Psalm 31, in solidarity with Ukraine [updated]

I heard from a Ukrainian-American friend today who shared that the religious leaders there are united and are focusing on praying Psalm 31.

I share this to encourage you to join them — to pray these sacred words in solidarity with their prayer. This psalm is a most appropriate psalm for this time of distress. I have copied verses 2-6 below, but all of it is appropriate. How truly the psalms come to life when our need for them is greatest! You can find the full text here.

In you, LORD, I take refuge;

let me never be put to shame.

In your righteousness deliver me;

incline your ear to me;

make haste to rescue me!

Be my rock of refuge,

a stronghold to save me.

For you are my rock and my fortress;

for your name’s sake lead me and guide me.

Free me from the net they have set for me,

for you are my refuge.

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.


I’d like to share this video — created by the Church of Christ the Savior (in Ukraine) and circulated by the Bible Society of Ukraine yesterday — in gratitude to all those have been praying Psalm 31 in solidarity with the Ukrainian people these past days. Let us continue to be united in prayer. “Be strong and take heart, all who hope in the LORD!”


Liturgies of Lament

LamentAs this pandemic drags on, I find that moments of hope and gratitude are interspersed with times of deep grief and frustration. At one level, some of us have fallen into a groove with working from home. We are being intentional about connecting with friends and family, and cultivating community as safely as possible. We may have additional time for prayer, or rest, learning, or creativity. We appreciate communal efforts at loving our neighbor. Goodness is shining in the darkness. At another level, some of us may be stretched to breaking points with work or family expectations, perhaps compounding stresses already simmering before the pandemic was upon us. We may have lost loved ones without proper closure, or supported people who are sick, or worried about the possibility of becoming sick. Economic worries may have us mourning the loss of stability. The character of public discourse can be disheartening. While certain elements of public life may be opening now, we are still a long way from saying that danger has passed. Uncertainty remains.

Liturgically speaking, the pandemic has come upon us in the midst of the Lenten and Easter seasons. While Lent may have provided an appropriate space to embrace and express the suffering of the moment, now that we are into Easter time, we may feel pressure to be rejoicing, to be the Alleluia people Christians are called to be. And yet, the grief is real. The need for lament is real. Where can this happen? How do we give voice to this spiritual movement?

In monastic communities, we pray the Liturgy of the Hours as a matter of course, and the Psalms in particular give us a good mix of expression of both praise and lament. At my own house, we are without the mass, and will be for some time yet. The Psalms thus have become more poignant, more personal. What better words with which to cry out to God than both the plea and the trust implicit in Psalm 31:

In you, Lord, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice deliver me;
incline your ear to me;
make haste to rescue me!
Be my rock of refuge,
a stronghold to save me.
You are my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead and guide me.

Or Psalm 28:

To you, Lord, I call;
my Rock, do not be deaf to me.
If you fail to answer me,
I will join those who go down to the pit.
Hear the sound of my pleading when I cry to you,
lifting my hands toward your holy place.

While the Liturgy of the Hours is the official prayer of the Church, many people are unaware of how to participate in this prayer. It really ought to be better-known as a prayer for the people, not just for the priests and religious. Parish- and monastery-based introductions to the riches of the Liturgy of the Hours would be worth promoting. More accessible, of course, are the Psalms and scriptural books like Job or Lamentations themselves. We can pray through these alone or in small groups in study or in the meditation of lectio divina. Providing context or background study my be helpful.

Given the global reach of this experience, it seems some communally-based liturgy of lament is needed. Perhaps it cannot be enacted fully until we also are able to gather again; or perhaps now is the time, given a dispersed means. How can the Church help us give voice to the grief and pain that the times have thrust upon us? And how can the Church lead us through the pain to the deeper comfort of knowing that Christ is our shepherd, that God cares for us, that we are seen and known and loved in the midst of isolation and deprivation?

Unnecessary Impoverishments: The Psalter/Part 2 (The Entrance Rite)

Last month’s celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross brought a story about the proper entrance antiphons to mind.

One summer I was a second-tier speaker/presenter at a smaller-scale liturgy and music conference. That meant I got to attend the major talks for free, which appeals both to my inner liturgy geek AND cheapskate. I was particularly intrigued to see that one of the main speakers was going to offer a talk on the proper entrance antiphons.

He began his talk with a recollection of the previous year, when the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was on a Sunday and so had replaced a Sunday of Ordinary Time. He’d been the “supply” presider at an early Sunday morning Mass. That morning it was raining, and so the organist (who was not the full-time parish music director) changed the entrance hymn to “Morning Has Broken” (presumably for the line “sweet the rain’s new fall”).

His thesis: if it had been the practice of the parish always to use the proper entrance antiphon (that day it was “We should glory in the cross” Galatians 6:14), this disaster could have been averted. Having experienced this speaker on other occasions, I knew that no time for questions would be allowed for, but I had some nonetheless:

1. What was the hymn or song that the music director had chosen? If it had been, for example, “Lift High the Cross” then pretty much the same purpose would have been served. (Though the proper entrance antiphon could have encouraged a musical connection to Holy Thursday.)
2. If it had been the practice of the parish never to replace anything the music director selected, wouldn’t the disaster also have been averted?

