, you are my God—it is you I seek! For you my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts in a land parched, lifeless, and without water”–has set aside His glory and become a hungry, naked, blind, helpless infant. The God who “makes the snow like and spread the frost like ash” and “disperses hail like crumbs” plunges into the depths of our humanity—into our sorrow, our fear, our joy, our beauty, our wonder (Ps.147: 16-17). In the flesh of His Son, God experiences all that my six-year-old nephew experiences—gratitude, love, comfort, affliction, consolation.  The God who “spread the heavens out like a tent,” who made the clouds his chariot, who “fixed the earth on its foundation,” who “made the moon to mark the seasons,” now stoops down from the heights to become a vulnerable infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, speechless and blindly gazing at His mother (Ps.104: 2, 3, 5, 19; 113: 5-6; Lk. 2:7). The one who guides the celestial bodies became “a nursling at the breast,” hungry, cold, and weary (St. Augustine, Sermon 187).

Why would God do something so risky, so audacious? Precisely for this reason: so that my six-year-old nephew might call upon him in the quiet of the night when no one else can hear or see…when there are no doughnuts. He becomes a speechless child, so that we can learn to speak his praise. He becomes human to cast out the fears of the child. He became hungry, that we might be nourished by his body and blood. He thirsted so that the thirsting soul may be quenched. He became blind, that we might see God’s glory.

The Comfort of Night Prayer

HopeHope ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy


Hello, Friends. I’m Hope, and I am probably the poster-child for those of us who have tried and failed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours with regularity and discipline in our lives (or those who were too nervous to even start).

“The Angelus”

The Liturgy of the Hours, where we try to better live out the practice of praying without ceasing, “is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 84). In the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms through the course of the four-week psalter are threaded through our lives as they would have been threaded in and through the life of Jesus and Jewish devotion and the lives of Christians ever since. (I don’t know much more than that; I’m being honest when I say that I’m no expert! But I’m told that Robert Taft’s book here is a great resource if you’re looking for more information. That was also a not-so-subtle hint to my family when Christmas comes closer.)

I like to think about the Liturgy of the Hours as enabling a way of living that St. Ambrose talks about as what happens when our lives are formed by the psalms:

“Day begins to the music of a psalm. Day closes to the echo of a psalm. In a psalm, instruction vies with beauty (From St. Ambrose’s “Commentary on the Psalms”).

The Liturgy of the Hours helps us to form our life in a way that continually turns back to praise God, in the midst of every possible human emotion and experience.

74_92Ever since I learned about the Liturgy of the Hours from the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia who taught me in high school, it has been one of my favorite ways to pray—though I still forget, or sleep through my alarms, or skip days on a very regular basis. Still, each night, even if I haven’t prayed anything else at all, the way that the Dominican sisters sing the antiphons of Night Prayer and the tune to which they sing the Salve (the Hail, Holy Queen in Latin) as they close prayer echoes in my head. I have those wonderful sisters to thank, and myself to blame for still not having figured out a schedule years and years later. Praying something with a schedule as fixed as the Liturgy of the Hours at times seems unfeasible in the reality of college life, in a world where our schedules change on a dime and where some days the distinctions between where our nights end and our mornings begin are tough to find. That being said though, I readily admit that it is do-able to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in the midst of college life if one gets the discipline and practice of it down. But I haven’t quite got it figured out yet.

Regardless of whether I hit my snooze button not at all or twelve times in the morning, though, ending my day with Night Prayer (Compline) is something that I can do. If you are an erratic college student like myself, or a very busy young working person in Chicago like half of young Notre Dame alums, or a married-and-working-with-young-kids person whose greatest daily battle occurs (next to getting your toddler to understand that eating food besides pizza and macaroni really is in her best interest) between you and the alarm clock around 6:12 am, I have news for you. We can all pray Night Prayer. Night Prayer is short; it’s a routine that quickly becomes familiar in a trustworthy-dependable-friend sort of way, and it might be the most comforting way to remind yourself that at the end of the day (literally) all that we do is offered up back to God in praise, and that we are dependent on Him for everything, down to keeping us safe while we sleep. Night Prayer, in its fullness of always expressing contrition, praise, petition, and thanksgiving makes the old classic “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” look like a prayer poser.

