Encouraging Sung Psalm Prayer

Psalm 47

Psalm 47 "O Clap your hands, all ye people" Block print by Charles Knowles. In The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles (New York: The Viking Press and Pinnacle Press, Inc. 1959, 1962).

©2001 by Elizabeth Liebert
San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, CA  94960

Note:  Some of this material has been incorporated into John Endres and Elizabeth Liebert, A Retreat With the Psalms:  Resources for Personal and Communal Prayer (New York:  Paulist Press, 2001).

Different Christian traditions have developed varying sensibilities about the very act of singing.  Many Roman Catholics in the United States, for example, inherited a tradition in which hymn-singing played a small role. Those with this heritage are late to return to the ancient understanding that "to sing is to pray twice."  Reformed Christians, on the other hand, count hymnody as one of the richest aspects of their spiritual traditions, and rousingly join in with congregational singing as an important aspect of worship, both congregational and family.

If we begin where the ancients did, that is, with an understanding that singing is essential to worship, we are well on the way to understanding that singing is an important aspect of prayer, and certainly of psalm-prayer. Singing is, indeed, praying twice. Or, we might begin with the word “psalm” itself, which literally means “to make music.” Psalms are meant to be sung, whether in our personal or our communal use. In this spirit, this brief essay offers some suggestions to encourage personal and communal prayer through singing psalms.

In your personal devotional appropriation of the psalms, you might:

Develop a small library of sacred music tapes and compact disks which include psalm settings.  Besides contemporary religious music, a surprisingly rich array of classical composers relied on psalms:  for example, Schutz, Handel, Rachminoff, Bernstein, and many others worked with psalm settings.  Play a selection (the collection or one piece) meditatively, perhaps many times.  Allow the music to touch deeper and deeper aspects of yourself.  Follow the playing with a time of silence and a spoken or written response to God.  As the music becomes more familiar, join in the singing yourself, softly or boldly as you are led.

Using your congregation's hymnal and the Index of Psalm-Hymns found in this web-site, select a hymn-rendering of a psalm.  Sing it, perhaps several times.  Let it take root in you.  If you play a musical instrument, use it to accompany yourself.  Or develop your own simple instruments such as percussion and bells and add them to your rendering at appropriate moments.

Learn to sing the psalms in the unmetered, pointed style (see Endres and Liebert, A Retreat With the Psalms:  Resources for Personal and Communal Prayer [New York: Paulist Press, 2001] for simple directions) and develop a practice of Morning and/or Evening prayer according to your tradition's resources.  While these services are primarily intended for group worship, they can provide a rich diet of psalm prayer for individuals as well.  In your own personal prayer, however, never feel constrained to "finish" the prayer if your own leanings are to stay with less for longer.

Set the practice of lectio divina to song:  for every repetition, sing the psalm instead of reciting it.  Try singing the psalm in various musical settings:  how does the feel of the psalm change?  Does it invite different responses from you?

Allow a psalm to bubble up its own tune.  You might ask yourself, as you pray, how would this psalm invite itself to be sung or played?

In using metered psalmody, notice how the meter subtly interprets the psalm.  Are there aspects of the psalm lost that you wish to "restore?"  Your restoration might take the form of writing a new verse to the metered psalm text, or even entirely new lyrics based on your own prayerful appropriation of the psalm.

Allow a psalm to "stay with" you throughout the day in the form of a sung version.  Simple refrains and antiphons readily lend themselves to this "praying always."

A group's participation in psalm singing can grow, too.  The following suggestions, while they may not seem at first glance to be prayer, can actually allow us to pray in the midst of other activities.

Encourage those responsible for liturgy and worship to develop with the choir and the congregation a repertoire of psalms.  These can then be sung as responsorials between the readings, and many of them can serve as hymns or anthems in their own right.  Meanwhile the psalm-literacy of the entire worshiping community increases.

Consider offering a traditional hymn-sing liberally sprinkled with psalms during or before the regular worship, or perhaps at a special service.  This tradition passes on the legacy of traditional psalmody, provides a forum for teaching the new settings, and "plants" the phrases and music deep inside the participants--just as the Reformers in Geneva understood.  A variation on this theme:  for those of you who belong to choirs, consider the choir practice as a time of prayer--all the elements of prayer are present, awaiting only your intention and desire to bear greater fruit.

Experiment with ways to expand the repertoire of ways that psalms are sung, and thereby expand the possibilities for group psalm-singing.  Try or reactivate the traditional "call and response" method, (also called echo or "lining out"):  the leader sings one line, the responders simply repeat the same line.  Unless the music is very complex, everyone, even quite small children, can join easily in the singing.  Experiment with cantors and choirs singing the more complex parts, but invite all to sing the refrains and antiphons.  Note the psalm base in much traditional and contemporary hymnody so that the singers are aware that the cadence and metaphors that they are singing comes to them through the psalms.

In conferences and retreats which employ psalms, as well as in adult education courses, add singing to the learning experience.  (If no one present is able to accompany, tapes and CD's can offer the musical background.)  The addition of singing unfailingly enriches a retreat experience; one person's offerings often elicits those of another. The entire group an soon forms a praying community, even if they originally came primarily for information.

These few suggestions are meant to stimulate your imagination for your own situation.  The more you look, the more you will see the psalms in many places.  The more you see, the more you can participate in the great crowd of those who sing their praise to God.

(Rev. June, 2001)