A main point of his talk was that the use of the proper entrance antiphon would always unify and connect with the rest of the liturgy. When I got home, I checked with the Sacramentary and Lectionary to see what would happen the following Sunday. There really wasn’t, as I recall, all that much of a connection. So this year I did the same experiment for 2017, and checked the Missal and Lectionary for the Sunday after September 14 (Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A).

The proper entrance antiphon (both Missal and Graduale Romanum):
Give peace, O Lord, to those who wait for you, that your prophets be found true. Hear the prayers of your servant, and of your people Israel. (Cf. Sirach 36:18);
its psalm verse: (Graduale Romanum): I was glad when they said to me: let us go to the house of the Lord. (Psalm 122:1).

The readings and responsorial psalm for the day:
Sirach 27 (Wrath and anger are hateful, yet sinners hold them tight.)
Psalm 103 (Refrain: The Lord is kind and merciful.)
Romans 14 (None of us lives for oneself.)
Matthew 18 (How often must I forgive?)

In 2017, as was the case years ago, I didn’t find a very strong connection or relationship between the antiphon, psalm verse, and Lectionary readings, aside from the antiphon and first reading both being from Sirach (the antiphon indirectly). Since the entrance antiphon remains the same for all three years of the Lectionary’s Sunday cycle, a correlation or relationship between it and all twelve Lectionary readings/psalms would be quite unlikely. (Historians who study the post-conciliar era know that the inadequate work in correlating the Lectionary and Graduals is the main culprit here.)

In particular, I didn’t find the sort of left-brain type of connection or “theme” between the antiphon/verse and the Lectionary readings and psalm that has mostly ruled the day for the past generation. I found myself thinking that a well-selected hymn about forgiveness (“Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” or “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”) would have done the job better. The Roman rite hasn’t ever been a sola scriptura tradition. We have remained open to the Spirit’s movement and voice in other ways and other places, as I pointed out in my Pray Tell post on hymnody.

That being said, we always overlook scripture at our own peril. Perhaps it would be to our benefit to be informed by the texts of the entrance antiphons and their psalms as well as those of the Lectionary when doing our music planning, and realize we don’t always have to be driven only by the Lectionary texts (and within them, not only by the Gospel—we’re not a evangelium solus/gospel alone tradition either; it’s another unnecessary impoverishment to overlook the prophetic writings and apostolic letters). When we always cover over the proper texts we may be shutting the lid on the treasures of the scriptures (see CSL #51). I, for one, would happily advocate for the more-frequent congregational singing of Psalm 122:1 (“I rejoiced when they said to me…”) during the Entrance Rite.

This model of being informed by the antiphons and their psalm verses for music selection could, I believe, also allow us to inhabit a freer (more left-brained, if you will) place of allowing the liturgy and its texts to work on us over time, and perhaps give the Spirit a bit more space to fly freely.

Next up—unnecessary impoverishments: The Psalter/Part 3; Communion antiphons.

(Part 1—with an explanation of the term “unnecessary impoverishment” as I learned it from Fr. Lucien Deiss—which focused on the responsorial psalm, may be found here.)

Lord, Close My Lips

Every Western Christian familiar with the Divine Office knows the verse “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Ps. 51:17) at the beginning of the office each morning (Matins or Lauds).

The verse “Lord, open my lips” obviously fits its liturgical place. You might find or create other verses that also make sense at the beginning of a morning prayer service, but this one clearly is a good choice. It does not need much reflection to be understood, there is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about it.

I think this is the reason why we do not realize that something is missing when we use “Lord, open my lips” at the beginning of any morning prayer.

But there used to be a sibling – or more than that: a twin – to this verse at the very end of the daily liturgical cycle. The Rule of the Master (probably written around the early 6th century somewhere in Italy), one of the most important sources for the Rule of St. Benedict, prescribed Ps. 141:3 as the closing verse of the Compline: “Set a guard, Lord, before my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Between these two verses at the end of the day and at the beginning of the following day there was nothing but silence and sleep in the monastery – the Rule of the Master is very strict on that point.

So we have “Lord, open my lips” at the beginning of the day, and we also have “Lord, close my lips” at the end of the day. But we should think of it in reverse order: “Lord, close my lips” before the hours of rest and sleep, and “Lord, open my lips” after awakening the next morning.

It should be quite clear that this is a metaphor for death and resurrection: The human being commits her or his life to God and gracefully gets renewed and refreshed life from God. It is not any human power that gives new life, it is nothing but God’s gift. We can ask for it and pray for it, but we cannot make it ourselves. Or to make it short: Every morning (and every morning prayer) is a commemoration of Easter.

As far as I know, the Rule of the Master is the only document for “Lord, close my lips” at the end of the day. The Rule of St. Benedict does not have it and it was not reintroduced at any time in the history of liturgy – while “Lord, open my lips” remained the opening verse every morning in all Western traditions.

1,500 years of liturgy do not have “Lord, close my lips” in mind whenever “Lord, open my lips” is sung in the morning. But after having read this article, I am sure that you will!