Monday, August 8, 2011

The Great Psalm Prayer Mystery

Psalm prayers are those short prayers that follow each of the psalms in your breviary. They are meant to be aids to understanding the preceding psalm. Beginners often find them very helpful in explaining how the Church interprets or uses a particular theme or image from the psalm. More experienced people, who have gotten pretty good at applying the psalms to Christ or to the Church, find the psalm prayers at times to be a bit  redundant.

It gets more disconcerting when one has the opportunity to pray the hours in community while visiting, say, a monastery or a seminary, and see that this group might not even  use the psalm prayers. A layman, praying the hours privately, has no obligation to do everything Exactly Right. But aren't these religious and clergy, who are bound to pray the hours, committing some sort of liturgical abuse by skipping the psalm prayers. Isn't this kind of like a priest deciding to skip some part of the mass?

Or, on the other hand, you get a look at a the breviary that is used in England.  No Psalm Prayers in sight.  Or you meet a priest from a foreign country and ask what's in his breviary. Chances are, he won't  have any psalm prayers either.

What's going on here?

I've been looking for ages for someone who knows the historical details on this issue of how only the American breviary seems to have these psalm prayers. Lacking that, here is what I do know:
--a careful reading of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH)  indicates that psalm prayers were  apparently were not even meant to appear in the main body of the psalter. Here's what it says:

112. Psalm-prayers for each psalm are given in the supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours, to help in understanding them in a predominantly Christian way. They may  be used in the ancient traditional way: after the psalm a period of silence is observed, then the prayer gathers up and rounds off the thoughts and inspirations of those taking part. 

This indicates to me that psalm prayers are not an obligatory part of the breviary. My feeling is further bolstered by this from another section on how to sing/recite the psalms:

123. The antiphon for each psalm should always be recited at the beginning...At the end of the psalm the custom in maintained of concluding with the Glory to the Father and As it was in the beginning...the antiphon may be repeated at the end of the psalm. 

Since nothing is mentioned here about the psalm-prayers, one can only conclude that these are not essential elements of the psalter.

The question then remains, why do the psalm prayers in American breviaries  appear in the body of the psalter, and right after the psalm, with the antiphon (apparently) not being repeated until after the psalm prayer.Was this a decision of the American bishops, or of some English translation committee, or of American publishers?  Also--do the breviaries of other language groups have some sort of "supplement" with psalm prayers in a separate volume, or an appendix to the breviary?  I have no idea. If anyone out there has some light to throw on these subjects, let me know.

But I think we can safely conclude that the  psalm-prayers are clearly optional. Use them if you like them, skip them if they do nothing for you. Or if you are pressed for time. And when you participate in a religious community's liturgical hours, be aware that there are several valid options on this, and assent to the custom of that community, even if it is not your personal custom.


  1. Interesting. I have never heard a community pray the psalm prayer. I have always assumed they were optional. I have always wondered where they come from.

  2. I'm glad you mentioned this, because they're kind of annoying, bland in character, and they lengthen the whole process considerably.

  3. As a newbie to praying the Divine Office I find the prayers very thought inducing. I also love this 'blog'!!

  4. Thanks, paddyspets. I have several friends who really like the psalm prayers and even memorize their favorites. Personally, I tend more to bearing's reaction, but now and then I read them and there are a couple that I have liked. I think once you've prayed he office for a few years, you know how to interpret the psalms pretty well, and so the psalm prayers can become redundant. But as an aid to beginners they can be very helpful. P.S. bearing, your photo of cactus apples reminds me of my California years. We had those growing in our backyard in Ojai.

  5. Glad you like the photo, but in the interest of full disclosure, I snagged it off another site. No cacti (well, not really many) around here. The point is, I'm prickly yet aspiring to fruitfulness...

  6. That's interesting! I've wondered about them, because sometimes they seem like they were written by someone with an axe to grind. Notice, also, that there are no Psalm-prayers in the "special" sections for Martyrs, Pastors, Holy Men/Women, etc.

    When we pray the Hours at Secular Franciscan gatherings, we always have some who repeat the antiphon at the end, and some who don't. Makes for confusion in the ranks, especially when a "repeater" is acting as antiphonarian that day, and you can see all the "non-repeaters" hunting around to see where those words are coming from!

  7. I'm thinking, Barb sfo, that the General Instruction lists repeating the antiphon as the default, and indeed, you will see it printed at the end of each psalm in the four-volume set and in the Pauline editions one-volume. But not-repeating is also a legitimate option. I agree it's a pain to flip back. When I used the one-volume I would sometimes pencil in the antiphon after the psalm if it wasn't already visible at the beginning without flipping. I think most online breviaries do the repeated antiphon as well. For people who do the DO on their own at home, community recitations can be an exercise in patience when others won't do it "my way", don't you think?

  8. I have read somewhere :-) that the desert fathers prayed spontaneously after chanting/prying each Psalm, so the "Psalm Prayer" was going back to the roots sort of idea.