Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Psalm Basics for Catholics

In my 2013 book, The Everyday Catholic's Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours, I touch here and there on the Jewish roots of the psalter. I briefly described to readers how to think about both the literal, historical sense of the psalm (i.e., what the psalmist had in mind when he wrote them) as well as the christological sense (how the inspired words of the psalms are often messianic hints about Jesus.)

But one thing I don't do is explain how the psalms fit together as a coherent book of the Bible. Why are they in this specific order? Is there any pattern there? Are they organized by theme or topic? Is there an overall, "big picture" message to the book of Psalms?

There is one book, Singing in the Reign, listed in my chapter on Resources, that covers this topic very well. But now there's another one which I must recommend.

Psalm Basics for Catholics is an easy, and even entertaining read that explains how the Psalms encapsulate Salvation History, and why they are divided into five "books". It tells you the significance of the authorship of the psalms (some by King David, some by others, and even one--which somehow I'd missed all these years--by Moses! It's Psalm 90.).  And while focusing primarily on what these psalms meant to the Chosen People, the author continually links these meanings to their messianic significance.  He also recommends five psalms from each book that are Really Worth Memorizing. Those of us with a longstanding LOTH habit will have a good headstart on this. I found I"d already memorized many of his recommendations.  

Author John Bergsma's tour of the the Psalms is made easy and memorable by his stick figure mnemonic illustrations that portray the Davidic kings or kingdom in various stages of trial, triumph, suffering, and hope as the fortunes of the Kingdom of Israel/Judea go up to the height of David and Solomon's rule, go down with their dissolute heirs to eventual destruction, enter a plateau of reflection during the Babylonian captivity, and then rise again in hope as they return from exile and the temple is restored.

The author recommends that at least once, but preferably several times, we read through the psalms in order, since this will yield a richer understanding and appreciation of the psalms that we won't get if we only read it in the rather mixed up order of our breviary psalters.    If you don't have time to do this separately as well as your daily LOTH, you might want to switch to "devotional" mode for a month: with bible in hand, do each hour of prayer, but instead of the 4 week psalter, just read three psalms, in order for each hour until you've gone through all 150. This of course, is no longer  official "liturgical" prayer. But it's certainly a worthwhile experiment to do just once.   But first read Bergsma's book, then you can read and pray through the book of psalms able to notice all the themes of Davidic covenant history which he points out.