Chanting the Psalms, regardless of your own spiritual tradition, can offer deep healing for the subtle body. Learn more about the history of this practice and how to incorporate the Psalms into your life.
The Old Testament places the problem of human emotion right in the middle of its pages. The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 songs of praise and lament, curse and blessing, that are traditionally attributed to King David. According to Julie and Timothy Tennent in A Meditative Journey Through the Psalms, the Psalms were first penned sometime before the end of the Jewish exile, so it’s no surprise that experiences of persecution, oppression, and God’s supposed absence are unapologetically proclaimed.
How did these ancient songs of raw human emotion become so central in Christian worship, and what role can they play in our own contemplative lives? Rather than mere complaints or fleeting expressions of joy, these divine songs express the breadth of human experience, with the distinction that they are directed at the Divine, even the curses. Thus, the Psalms provide an opportunity for a daily practice of purification.
Let’s look at how Christian saints and mystics have used these divine songs to reorder their internal lives in the past.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers
In the fourth century, the Edict of Milan normalized relations between the early Church and the Roman Empire. Seeking new ways to live out the movement that Jesus founded when the daily prospect of martyrdom ceased to exist (a badge of honor for early Christians), many fled to the deserts of Egypt and Syria for rigorous spiritual practice—the “martyrdom of conscience,” in the words of St. Athanasius from Father Thomas Keating’s translation.
These hermits were the first founders of the Christian monastic movement. Stories abound of their battling devils and performing feats of spiritual asceticism that included extreme fasting, and in the case of one overachieving anchorite named St. Simeon Stylites, standing on a pole for days on end.
We also see saints like St. Anthony of Egypt, who retreated to the desert to confront his own internal demons and enact a spiritual transformation according to the teachings of Jesus.
But common to all the so-called desert fathers and mothers was a daily recitation of the Psalms—all 150 of them. The Psalms were thought to be imbued with magical powers of protection and exorcism, but more importantly, of inner purification. After all, these were the same Psalms that Jesus prayed and that he quoted so often in the Gospels.
The Psalms were thought to be imbued with magical powers of protection and exorcism, but more importantly, of inner purification.
Medieval Monastics and Reformers
In the medieval period, monasticism became more formalized when St. Benedict penned the first monastic “rule,” or code of conduct and practice for his community. In his Rule, Benedict admonishes, “We read that our holy Fathers strenuously performed this task in a single day. May we, lukewarm that we are, perform it at least in a whole week!” (as quoted in Richard Smoley’s Inner Christianity).
In the new formalized monastic structure, the psalter would be prayed in seven “offices'' throughout the day according to the exhortation of Psalm 119: “Seven times a day I praise your name for your righteous ordinances” (NRSV). While praying this Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, one recites the psalter, along with other readings from scripture and perhaps meditations on the lives of saints and holy people, throughout the course of a week.
During the Protestant Reformation, this process was streamlined. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer included only the two hours of morning and evening prayer with a 30-day psalter between them. Thus, the whole Bible would be read in a year and the entire psalter every month. The Episcopal Church to which I belong has since re-added the offices of noonday and compline offices.
The Psalms as a Form of Contemplation
Many contemporary contemplatives have seized upon this ancient tradition as a vital spiritual practice that has parallels in other great wisdom traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is sometimes called the mantrayana, or the “mantra vehicle” to Enlightenment for its emphasis on mantra practice.
Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault has perhaps done the most to revive the tradition of chanting the Psalms. In The Wisdom Jesus, Bourgeault maintains that the spiritual effect of chanting resides in three primary elements: breath, vibration, and intentionality. She holds that these “resonate” (no pun intended) with the cosmogonies of many traditions: “Many of the great world religions picture the earth as being created and sustained by the steady, rhythmic ‘breathing’ of God,” she writes. “Virtually every tradition starts you off on a spiritual practice by bringing attention to your breath and teaching you how to breathe fully and consciously.”
How to Begin Working With the Psalms
With several prayer books and lectionaries from the many Christian churches that now exist, it is easy to begin this ancient practice anew. It can be as simple as picking a psalm and intoning. The tune doesn’t matter—it could be sing-songy like a church service or more monotonous like the chants of Dharmic traditions. Some practitioners recommend chanting in Hebrew or Latin for a mantric effect, but I feel it is important that the Psalms are intelligible to us. Part of the point is that we are inviting the Divine to reorder and integrate our emotional lives in all their difficulty. It is hard to pour ourselves into prayers we don’t understand.
For my own personal practice, I follow the 30-day psalter of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer. I meditate with Centering Prayer twice a day, which fits naturally with the BCP’s division into morning and evening prayer. I recite the Psalms after opening my heart and mind through Centering Prayer and allow the Spirit to do some deep cleaning on my subtle body.
Find a rhythm that works for you. You can simply open a Bible or a prayer book and begin from Psalm 1 and see how it feels. The outcome, though deeply personal, should be a strengthened personal connection with the Divine and a sense of healing or cleansing.
Desert father John Cassian, who developed the first form of the Prayer of the Heart practiced in the Christian East with his chant of “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me” from Psalm 70, found that the Psalms contained within them “all the feelings of which human nature is capable” (from Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Jesus). Opening our emotional lives in all their messiness through the power of chanting these divine songs—through breath, vibration, and intention—makes for a powerful daily devotion that is accessible to seekers of all stripes.
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