Liturgy of the Hours, Catholic Book Publishing Co, 1975 O5H5662

In addition to being a great hour for a course on “Divine Office 101,” the Office of Night Prayer holds a special place in my heart. A few years ago, in the midst of my attempts to develop a habit of praying regularly, there was one point where I made a commitment to praying the office of Compline (Night Prayer) before bed, even if I never looked at any of the other hours or didn’t spend any other time dedicated in prayer the rest of my day. This was during a particularly difficult period in my life, but when I woke up in the middle of the night (which seemed to happen with great frequency), I found an extra blessing in having committed to the office of Compline.

See, in Night Prayer, there isn’t a four-week rotation like there is with the rest of the psalter. Mondays, you can count on Psalm 86- “Turn Your ear, O Lord, and give answer, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am faithful, save the servant who trusts in you.” On Tuesdays, Psalm 143 “a prayer in distress” accompanies us. On Wednesdays, it’s Psalm 31, “the trustful prayer in adversity.” (Solemnities and special feast days sometimes mess this up and take one of the Sunday psalms, but you get the picture. Night Prayer nearly always has one psalm, and it becomes a dependable and near-indelible mark on the way we pray and our instincts in prayer.) Somewhere along the way of praying Night Prayer each night, though I’m not sure how long it took, the psalms won out over the nightmares. Etched in my mind and near-automatic, they beat back the fears and anxieties that clamored for a place in the thoughts of my restless nights.

So I would lay in my bed, with my face turned to the wall, hoping to be able to go back to sleep, praying the rhythm of whichever part of Night Prayer came into my head whenever I awoke suddenly. It might have been the psalm from that night, or one of the other nightly psalms. “Turn your ear, O Lord, and give answer, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am faithful. Save the servant who trusts in you.” Or it might have been the antiphon that is the exact same every night and that is one of my favorite prayers in the whole world: “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.”  There is no such thing as having too many Psalms or too much Night Prayer in our lives.

rosarySome people keep a rosary with them during times like this, and many nights I did. But more often, I turned over the various psalms of Night Prayer, or the Salve, or the antiphon over and over and over in my mind like the beads of a rosary.

Although it would be wonderful for me to finally figure out this whole discipline-in-prayer business, I’m (somewhat) content for now to depend on Night Prayer and to hope that the rest of it comes along more dependably later. Because at the end of each day, the entire office of Night Prayer reminds us that no matter what comes in this life, we are called to lives of love and forgiveness and a continual striving Homeward by the Savior who poured it all out, who in loneliness and sorrow and pain in one of the last prayers of His life cried out, “Into Your hands, Lord, I commend my Spirit.” This offering—this sentiment, this reality—is what we echo each night as we pray Night Prayer, whether our hearts are happy or troubled. Especially, I would say, when our hearts are troubled.

For any answer or comfort that we seek in times of hardship, knowing that we are never alone because we can echo the lonely sentiments of a Savior who emptied Himself, to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8) may be the greatest consolation of all.


So we pray together each night, with millions and millions of Christians across the continents,  for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters all over this broken and weary world:

“Protect us Lord, as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in His peace.”

**NOTE! If you’ve never prayed night prayer or any part of the Liturgy of the Hours before, I highly recommend the (FREE! WONDERFUL! MOST USED ON MY PHONE!) app iBreviary. The hard-copy versions, though absolutely wonderful, get expensive and are not so portable.

Waiting with the Psalms: Week 4

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Over the past three weeks of Advent, we have looked to the Psalms to teach us how to wait for the Lord. Psalm 25 presented the image of a person who waits as a person of hope; Psalm 130 demonstrated various degrees of intensity often involved in waiting; Psalm 27 showed the connection between waiting, longing, and seeking. Advent Wreath week 4Now, during these final days of Advent, we turn to a Psalm that poignantly captures the tension of living in the “already, but not yet” of the Kingdom of God.

Psalm 40
This Psalm provides a beautiful complement to Psalm 27. The final verse of Psalm 27 exhorted the faithful to “Wait for the LORD with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD!” (Ps 27:14), and with the very first verse of Psalm 40, we see that this waiting has not been in vain. The psalmist proclaims, “I waited, I waited for the LORD, and he stooped down to me; he heard my cry” (Grail ’63, Revised Grail 2010). The Lord hears the cries of his faithful one, and, unlike a king or ruler who might send an emissary to deal with the mundane problems of commoners, the Lord Himself comes to answer that cry. So great is the Lord, and so insignificant are we in comparison; yet, like a loving parent consoling a weeping child, the Lord “stoops down” to us, comforting and consoling us, taking away our fears and shattering our darkness with His own uncreated Light. This “stooping down” is so simple, so unexpected, so astonishingly humble, that it becomes the “new song” the Lord puts into the mouth of the psalmist: “He put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God. Many shall see and fear and shall trust in the LORD our God” (Ps 40:3). Indeed, once the psalmist has witnessed the intimate, particular love that God has for each person, and the desire that God has to be in relationship with each person, how could he possibly sing of anything else? How could we? What could be more marvelous, more paradigm-shifting, than a Creator who desires a communion of love with His creatures?

