An immensity of waters: chanting the whole psalter in a day

“As we move from late antiquity toward the Middle Ages, more complex Latin syntheses of these originally Eastern elements emerge. The simplest of these can be found in Irish monastic sources, which reached their most developed form in the traditions and texts of the Céli Dé or Culdees. While the Apophthegmata include stories of monks heroically reciting all 150 psalms, the Irish texts seem to make this the daily responsibility of every monk, to be completed in “three fifties” along with other texts, such as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12). One finds Irish liturgical offices in which the three fifties form part of an even larger course of daily psalmody, but more often the recita- tion seems more like an expiatory exercise for the individual monk, to be combined with other ascetic practices such as holding up the hands for long periods, numerous genuflections or prostrations, repeated blows with a scourge, fasting, exposure to harsh weather conditions, and so on. Similar practices are prescribed in some of the Irish penitentials.”31 

Jeffery, P. (2020). Psalmody and Prayer in Early Monasticism. In A. Beach & I. Cochelin (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Medieval Monasticism in the Latin West (pp. 112-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

“A reform movement influential from 750 – 900 required even a secular cleric to recite all the psalms every day”

van Heusen, Nancy. The Place of the Psalms in the Intellectual Culture of the Middle Ages (p60)

Keeping a journal has never been part of my life except on retreat and I now have quite a set of these notebooks recording most of the retreats I have made in my adult life. I usually bring all or some of my previous journals with me. In 1997 I was not far from where I am now in north Wales. Also in a borrowed cottage, on the Llyn Peninsula. RS Thomas and Jim Cotter country. On one day then I wrote in my journal: “150 psalms prayed, 3 hours 55 minutes”.

The psalms are extraordinary. There is never a day when I not only pray a substantial portion of psalmody but also spend a little time reading commentaries or devotional guides or expositions of the psalms. Most importantly the expositions on the psalms of Saint Augustine of Hippo.

The Celtic saints are renowned for their ascetic practices and the recitation of the psalter is often among those quoted. A Facebook request brought fascinating material on the idea of reciting the whole psalter daily. St Benedict refers to this (Chapter 18) in his Rule:

“We read, after all, that our holy Fathers, energetic as they were, did all this in a single day. Let us hope that we, lukewarm as we are, can achieve it in a whole week.”

Beginning a new ministry at Christ Church, Oxford I am drawn to St Frideswide, patron of Oxford whose shrine is in the Cathedral and where, soon I shall be praying daily. The loan of a stunning icon of her for me to bring with me on retreat (see above) has reinforced that sense of connection. She may well be a link to those Celtic saints not just in time but possibly in her own origins.

There is something extreme about the effort to pray the whole psalter in a day that appeals to me. The effort to do something heroic even if only in a minor way. So I had been planning on doing this for a while. I had, in fact decided to divide the psalms across 15 hours starting at 4:30am and reciting a group of psalms beginning at each half hour throughout the day. However, when I read about the Céli Dé and their practice of three-fifties I changed my mind.

The length of the entire psalter is interesting. It is best measured in words rather than verses or psalms. In the Hebrew there are just 30,147 words. In English the BCP/Coverdale psalter has 48, 417 words. Common Worship comes in at 45,375 and my favourite translation of the psalms, the Grail version, at 42,621. I would love to know how many are in the defunct ICEL translation of the late 1990s which deliberately tried a sparser vocabulary to be closer to the Hebrew. But I haven’t been able to find an electronic version (do let me know if you have one). It is a beautiful translation which I use occasionally, although it lacks the lovely rhythmic patterns of the Grail.

Singing is an essential part of prayer for me. So I decided to use the Conception psalm tones which are designed to be sung with stanzas of varying lengths. I had thought about use a setting of the Grail psalter to the traditional plainsong tones but I would need to play those over on my recorder to get them anywhere near right and that would have added time. They are also rather slower to sing than the Conception tones which really draw out the sprung rhythm that the translators deliberately sought.

Beginning the three fifties at 4:30am, 1:30pm and 6:30pm I was surprised that they are remarkably similar in length (14,126; 14,480; and 14,015 words respectively). They also took a remarkably similar length of time to sing, between one hour and fifty and one hour and fifty-five minutes. A lot longer than my younger self; perhaps I hurried then, I certainly must have recited not sung the psalms to have done it in such a time. This time I didn’t hurry but I went at a good pace and there were no pauses or silences. I prayed Mass and Compline but otherwise didn’t pray any other Offices or texts.

Praying the psalms daily I know them well and so I was not expecting the powerful effect that praying them all in one go would have on me. I am particularly taken with a scholarly approach to studying the psalms that takes the canonical form of the psalter seriously. At one time genre criticism concentrated on what category each psalm belongs in (lament, royal etc). More recently reception criticism particularly in the work of Sue Gillingham has looked at their use and reception in different communities and contexts. Canonical criticism takes the work of the final editors very seriously. Why did they place the psalms in this order and in these relationships to one another. Although I knew much of that intellectually, the praying of them all in one day makes those patterns very interesting indeed. Psalm 119 in the final of the fifties both referred back to where I had begun with its wisdom and torah; and feels like an assimilation of the surge of varied experiences, emotions depths and heights described in the preceding psalms. The royal psalms, if anything, diminish by their relationship to the wisdom tradition; it is royalty firmly in its place. The psalms of ascent are truly an ascent; like the last leg of climbing mountain after a long preceding climb. I was tired, my voice was tired. And then the view at the top of the mountain. The wonderful psalms of praise the climax, the big sky moment. These psalms are normally associated with the morning so praying them in the dark increased the disorientation.

Throughout the singing I was struck by Brueggeman’s description of the process of orientation – disorientation- reorientation. Singing the psalms in this unfamiliar way, in an unfamiliar place, at unfamiliar times. At times it felt like I was losing my footing.The experience to which I can most easily compare it is the one occasion when, as a teenager on some outward bounds type week, I went white water rafting (coincidentally also here in Wales on the Wye). It was probably pretty tame really but I remember that sense of being almost out of control; the river carrying me; not being able to stop. And the exhilaration.

Extreme acts of piety do appeal to me. But I am not insane. I am not suggesting that any of us could adopt this as a regular practice. But I would like to think that I might make this an annual practice. Often people say to me that they don’t really know what to do on retreat. Spending one day doing this would be a fascinating process. I hope as exhilarating and spiritually enervating as it has been for me.

It has made me wonder about moving to more frequent recitation of the psalms in my prayer. I have always suggested that a month / four weeks (as in the BCP and in the Roman Divine Office) is the longest appropriate period for praying the psalms. I am now wondering if I could develop a weekly cycle for the whole psalter at Vigils. Many of my friends use the weekly cycle of the Anglican Breviary for their prayers and find it deeply satisfying.

Today, I went to the beach. With mountains around me and the waves crashing in a psalm is the only possible response:

The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,

the Lord on the immensity of the waters;

the voice of the Lord, full of power,

the voice of the Lord, full of splendour.