Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Psalm Prayers, again, and weekly Q&A

Here's an old post about psalm prayers. Next to questions about options for saint's offices, I probably get asked about psalm prayers more than anything else. So I thought the newcomers might appreciate this.

Other than that--any other questions or comments about the Liturgy of the Hours are welcome in the comments box below. I'm here to help.

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. Thanks for this, Daria! I'll just add that some guide to the LotH (wish I could remember which one) was very insistent that the placement of the psalm-prayers is a mistake, and that if the prayer is used it should be after the Gloria Patri and antiphon. Which makes sense to me, as the prayer would then be after the full recitation of the psalm itself, not caught up in that cycle of antiphon-psalm-GP-antiphon. So much of the development of the LotH around 1970 seemed so ad hoc, it's not surprising that in the rush, a mistake was made in placing the psalm-prayers.

    I'm sure it isn't wrong to say the psalm-prayer before saying the antiphon at the end, but it certainly seems awkward.

    OR...Is the psalm-prayer intended to replace the Gloria Patri, and the mistake was in omitting a rubric that tells us this? We may never know! In any case, the psalm-prayer isn't mandatory, obviously, because others in the world don't even have them in their books.

  2. I usually repeat the antiphon although I see that it's optional (apparently).

    1. Same here. It's the traditional way to do it, and "wraps up" each psalm nicely.

  3. They won't be in the corrected translation, so there's little point in worrying about them. They are anti-organic and anti-traditional, anyway.

  4. Check out SECRET-HARBOR.BLOGSPOT.COM Fr.Brian Mullady, OP a contributing editor of Homilectic & Pastoral Review gives a brief and best comment regarding the use or optional use of the Psalm Prayers I have ever come across.

    Basically he states that one of the principles behind Vatican !! was called resourcement---a return to the sources of the Faith. One example is the addition of the Psalm Prayers to the LOTH. The Holy See printed them in optional supplement. According to liturgy experts the present prayers are probably German in origin and likely reflect a practice of monks in Egypt. The US editors of the breviary thought it would be helpful to provide all aid to the recitation which were available. Bottom line they are given to aid reflection. Fr. Mullady goes on to say that there is nothing wrong in using them but they are strictly optional.

    I can not wait for the revised LOTH to be published---


  5. I'm also hoping that the revised LOTH will make it clearer about how to do the intercessions. The way it is now has most people using both options at the same time, and it's pretty awkward.

  6. Daria,

    The psalm prayers placement reflect the typical draft used by the LOTH translators. For example, if you look at the earliest known version of the LOTH in English, the Saint Columba Breviary from Ireland, 1970, it has two distinct features: A liturgical calendar based on an draft of our present one (It still has the feast of the Visitation on July 2 instead of May 31, but the Feast of the Precious Blood on July is suppressed) and none of the psalms, such as 136 (137) are redacted.
    The psalm prayers came along after this draft and actually are collects. They stick out garishly in the LOTH for two reasons (1) they are mainly mozaribic in origin and (2) they had a more literal translator as opposed to the translator who translated the prayer (collects) for the day.

    Interestingly the Saint Columba Breviary has translations of the proper hymns used for the LOTH, but the ICEL translators deliberately chose to drop the proper hymns.

  7. Whoops! The Precious Blood was on July 1!

  8. Jim, it is so nice to hear from you again. I actually had composed a reply explaining that most of the psalm prayers were of ancient origin (something I"d learned form you) but somehow that reply didn't appear here after I'd hit publish. Good old Blogger. Anyway, I'm always glad when you share your in depth knowledge of these things. And yes, I'm looking forward to getting the proper hymns back when that new English revision is finally out, instead of having to switch out to the Mundelein psalter, which has the proper hymns for ordinary time and selections for the seasons.

  9. Daria,

    I am excited to tell you this - several years ago, I gave my daughters (now 10 and 8) their own 1962 Short Breviary. I taught them how to do it, but things fell aside, being busy and all. This past week, I found my younger daughter trying to pray the vespers for Tuesday! So, I took her to compline instead as it is shorter and easier, her older sister joined in and now we say Compline together every night as their night prayers before they go to bed! My older daughter asks me all sorts of questions, like "who the adversary that goes about as a lion?" and "what does this psalm mean. The younger daughter, who was almost mute five years ago - it is a joy to hear her say the Glory and do the responses!

    1. Cool! I keep thinking about writing something about the catechetical possibilities in the psalms. All the animal and nature imagery in particular must have huge appeal for children.

  10. Daria,

    One other thing so long as I brought up draft variants of the LOTH. Readings that were adopted for the LOTH and then expunged before the final version came out are almost unknown. The only known example that I can find is the reading (no. 2) on Saturday of Week 6. In the LOTH this is a reading from the Second Vatican Council on the family. The original was "From an allocution to newlyweds by Pope Pius XII, March 11, 1942." Replacement of this reading was a last minute change. It is a wonderful reading that starts of with, "[t]he family has a sun of its own - the wife." It is a great statement focusing on wives and motherhood. It is found in the 1975 Short Breviary. I will send you a copy when I get a chance.

    1. How about that! I'd love to see it--maybe it's available online somewhere. I've noticed that quite a few second readings are from Vatican II, and while I have no objection to that, I think that if they were going to include modern magisterial or papal documents, there were plenty of other sources they might have considered as well. So this tells me that they did, but that these selections did not make the 'final cut".

  11. Elizabeth Korves OCDSAugust 7, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    When I served in leadership in our province, this same question came up frequently. I ended up writing up a short piece for our newsletter which includes some references regarding the history of the psalm prayers when the LOTH was being revised. The article can be found at http://thereseocds.org/uploads/Placement_of_The_Psalm_Prayer.pdf

  12. Also some info at