Picture 191I often imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary praying this Psalm. As a daughter of Israel, she, too, looked for the arrival of the Messiah, and when the “fullness of time” had come (cf. Gal 4:4), her prayerful waiting for the Lord to “stoop down” was what enabled her to make the subsequent words of the psalmist her own when God’s will was revealed to her. The psalmist sings, “You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings, but an open ear. You do not ask for holocaust and victim. Instead, here am I. In the scroll of the book it stands written that I should do your will. My God, I delight in your law in the depth of my heart” (Ps 40:7-9). These prophetic words of the Psalm anticipate the reply given by a humble Virgin: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). They also anticipate the life of her Son, the Incarnate Logos, the Son of God, who offered Himself as the victim and gave His very life as a sacrifice for the redemption of sinners. In fact, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, writing of the sacrifice of Christ offered once for all, places those very verses of Psalm 40 on the lips of Christ Himself, thus identifying Him as the one who fulfilled God’s will most perfectly in His Passion and Death (cf. Heb 10:1-7).

What, then, does this mean for us as we enter these last days of Advent? It means that our waiting, our hoping, our longing, our seeking, will never be disappointed, so long as we keep “an open ear” to listen for God’s coming and we stand ready to do His will as Mary did, as Jesus did. God will always hear our cry, and in His own time and in His own way, He will “stoop down” to us as His own beloved children. The divine response may not occur at the time and in the manner we would choose; after all, who could have imagined that God would redeem the world by becoming a poor infant? Still, even in the midst of our waiting, God continues to “stoop down” to us, most especially in the gift of the Eucharist. How incredible this gift, and how humble our God, whose love is so immense that He remains with us even now, hidden under the forms of simple bread and wine! This is the “already” of the Kingdom; this is the pledge of the promise that will be fulfilled at the end of all things, when the “not yet” will at last come to fruition as the Lord returns in glory to gather all things to Himself. And at the end of all things, at the end of our waiting, we will discover the miraculous truth—that God has been waiting for us all along.

Waiting with the Psalms: Week 3

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Over the past two weeks, the texts of Psalm 25 and Psalm 130 have helped nuance our understanding of what it means to wait during Advent. Psalm 25 demonstrated that to wait for God is to hope in God, and Psalm 130 carried this idea farther by introducing the idea of longing for God. This week’s Psalm will enable us to go one step yet farther. We have explored what it means to to wait, to hope, to long. Advent wreath week 3Now, we will explore what it means to seek.

Psalm 27
There is only one mention of the verb “wait” in Psalm 27, and it occurs in the very last verse: “Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD!” (Ps 27: 14, NAB, NABRE) This beautiful exhortation is a watchword not just for the season of Advent, but for the entirety of one’s life. Our entire existence is characterized by a waiting for the Lord, who will come to fulfill all of His promises, and take us to Himself at the end of our earthly existence (cf. Jn 14:1-6). But, as we have seen with Psalms 25 and 130, this is a different kind of waiting than simply, idly, whiling away the seconds and minutes and hours. This is a waiting that hopes, that longs, that seeks. The earlier verses of Psalm 27 remind us what we long for and Whom we seek, helping us to wait for the Lord with hearts courageous, stout, and strong.

First, we must know what we long for, so that we may know how to find it. The psalmist sings, “There is one thing I ask of the LORD, for this I long, to live in the house of the LORD, all the days of my life, to savor the sweetness of the LORD, to behold his temple” (Ps 27:4, Grail ‘63 and ‘93). As we have seen in our other reflections, different translations of the Psalms can yield a richer understanding, and the various versions of verse 4 bear this out:

“One thing I ask of the LORD, this I seek: to dwell in the LORD’s house all the days of my life, to gaze on the LORD’s beauty, to visit his temple.” (NAB, NABRE)

“There is one thing I ask of the LORD, only this do I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD, to inquire at his temple.” (Revised Grail, 2010)

“One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” (NRSV).

