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– Aurelio Porfiri
This journey in the world of the Psalms, is so enriching because of the many dimensions of it. There is one dimension I think is very important to keep always in mind: the Psalms are word of God and word addressed to God. With the Psalms God is speaking to us but he is also letting us speak to Him. So there is a dialogue within the Word of God at this level, and not a dialogue that is like any other human dialogue, but a dialogue made in heaven.
This is why the liturgy is not man-made, it is not something we have created, but something we have received and that we have to treat with the care due to its divine origin. And this is also why it is so important to sing in the liturgy and to sing properly, not everything is suitable.
Saint Athanasius said in his Letter to Marcellinus: “Such, then, is the character of the Book of Psalms, and such the uses to which it may be put, some of its number serving for the correction of individual souls, and many of them, as I said just now, foretelling the coming in human form of our Saviour Jesus Christ. But we must not omit to explain the reason why words of this kind should be not merely said, but rendered with melody and song; for there are actually some simple folk among us who, though they believe the words to be inspired, yet think the reason for singing them is just to make them more pleasing to the ear! This is by no means so; Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate, and it is rather for the soul’s own profit that the Psalms are sung.” Yes, we don’t sing the Psalms for aesthetic pleasures (that of course is not excluded if directed to something bigger), but for the profit of our own soul. Bad liturgical music also affects the profit for the soul.
The dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum says: “(S)ince God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”
Also we should not forget that this process of interpretation should be done in the light of the teachings of the Church and her sacred tradition. We are not trying to find “new things” for the sake of novelty, but we are trying to go in search of the only Truth that is Christ, not going back but going deeper.
Again from Dei Verbum: “To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.”
When talking about the Responsorial psalm and its meaning, we need always to keep in mind that we need give attention to that single Psalm, to those verses, but also to the general framework (guaranteed by Church’s Tradition) that give meaning to the whole.
We have said that the Responsorial Psalm is an answer to the first reading. So we may define this as dialogue within the Word of God. God is teaching us how to pray, as we learn from Luke 11: “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” And our Lord Jesus Christ gave them (and to us) the prayer of the Our Father.
So this dialogue within the Word of God is something we need to consider. Let us remember Divo Barsotti who said: “If the Palter is the word of man, really there is no book that better describes the misery, but also the drama, the tragedy of human life.” Because this is the mystery of the Psalms, where God allows men to know themselves and deeper because He is the real center of their life.
Let us not forget Saint Augustine: “Where then did I find Thee, that I might learn Thee? For in my memory Thou wert not, before I learned Thee. Where then did I find Thee, that I might learn Thee, but in Thee above me? Place there is none; we go backward and forward, and there is no place. Every where, O Truth, dost Thou give audience to all who ask counsel of Thee, and at once answerest all, though on manifold matters they ask Thy counsel. Clearly dost Thou answer, though all do not clearly hear. All consult Thee on what they will, though they hear not always what they will. He is Thy best servant who looks not so much to hear that from Thee which himself willeth, as rather to will that, which from Thee he heareth. Too late loved I Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all. Thou calledst, and shoutedst, and burstest my deafness. Thou flashedst, shonest, and scatteredst my blindness. Thou breathedst odours, and I drew in breath and panted for Thee. I tasted, and hunger and thirst. Thou touchedst me, and I burned for Thy peace.”
God is within and speaks to us through His Word. So, when the psalmist is there (hopefully) singing the Psalm, he or she is the material voice of this divine dialogue. It is not a song, a performance, a way to entertain the congregation. Their voice is giving shape to the Words of God, in the spirit of what Saint Theresa of Avila has told us in a very beautiful prayer: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.”
What a responsibility! But are people aware of the importance of this task! Too often, some people consider the liturgy a burden to finish with as soon as possible, or something to fill in with a lot of (very human) speeches. We should return to what the liturgy is really about, and so we will understand also of the role of the Psalms in it.