Intro: Owned By Psalms
Br. Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., entered the Trappists in 1958 at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton was his novice master. Brother Paul is an accomplished photographer, author, and poet. His publications include the memoir In Praise of the Useless Life and the award-winning poetry collection Unquiet Vigil.
When I entered the monastery in 1958 the liturgy was in Latin. In high school I had two years of Latin, going through Caesar's histories. As a result, I could decipher some of the Latin, but often it amounted to a string of syllables. Nevertheless, the intention of praying, even without understanding, was enough to sustain me. The rounded syllables sounded pleasant enough and left me to pursue my own thoughts and conjectures. The mere act of recitation in a communal effort has its own worth. Not that I advocate a return to Latin, but neither do I dismiss it entirely, especially in regard to Latin set to Gregorian chant…
After Vatican II, we began singing in English. A new frontier opened up. Images and ideas took the foreground of my mind in choir. Eventually, however, as familiarity with English settled in, recitation became habitual and the old trials of patience returned. Sometimes I follow the meaning, sometimes my mind sinks to a random stream of consciousness, and sometimes I go blank. Verses during psalmody easily pass as an undercurrent casually observed from the lofty bridge of indifference. A phrase in the psalm tosses up, then sinks like a wave. A single word bobs to the surface and disappears, or an entire psalm might slip by ignored. Then something dawns, a sudden epiphany, something clearly speaks to you, or you are speaking in a way truer to the words than usual. Or maybe an insight snaps into view, sparked by a book read that day, something that dovetails with a line in the Psalm.
After many years, the psalms have become so familiar that I take them for granted and sometimes fail to hear them. But with persistent attention there comes a new opening where the heart and mind stand behind the words and become my own. With that grows an inner expansion, a sense that these are not only my words; These are our words. I release and relax into a voice larger than my own, into what has its origin in another. Saint Augustine saw in the psalms the voice of Christ. Most of the time I sense this obscurely and implicitly, as a voice not specifically my own, more specifically of another individual, be it King David, or Asaph, or an anonymous psalmist. I hear the voice of humanity, of any poor loner or derelict, any kind of warrior, someone injured, even vindictive. All of these sentiments, for better or worse, are true of me as well, because they are part of a humanity in which I share. Christ comprehends all this, embraces sinners and saints alike, reaching far beyond my own narrow capacity. Psalmody draws me along, farther and wider, stretches me almost painfully at times, and deepens my empathy for the human race.
How good it is to be stretched beyond your own routine of thoughts and words, be carried into words you would never say of your own accord—either because they're too lofty or too crude! Such prayer is no longer personal or private. The boundary of my soul is dissolved; the person I usually am becomes broader; the center of expression is shifted for me to what is beyond, beneath, and around me. Sometimes it feels good to gain circumference, sometimes disagreeable, like being roughly bounced back and forth—like as kids in the back seat of my dad's black Chevy, long before there were seatbelts, driving fast through the West Virginia hills…
The curious thing is the contrast between the lovely ritual setting of our psalmody in choir and the rough, sometimes bloody content of the psalms—between how we habitually chant in tones smooth, even, and soothing and how we say things abrasive, anguished, torn. The building we stand in is beautiful; monks wear white cowls with long sleeves, in graceful cloaks, bow and rise together, while Vespers light splashes color through western windows onto the wall opposite. Our context creates an effect often contrary to what is actually being said, lamented, complained, bewailed, or cursed… This juxtaposition works indirectly, subtly, on the psyche, imagination, and mind. Some of the effect depends on your own predispositions and on how you assimilate it; you can become pliant or hardened. You can allow yourself to be punched, pulled, and turned like leavened dough by these shifting moods; perhaps you resist, ignore it, or go deaf. I can attest to all these effects. On the whole, however, I leave choir feeling enlarged and more open to life, to the world the way it actually is, to everything held in it for good or ill. What Fr. Louis [Thomas Merton] once said of scripture as a whole can be said especially of the psalms: they show us our humanity.
Excerpted from In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monks Memoire, pp.12-15.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.