All of these translations simply reiterate what we have seen in Psalms 25 and 130: there is an intimate connection between longing and seeking. But more important than the understanding we gain by looking at the differences between translations is the reinforcement we gain by noticing what they hold in common. There is one thing the psalmist asks of the Lord—to dwell in in the house of the Lord forever. To participate in the beatific vision. To gaze on the face of the Lord and behold His glory. Jesus-Hagia SophiaThis is the telos, the end of one’s entire life: to be with God forever. This is the one thing for which our hearts should long. “There is one thing I ask of the Lord.”

This verse anticipates the words of Jesus to Martha, distracted by the obligations and attachments of the world: “There is need of only one thing” (Lk 10:42). He reminds Martha—and us—that there is only one thing we need ever ask of the Lord, and he also promises that our desires will be fulfilled: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:7b). Those who long for the Lord, who seek him with a sincere heart, those who keep their hearts fixed on the one thing, will not be disappointed. And not only will those who seek the Lord be brought to the glory of His temple at the end of their lives, but they can also experience a foretaste of this communion even now. “‘Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him’” (Jn 14:23). As St. Paul reminds us, our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:19), and the interior grace of the Holy Spirit enables us to create within our hearts a place wherein the Father and Son may dwell, until the day when we may dwell with them in the fullness of glory.

To long for the Lord’s temple is the first step toward seeking the Lord. Once we know what it is we long for, we know how to find it, and in order to reach the house of the Lord, we must seek the One who is Himself the Way. As the psalmist sings later, “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek his face.’ It is your face, O Lord, that I seek” (Ps 27:8). This is the prayer of the lover in the Song of Songs, who, longing for “him whom my soul loves,” sought the beloved throughout the night, throughout the city (Sgs 3:1ff). This is the prayer of John the Baptist, who sent disciples to ask Jesus, “‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” (Mt 11:3). Shepherds and the Angel-PolasekThis is the prayer that impelled shepherds and wise men on their journey to the stable in Bethlehem, and that would later urge Mary Magdalene to a tomb on Easter Sunday morning. This is to be our prayer. “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek his face.’”

This exceptionally beautiful verse is particularly apt during Advent, when we prepare to celebrate the mystery of the God who assumed our human flesh, who took on a human face in Jesus. The psalmist did not yet know the One whom he sought; the psalmist sang of the Messiah to come. As Christians, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that Messiah, and we continue to seek His face in the world as members of His Mystical Body, the Church. It is as members of Christ’s Church that we take heed of the psalmist’s exhortation, “Wait for the LORD, take courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD” (Ps 27:14). We continue to wait for His return in glory, when He will fulfill all promises to those who have spent their life’s pilgrimage seeking His face in the hope of “[gazing] on the beauty of the Lord, [and visiting] his temple.” We wait, we hope, we long, and we seek, so that we may dwell with Him forever.

Waiting with the Psalms: Week 2

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Last week’s reflection on Psalm 25 explored the linguistic connection between the words “wait” and “hope,” and the implications such a connection might have for one’s observance of Advent. This week, I hope to build on that foundation by turning to what some might consider an unusual Psalm for the Advent season: Psalm 130. Just as Psalm 25 is considered a seasonal Psalm in the context of the Mass (one can substitute it for the proper Responsorial Psalm throughout Advent), so too is Psalm 130 a seasonal text. However, Psalm 130, with its emphasis on sinfulness, penitence, and the need for mercy, is a seasonal Psalm for Lent, not Advent. So why focus on it here? To begin with, Advent is also a season of penitence, though our focus tends more toward preparation for the birth of Jesus. Advent Wreath week 2Additionally, and more relevant for this week’s contemplation, Psalm 130 presents us with a speaker who is waiting for the Lord to act. And we who are waiting to celebrate the birth of the Messiah can continue to learn from the psalmist how to wait more prayerfully, more fruitfully. Once again, I will be exploring different translations of this text in an effort to understand it more fully in light of the Advent season.

The text of Psalm 25 presented us with the image of a person who waits in hope. The text of Psalm 130 presents us with a beautiful image of the necessity of our hope-filled waiting. The human race is mired in the wasteland of sin: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” (Ps 130:1). In these first lines, the psalmist recognizes that it is we who have turned away from God through sin, and that God is the only One who can fully restore the breach. But the events of salvation unfold according to the divine plan, not according to a human construct; thus, in the divine wisdom, our waiting for the Lord to act forms a necessary part of salvation history. Waiting becomes part of the human journey toward redemption. It is only in waiting for the Lord that we can truly realize our need for His redeeming presence, and as we enter into the act of waiting, with each passing moment, the flame of anticipation glows ever more brightly, burning away the imperfections and distractions that keep us from desiring the Lord with a pure heart. Thus, the longer we wait, the better we become at waiting, and the more ready we become to welcome the object of our waiting into our hearts.

