Sunday, June 08, 2014

Getting Started In Psalmody

In response to a recent blog post on psalmody, someone wrote to me asking for advice on getting started (i.e. for a prayer rule). Now ideally, one should go to a flesh-and-blood spiritual father or mother and get this advice. You really need someone who knows you well and can guide you along the way. However, the reality is that many people do not have such a person in their lives—or at least they do not recognize the person who is there. In either case, the result is the same: you don't know where to begin. Spiritual life is a matter of growth. You cannot begin where you should be, you can only begin where you are. And you can't wait until the conditions are ideal. You have to begin with what you have and where you are. As you grow, you will see more clearly and you will be able to discern more often what resources God has already put in your life that you perhaps had not noticed before, or have just heretofore ignored or dismissed. No worries. We are all works in progress. The most important thing is to begin. 

When asked to suggest a prayer book, I usually suggest the one produced by All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church. You can get it on-line or order it for about five dollars plus shipping.  

Below is a link to the Psalter in pdf. You can take it to any printer and have in printed on half-page sheets and spiral bound for about $20. This Psalter was produced by some monks who actually keep the traditional monastic rule (not all monks do), so this Psalter has been read out loud literally hundreds of times before it was finally made available. The translation is their own, comparing both the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) texts and the texts as they are used in the services of the Church. (BTW, that's what the italics means in this Psalter. It means that the verse is quoted in the Church services—as that particular monastery serves them).

You will notice that the Psalter is organized according the monastic reading schedule. The entire book of Psalms is included, but organized according to the days of the week as it would be read in normal monastic practice (the entire psalter is read out loud every week, twice a week during lent [although I don’t know of any monasteries that actually do that during Lent—but that’s the “rule”]). There are 20 sections, called “kathisma” and each kathisma is divided into three “stasis.” (Kathisma means 'to sit' in Greek, because the monks would all sit while one monk stood to read—generally they would stand for the rest of the prayer service). At each stasis, the monks will stand (so that they do not fall asleep during the reading) and say the following with three low bows from the waist touching ground and making the sign of the cross (these are called “metania”).

“Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen.”

(The following is specific advice that I wrote to someone who asked to be guided as he begins to practice psalmody)

Now for you, however, I suggest that you begin very slowly. I suggest that you start with a few prayers from the prayer book and one stasis from the psalter. It is much, much better to be small and consistent and to grow slowly than to start with too much and give up (which is what happens to most people). From the Prayer book, I suggest that you begin with the Trisagion prayers, the morning troparia and then one or at the most two more morning prayers and follow that with one stasis from the psalter. You should plan to do this every morning (or if you pray in the evening, do the same with the evening prayers—or both morning and evening if you are able). This should be followed by reading from the Gospel, Epistle and other spiritual writings. Don’t read much. A few verses that you think deeply about is much more spiritually edifying than reading several chapters. After you have completed your daily minimum, then if you have time and inclination, you can always say more prayers or read more. The trick is to have a small enough minimum that you can do it regularly (planing for everyday but only achieving 75% is very good for most people who lead normal, unpredictable lives—but if you can’t achieve 50%, then your rule is most likely too hard for you). If you find this to be the case (less than 50% daily ability to say your prayer rule), then humble yourself and shorten your rule until you can do it consistently.

Remember, the goal is not to succeed at your rule, the goal is to use your rule as a means to know yourself, your inner life, and through this to know God.  


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