Praying the Psalms with St. Benedict
During orientation for a retreat a few years ago at Mepkin Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the low country of South Carolina, I was initially surprised when the spiritual director said that the focal point of their community’s worship life was singing the Psalms. Though their daily worship, particularly within the eight daily offices, includes the reading and teaching of Holy Scripture, communal and personal prayer, lectio divina, confession of sin, and participating in the Holy Eucharist, chanting the Psalms (the entire Psalter every week) remains the center of worship (Rule of Benedict 18.23). In this brief reflection, I discuss how the Benedictine emphasis on chanting the Psalms harnesses a poetic and religious imagination toward the spiritual formation of the community. By first discussing how the Benedictine monks chant, I suggest that the habit of singing the Psalter provides an authentic apprenticeship in prayer that engages the auditory senses and a full range of emotions, forms the spiritual memory of the worshiper, and becomes a pathway to silence.
St. Benedict and Psalmody
In several chapters in his Rule (8-9, 17-19, 42, 45), St. Benedict (480-547) gives instructions for psalmody in daily worship. In terms of style, Benedictine psalmody resembled an early form of plainsong later associated with Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604). Georg Holzherr (2016, 218) writes:
The Rule recognizes not only the simple chanting of the Psalms, which in this case are sung without interruption, but also the customary chanting of the Psalms with antiphons. In the latter case one or more leader chanters sang the psalm while others present responded or end the psalm with the refrain “Amen” or “Alleluia.”
Emphasizing that he and his monks stood continually in God’s presence, Benedict admonished the community: “let us stand to sing the Psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices” (RB 19.7 in Holzherr 2016, 218). Undergirded by this heart of worship, the monks were to be serious, reverent, and attentive to psalmody. Sloppiness was not tolerated (RB 45).
Authentic Prayer Engaging the Senses
The Benedictine practice of chanting the Psalter is an authentic expression of prayer that engages the senses and emotions. This is particularly meaningful in a day when these values are often missing in Protestant worship. Dana Gioia (2022) warns: “Christianity has survived into the twenty-first century, but it has not come through unscathed. It has kept its head and its heart—the clarity of its beliefs and its compassionate mission. The problem is that it has lost its senses, all five of them.” One of the downsides of the Protestant Reformation was that worship and discipleship became much more textual, which diminished the place of the senses and imagination. Stratford Caldecott challenges this reality by stating, “The function of our senses is to enable beauty to penetrate within” (2017, 40). The beautiful theology of the Psalms ought to shape and form us in Christ as we sing (and hear) them in beautiful arrangements.
In his reflection on Benedictine psalmody, Pope Benedict XVI (2008) captures this notion of beauty in prayer by reminding us that for St. Benedict, to pray and chant the Psalms was to sing with the angels. He writes:
In the presence of the angels, I will sing your praise (cf. 138:1)—are the decisive rule governing the prayer and chant of the monks. What this expresses is the awareness that in communal prayer one is singing in the presence of the entire heavenly court, and is thereby measured according to the very highest standards: that one is praying and singing in such a way as to harmonize with the music of the noble spirits who were considered the originators of the harmony of the cosmos, the music of the spheres.
We respond to God and his attributes (e.g., creation, glory, goodness, salvation, love) by praying and singing beautifully. Pope Benedict (2088) adds: “It shows that the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty.”
In addition to engaging all of our senses through psalmody, we are also invited to express a full range of emotions. The Psalms teach us to lament, rejoice, cry out to God in desperation, and celebrate. They invite us to be fully human in prayer—honest, raw, and broken. The Psalms challenge the repertoire of happy, “best life now” worship songs sung in many churches in North America today.
Finally, the Psalms are a model for prayer. Because of their structure, they can be memorized as said or chanted prayers. When our Lord’s disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1), he could have easily responded that they could pray using the Psalter. Jesus referred to or quoted the Psalms repeatedly in his earthly ministry (Morales 2011).
Praying and chanting the Psalms helps us cultivate a memory of God’s work and faithfulness in our lives. Discussing the connection between language and memory, Rowan Williams writes, “Languages . . . chime with longing; as memory chimes with the totality of things” (2014, 133). Given that we make sense of our world within the parameters of language, poetic language and devices (what we find in the Psalms) help shape our being and our memory (William 2014, 132). That is, in the beauty of words and their creative and clever rhetorical ordering, we develop a deep connection to the memories and milestones in our lives.
The Psalms were Israel’s playlist. A number of the Psalms are historic in nature (Pss 78, 105-107, 114, 135-136). Through them, the Israelites remembered God’s deliverance through the Exodus, his mighty saving acts, and other milestones in their journey to the Promised Land and toward being the people of God. Like Israel, we are a forgetful people, and we fail to remember God’s goodness, presence, and saving ways. Regularly praying and chanting the Psalms allows us to enlarge our memory of God’s work in our lives. Though the Psalms recount God’s work in Israel, in our meditation and prayers, we can build our memory of God’s presence and faithfulness, too. The structure and poetic devices of the Psalms provide a great house for us to remember God.
Finally, psalmody in the Benedictine tradition naturally leads us to silence and rest. Benedict’s direction for Compline (nighttime prayer) was simple: “Compline is limited to three Psalms, which are sung straight through without adding an antiphon. After the psalmody come the hymn for this hour, followed by a reading, a versicle, ‘Lord have mercy,’ a blessing and a dismissal” (RB 17.9 in Holzherr, 2016, 207). Benedict was also strict about the contemplative and quiet manner in which monks should depart the nighttime office. He adds: “On leaving Compline, no one will be permitted to speak further. If anyone is found to transgress this rule of silence, he must be subjected to severe punishment” (RB 42.8-9 in Holzherr 2016, 336).
The grand silence after Compline was intended to lead the monks toward physical and spiritual rest. The appeal for rest resounds repeatedly in the collects and closing prayer in the Compline office: “Be present, O merciful God . . . so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness . . . Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work . . . give rest to the weary . . . guard us sleeping . . . and asleep we may rest in peace” (BCP 2019, 63-65). These prayers remind us of the Psalmist’s admonition to laborers to trust the Lord for his provision and to accept the necessary blessing of sleep: “in vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Ps 127:2). By praying and chanting the Psalms, we remember God’s character and ways and cast all of our cares upon him. This leads us to physical and spiritual rest.
Following in the way of Benedict, the Psalms offer us a lifetime apprenticeship in the school of prayer. They teach us to lament and rejoice and to pray honestly as authentic human beings who are broken but hopeful about the journey to wholeness and flourishing. Through daily praying and meditating on the Psalms, we construct a memory of God’s faithfulness in our lives. Following Benedict’s admonitions for Compline, praying the Psalms at night (and during the day) leads us to a place of rest. While these are useful habits for Benedictine monks, they are also relevant and meaningful approaches to the Christian life for the people in my parish.
Benedict XVI. “Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Benedict XVI to France.” Online: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080912_parigi-cultura.html.
Book of Common Prayer (2019). Huntingdon Beach: Anglican House Media.
Caldecott, Stratford. Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2017.
Gioia, Dana. “Christianity and Poetry.” First Things. Online:
Holzherr, Georg. The Rule of Benedict: An Invitation to the Christian Life. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Morales, L. Michael. “Jesus and the Psalms.” Online: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/jesus-and-the-psalms/.
Williams, Rowan. The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.