The psalmist, and we along with him, follows a trajectory in which his desires for the Lord are purified and intensified by the very act of waiting. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Ps 130:5, NRSV). In this verse we have yet another example of the connection between waiting and hoping found throughout Psalm 25, yet here the psalmist continues: “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps 130:6, NRSV). Different translations beautifully enrich this image of waiting for the Lord and watching for the dawn. Verses 5-6 have also been rendered: “I wait with longing for the Lord, my soul waits for his word. DaybreakMy soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak” (NAB). This translation presents an interesting complement to the one cited previously, and the two versions together invite us especially to ponder the difference between “looking for” and “watching for.” “Watching for” something conjures images of gazing attentively toward a fixed point, as in watching for the face of a loved one to emerge from an airport terminal. “Looking for” something conjures images of seeking out a lost precious object, as in looking for a misplaced ring or a set of keys. In life, we wait for, watch for, and look for things with varying degrees of intensity, but the psalmist reminds us here that nothing, not even the arrival of daylight, should distract us from anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, the true light of the world: “More than sentinels for daybreak, let Israel look for the Lord” (Ps 130:6b-7a).

It is perhaps The Grail translations that best capture this idea of waiting on a trajectory. The earliest version of The Grail reads: “My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than watchman for daybreak” (Ps 130:5-6a, Grail 1963). A later revision translates the verses: “My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. My soul is longing for the Lord more than those who watch for daybreak” (Ps 130:5-6a, Grail 1993). In both of these versions, one readily sees the intensification of the psalmist’s desire for the Lord and for his mercy as we move from “waiting for the Lord” to “counting on his word” to “longing for the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak.” The most recent iteration reads: “I long for you, O Lord, my soul longs for his word. My soul hopes in the Lord more than watchmen for daybreak” (Ps 130:5-6a, Revised Grail 2010). Unlike the previous two versions, this translation already places the speaker in a position of heightened desire for the Lord through the exclusive use of the verb “to long” in verse 5.

Throughout Psalm 130, the intensification of the language as compared to that found in Psalm 25 speaks to the focus on humanity’s estrangement from God and the need for redemption. We are not standing at a diverging path waiting for God to guide us as the imagery of Psalm 25 might suggest; we are calling from the depths—we are crying out in the desperate realization that our only hope for survival is to be found in the compassionate mercy of a forgiving God. In the face of our need for redemption, and in the realization that redemption comes from God alone, our desires are purified. Watching for sunriseThe idea of waiting in hope found in the text of Psalm 25 reaches a new level of profundity in Psalm 130 through language of longing, of looking for. We await the Redeemer. We hope for the One who will lift us from the depths of our misery and bring us to the heights of new life. We long for Him who will bring the light of day and shatter the darkness of sin and death, and we look for His coming as eagerly as the watchman looks for the first rays of dawn in the eastern skies.

Waiting with the Psalms: Week 1

Carolyn Pirtle Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Every year at this time, I marvel anew at how bad we as human beings are at waiting, and every time I begin a sentence with the words “I can’t wait…”, I realize that I am just as bad at waiting as most other people. ­I can’t wait for this weekend. I can’t wait for finals to be over. I can’t wait for Christmas vacation to start. I. Can’t. Wait. This year in particular, mainstream media and consumerist culture insisted vehemently that we shouldn’t even have to wait one day to begin the shopping frenzy unfortunately associated with the holiday season.  How many people were astonished at the Black Friday sales that began on Thanksgiving Day? We couldn’t be bothered to wait to stand in lines and bust doors down; we simply changed the rules and started the sales earlier than ever before. Personally, I can’t wait for that unpleasant facet of this season to subside. There I go again….

Advent Wreath week 1In the midst of this noise, in the center of the frenetic crowds pushing and shoving and straining to get to the next can’t-miss sales event, there stands the Advent wreath: a still, silent witness bearing one lit candle, as the other three simply wait for their turn to shine as well. These unlit candles speak as eloquently as the one whose flame burns brightly, saying to us, “It’s not time yet, and no matter how much you rush around, you can’t rush the passage of time, so enter into its slowness, stand still and sentinel with us. Keep watch. Be ready. Wait.”

It seems that the difficulty we face with waiting is part of what makes us most human. Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: they wanted to be like God, and thus they refused to wait for the gift of communion to be offered to them from the hand of their Creator. Instead, they grasped, demanding that the gift be given on their terms. In the end, our own refusal to wait is inextricably joined for our desire to be the gods of our own lives. We want what we want and we want it now.

The Psalms provide an antidote to this problematic quality in their rich and authentic expression of humanity. They speak to us of the heights and depths of our experience, telling us what it means to wait. Thus, for each week of Advent, I will be exploring this idea of waiting as it is played out in several of the Psalms. As the number of lighted candles on the Advent wreath increases, my hope is that these Psalms will also shed a little more light on how to wait for the Lord, and that they might help to create an interior space wherein the Word incarnate can find a place to dwell at Christmas.
Caveat: I am not a Scripture scholar. I’m simply a layperson seeking to be formed by the Word of God; therefore, these reflections are merely that—reflections on the Psalms in the light of the Advent season. One final note: in any reflection on Scripture, much depends on the translation being used. In considering the Psalms for these reflections, I consulted many translations—the New American Bible (NAB), the New American Bible Revised Version (NABRE), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Oxford Annotated Bible (OAB), the Grail Psalter (1963 and 1993), and the Revised Grail Psalter (2010). Determining a correct or definitive translation lies well beyond my gifts (see above caveat); therefore, I simply contemplated each version in light of the others as a way of enriching my understanding of the text as a whole.

Psalm 25
The first significant mention of waiting occurs in Psalm 25, one of the seasonal Psalms for Advent in the Lectionary for Mass. The very first verse is rendered differently based on the translation: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Ps 25:1),[1] or: “I wait for you, O Lord; I lift up my soul” (Ps 25:1)[2]. In both cases, the soul is lifted up as an offering. The psalmist waits for that offering—his very self—to be accepted; for God to reward the trust that is being displayed in the act of offering the self to the Lord. The text continues as a prayer for guidance and protection: Blessed Virgin Mary“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all [the] day long” (Ps 25: 4-5).[3] These lines, too, vary according translation, and here noting the difference is fruitful, for in each of the Grail translations, the phrase “for you I wait” is rendered as “in you I hope”. This same difference in translation occurs in the final verses of the Psalm: “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; I wait for [hope in] you, O Lord. Redeem Israel, O God, from all its distress!” (Ps 25:21-22).[4]

If we allow these different translations to illumine our understanding of the Psalm as a whole, it becomes apparent that the act of waiting for the Lord is a manifestation of the hope that one places in the Lord, of the confidence that the Lord will act on one’s behalf. In other words, to be a person who waits is to be a person of hope, and to be a person of hope is to be a person who waits. However, seen Anna the Prophetess-Rembrant van Rijnin this light, waiting is no longer understood as a passive act; it is the act of a person keeping watch, with gaze fixed on a horizon, on a promise to be fulfilled. Waiting in hope becomes an expectation, as when the people of the Hebrew Scriptures expressed their longings for the Messiah. Waiting in hope becomes a preparation, as when a young Virgin and her kinswoman made heart and home ready for the arrival of their sons. Waiting in hope becomes an anticipation, as when elderly prophets spent day after day in the Temple, and Magi looked to the Eastern skies. Waiting in hope becomes our own joyful journey toward the fulfillment of all things, when “all is at last made manifest, [when] we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope” (Preface I of Advent).

“Make known to me your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.”

[1] NABRE, NRSV, OAB, Grail 1963, 1993, 2010

[2] NAB


[4] Though the wording varies slightly, NAB, NABRE, NRSV, OAB all translate the verb as “wait”. Each Grail translation once again translates the verb as “hope”.

Songs for a New Papacy (part 2)

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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As a composer, I’m more than familiar with the dull dread of facing down a blank page of staff paper. Few things are more daunting than deciding where to start with a new piece of music. Fortunately, when I turn to writing sacred music, I have the ultimate text source to provide inspiration and direction: Scripture. For millennia, composers have been setting the texts of the Bible to music, adorning the Word of God in melody, rhythm, and harmony. Composing this kind of music requires more than mere familiarity with the words of Scripture; it necessitates an intimacy that can only be borne of study, contemplation, and of course, prayer. The gift is two-fold: sacred music based on Scripture not only provides an opportunity for a composer to engage in intense personal prayer, but it also provides listeners with an aural experience of lectio divina as they are drawn more deeply in to the sung Word by its resonant beauty.

The Psalms in Sacred Music
Psalm 21Although many composers have turned to a wide array of Scripture passages in choosing texts to set to music, it is the Psalms that provide quite possibly the richest source of texts from the canon of Scripture. This is the hymnbook of the Church; this is the song of the People of God; this is the entire scope of the human experience contained in 150 poetic expressions of praise, lamentation, and thanksgiving. The Psalms constitute the heart and soul of the Liturgy of the Hours, and have a prominent place in the celebration of the Mass as well. As a devout Jew, Jesus Himself would have been well familiar with the Psalms and no doubt turned to them often in His personal prayer, as epitomized in His cry from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:2a) Through the Psalms, we raise our voices with Jesus in every circumstance. Whether it be a shout of exultation, a plea for mercy, or a wail of distress, the Psalms give voice to our prayer, uniting us with the millions throughout the world who lift these texts to God each day in sorrow and in joy.

Several Psalm settings were chosen for the papal playlist from a variety of compositional eras and styles. English Renaissance composer William Byrd’s setting of Sing Joyfully (Ps 81:1-4) provides an incredible example of a compositional technique called text painting or word painting. In this style of writing, the music becomes an aural reflection of the text. Early in the piece, the words “take the song” are begun in the tenor line alone, then they are subsequently “taken up” by the other parts of the ensemble. This imitative writing embodies the text: one part serves as the leader, exhorting the others to follow in “[taking] the song,” and a joyful interplay results as each part follows the leader in its turn. Another marvelous instance of text painting occurs at the words “Blow the trumpet in the new moon.” BRITAIN-ROYALS-MARRIAGE-CAVALRYThe voices have previously been singing in an imitative style similar to that heard at “take the song,” when all of a sudden, they converge and sing together strongly with chords and melody that sound like a trumpet fanfare announcing the arrival of royalty. Byrd’s music provides not only a beautiful complement to the text of Psalm 81, but it also serves as an exegetical tool, providing a musical commentary on the meaning of the text itself. Moreover, this music is a powerful aid to scriptural reflection: when these melodies and harmonies become embedded in the memory, they become a means of ruminating upon the texts to which they are inextricably joined, enabling listeners to continue their contemplation of Scripture, even after the final note has ended.

A setting of Psalm 46 from composer Steven C. Warner provides a significant contrast in compositional style from that of William Byrd. Warner’s Be Still and Know that I am God, is written in a musical style developed by the Taizé community, particularly Jacques Berthier.* In this kind of music, a simple melody is utilized for the refrain, providing the musical foundation upon which the rest of the piece is built.King David icon The refrain serves as an ostinato, a musical term which comes from the Latin word “obstinatus,” which means firm or resolved. An ostinato is a musical figure that is repeated throughout the duration of a piece. Perhaps the most famous ostinato is the relentless bass line from Pachelbel’s Canon in D. In music of the Taizé style, the entire refrain is usually written as an ostinato, and verses using a complementary melody are sung over the refrain. The result is that the text of the refrain often becomes a kind of centering mantra for the music around which the verses revolve. The simplicity of this music lends itself well to immediate reception and retention on the part of the listener, even on the first hearing. Moreover, each repetition of the refrain invites singer and listener alike to enter into the meaning of the text even more deeply, resulting in a prayer that plumbs further and further into the depths of the heart.

These two musical examples are very different treatments of texts from the same scriptural source, and in their differences, they demonstrate the multitudinous variety of expression found throughout the Psalms. Regardless of the circumstances in one’s life or the particular brand of personal piety one espouses, the Psalms provide a rich treasury of sung prayer that will continue to form the hearts of the faithful just as they formed the Heart of the One in whom we believe.

*To listen to this piece and others, check out the papal conclave playlist on Spotify.

Benedict XVI and an Incarnational Theology of Liturgical Music

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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 Long before he assumed the Petrine office, Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the important role occupied by music in the life of the Church. His love of music began with a childhood he himself described as “Mozartian.” Young Joseph RatzingerJoseph Ratzinger grew up in a musical family; his father sang tenor and played the zither, and his mother frequently sang Marian hymns, often while washing dishes. Joseph himself studied piano beginning around the age of ten and counted Beethoven, Bach, and especially Mozart among his favorite composers, and although he later left the formal study of music to his older brother Georg, Joseph never lost his enthusiasm for the beauty of music, nor his reverence for its power to open a person up to an encounter with the divine. His writings speak eloquently of the connection between music and theology and the implications of this connection for the liturgical life of the Church.

For many in parish music ministry today, the “style” question is a hot-button issue: Chant manuscriptGregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, hymnody, and praise and worship are not simply classifications based on empirical criteria of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, or timbre. They have come to imply loyalty to a particular camp, an ethos of liturgical music that often extends into defining an ethos of the liturgy itself and even the Church in general. Those who favor chant or “traditional” hymnody are often viewed as conservative elitists striving to grasp onto an antiquated vision of the Church. Those who gravitate toward “contemporary” hymns or praise and worship music are conversely labeled free-spirited, progressive liberals struggling to cast off the oppressiveness of a previous era in order to usher the Church into the modern culture. Open HymnalIn order to resolve these conflicts, a dialogue must take place that delves more deeply than the question of mere musical style and examines the issue at its root. Ratzinger provides a starting point to this dialogue by stating that “church music is faith that has become a form of culture” (A New Song to the Lord, 94). By adopting this mindset, it becomes clear that a discussion of music and its place in the Church must first begin with a discussion of culture and its relationship to the Church, and it is this relationship which is in need of healing.

“When people rightly call for a new dialogue between Church and culture today, they must not forget in the process that this dialogue must necessarily be bilateral. It cannot consist in the Church finally subjecting herself to modern culture… Just as the Church must expose herself to the problems of our age in a radically new way, so too must culture be questioned anew about its groundlessness and its ground, and in the process be opened to a painful cure, that is, to a new reconciliation with religion since it can get its lifeblood only from there. For this reason church music is really a very vital piece of a comprehensive task for our age which requires more than mere dialogue;
it requires a process of rediscovering ourselves.”
Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song to the Lord (1995), 95-6

For Ratzinger, this process of “rediscovering ourselves” necessitates a setting aside of the current debate surrounding liturgical music and the discussions it has generated (scholarly and otherwise). Doing so will facilitate a return to “the original source” in exploring connection between faith and music as well as the role of music in worship: the Bible. In turning to the Psalms in particular, Ratzinger establishes a theology of liturgical music in one verse: “Sing hymns of praise” (Ps 47:8, NRSV). True to his roots as a theologian who takes the biblical narrative seriously, Ratzinger engages this text in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in order to arrive at a richer translation. King David - ChagallSuffice it to say that singing hymns of praise well entails more than making pleasant-sounding music.

For the psalmist, offering sung praise to God implied singing with an understanding that surpasses mere rationality and transcends into the realm of sapientia, or wisdom, which “denotes an integration of the entire person who not only understands and is understandable from the perspective of pure thought, but with all the dimensions of his or her existence” (98). Ratzinger goes on to say that “there is an affinity between wisdom and music, since in it such an integration of humanness occurs and the entire person becomes a being in accordance with logos [with ‘reason’]” (98). It is in singing that the senses and the spirit are integrated into one being, and in singing to God that the being is incorporated into logos.

Christianity takes this understanding one step farther by understanding the Psalms not merely as hymns written by King David, but as hymns that “had risen from the heart of the real David, Christ” (97). Thus, singing “hymns of praise” not only harmonizes the senses with the spirit, but when Christians understand those hymns as having their source in Christ, they are also drawn out of themselves into harmony with the Logos, the Word-made-flesh, as they offer sung praise in and through Christ Himself. Christ at PrayerWith this mindset, “Christ Himself becomes the choir director who teaches us the new song and gives the Church the tone and way in which she can praise God appropriately and blend into the heavenly liturgy” (97). In order to offer fitting praise, one must conform one’s song to that of Christ, “who did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped; rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:6-7).

For those who seek to sing God’s praises, the self must be set aside in order to create a space for the Other. This becomes very difficult in a culture which sets such a high value on creativity, individuality, and originality, particularly when it comes to music. Whenever liturgical music becomes an extension of the self (whether as an expression of taste or a demonstration of virtuosic talent), it has ceased to serve its higher purpose. In “rediscovering ourselves” and the relationship between faith, culture, and music, we must seek above all to rediscover Christ, who offered His life in self-emptying love as a song of praise to the Father. In seeking to imitate this act of self-gift, musicians and parishioners alike create an interior space for the One who invites them to join in His perfect song of praise.

“At the beginning of great sacred music there is a necessity of awe, receptivity, and a humility that is prepared to serve by participating in the greatness which has already gone forth. Only one who lives through and through from the inner structure of this image in the human being can create the music that belongs to this image.” (125)

Only when one sets aside personal tastes and desires for self-expression or recognition does one gain the authentic freedom necessary to “uncover the song that lies at the base of all things” (122). By conforming one’s song to that of Christ, liturgical music becomes incarnational:
“Faith becoming music is a part of the process of the Word becoming flesh.” (122)