AMEN CORNER: How to Do Things with Psalms: Framing Multiple Modes of Liturgical Engagement

from John D. Witvliet, “How to Do Things with Psalms:
Framing Multiple Modes of Liturgical Engagement,” Worship 93 (April, 2019), 100-109:


Imagine eight worship services in various Christian traditions in which the
very same text, Psalm 31, is introduced in quite different ways.

In the first, a lector announces “hear the Word of the Lord from Psalm 31,”
and then reads the text from a pulpit, lectern or ambo. The congregation is
invited to contemplate the text as it is read, and then to listen to a sermon or a homily based on the psalm, receiving the text as a source of wisdom, inspiration, instruction, and prophetic injunction.

In the second, a worship leader explains “we will sing Psalm 31 as our prayer.” Here the congregation is asked to identify with the psalmist, to express the sentiments of the psalm as its own sincere, expressive prayer: “in you, O Lord, I have taken refuge” (Ps 31:1).

In the third, a liturgist offers a slightly different introduction: “Psalm 31 offers us challenging words we need to learn to pray. Let us sing it together.” These words again introduce the psalm as the congregation’s prayer, but now as an aspirational prayer. Here any gap between the psalm and the congregation’s experience is viewed not as an affront to its sincerity, but as an opportunity for growth in prayer. Worshipers are asked to apprentice themselves to the text.

In the fourth, a leader announces, “As we sing Psalm 31, a psalm of David,
ponder the plight and pathos of David pleading with God for rescue from
his enemies.” Here, worshipers are being invited not primarily to pray the text themselves, but rather to engage the text as an act of historical or narrative empathy, an approach ideally suited in some traditions to a service in which a sermon or homily focuses on one of David’s many encounters with his enemies.

In the fifth, on Good Friday, a printed worship bulletin includes this explanatory word: “Receive Psalm 31 as a testimony to the pathos of Jesus’ suffering.” Here the congregation is invited to hear Jesus praying “into your hands I commit my Spirit” (Ps 31:6) as an act of Christologically focused historical empathy. The psalm engages the congregation in the unfolding passion narrative.

In the sixth, a leader announces “We sing Psalm 31 today as an act of solidarity with and prayer for persecuted Christians in Pakistan, using one of their dearly loved musical settings.” In this case, the congregation’s attention is not directed back in time, but rather around the world. This, too, is an exercise in catholicity and empathy, which in turn is taken up into an act of vicarious prayer. The choice of a Pakistani musical setting further reinforces the stated intent.

In the seventh, a leader announces—provocatively—“today, receive Psalm 31 not primarily as a prayer we offer regarding our enemies, but as a text prayed by others who may well experience us as their enemy. As we chant this text, consider those who, despite our best intentions, may be persecuted for righteousness’ sake because of us.” Here, the text functions as a reproach, challenging a congregation to identify with the victimizer rather than victim, an act of textual positioning designed to elicit repentance and confession of sin.

In the eighth, a liturgist explains “Thomas Merton once wrote, a Psalm is
‘a prayer in which Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to
the Father in himself.’1 As we sing Psalm 31 today, picture Christ at work
within and among us, drawing us into the mystery of the triune God.”
Echoing Augustine, Calvin, and Bonhoeffer, this way of framing the psalm sets it not merely in the middle of a human drama, but also a divine one—
an intra-Trinitarian conversation in which the congregation mysteriously

Each of these distinct ways of introducing a psalm positions the text in a
different relationship to the congregation. Each invites the congregation to
engage in a different speech-act.2 These are not the same as the literary genre of the psalm or the categories used to describe the various settings in life in which a psalm may once have functioned. They are, rather, different modes of liturgical engagement.

Part of the wonder is how the very same psalm text can function in such different ways, directing our attention introspectively or exocentrically across time and space, schooling us in empathy and coaxing new layers of self-awareness. These distinct modes of participation may well interact with each other in dynamic ways. You may sing “into your hands I commit my Spirit” (Ps 31:5), pondering the passion of Jesus, and then discover in yourself a new experience of surrender. I may sing Psalm 31 in a state of disengaged exhaustion on Sunday, but then draw upon it in the watches of mid-week night as an act of vicarious prayer.

A complete study of Jewish and Christian liturgies would only add to the
variants here, offering us a robust periodic table of elements of liturgical
participation. Indeed, liturgies across traditions invite us to do such different things with Psalms: to express our own personal experience before God, to apprentice ourselves to texts which form us to feel, think, and desire things that do not come naturally to us, to participate in the expression of the faith of a community even when that is at variance with our own personal experience, to contemplate biblical narratives with such intense empathy that we picture ourselves inside the story, to offer prayers on behalf of others as an expression of profound solidarity, to perceive ourselves enveloped in the dynamic actions of God’s own triune being, and more. One of the profound gifts of ecumenical and historical study of liturgy is that we can discover profound and sanctifying encounters with psalms which we only rarely experience in our own tradition.

These specific examples of framing psalms for liturgical engagement may strike many readers of Worship as unusually direct and didactic. Yet consider the wide range of framing practices across Christian traditions—some explicit, many more subtle—which position psalm texts in relationship to worshiping communities in striking ways.

Most broadly, psalms are framed by the rite or implicit liturgy into which
they are set, and the explicit or implicit intent of that liturgy. The function of psalmody varies widely depending on whether psalms are recited as part of a disciplined cursus of texts in the daily office, a lectionary-governed response to a reading from the Hebrew scriptures in a eucharistic liturgy, an occasional choice of a pastoral liturgist in an improvised prayer vigil responding to a traumatic event, an occasional use of metrical psalmody in place of a hymn with a very specific liturgical function at various points in a Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist service, or a spontaneous choice of a prayer leader at a Pentecostal prayer festival, summer campfire, or revival. Each rite or implicit liturgy favors some modes for engaging psalms, and resists others. In some traditions, the psalms are most often prayed. In others, they are most often preached.

The superscriptions of the Masoretic text in printed Bibles often provide a provocative frame for a psalm. The explanation of Psalm 51 as “a Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba,” indelibly links the psalm with the narratives of 2 Samuel 11–12. When this frame is prominent in the awareness of a congregation, the journey toward praying the text as an act of expressive or aspirational prayer unfolds through historical or narrative empathy.

Liturgical psalters frequently have their own subtly formative superscriptions. In the psalter used at Saint John’s Abbey, Psalm 31, used for Evening Prayer, Monday, Week 3, is framed not only by the title “confident prayer in distress,” but also by Jesus’ words, “In the world, you have tribulation, but be of good

According to Fr. Anthony Ruff, OSB, the text from John was chosen by
Br. Dietrich Rienhardt, OSB, liturgy director at Saint John’s Abbey,
Collegeville, Minnesota, at the time of the printing of the Psalter
(personal correspondence, November 9, 2018).

cheer. I have conquered the world ( John 16:33).” These frames—which are never spoken, but are visually prominent—position the text as the community’s prayer, and subtly coach the worshiper to approach the text as a confident, rather than halting prayer, an act of longing, but not of despair.
The Paraclete Psalter features the juxtaposition of two frames for Psalm 31:
the title “my prayer to the Lord in times of adversity,” and the printing of
Luke 23:46, which quotes Psalm 31:6: “Father, into your hands I commit my
spirit.” The juxtaposition of these two frames commends a fusion of horizons, in which worshipers are invited to perceive the interpenetration of Jesus’ prayer and their own personal prayer.3

For many worshiping communities, the most obvious frames are the sung
refrains or antiphons used as part of a musical rendering of a psalm. Refrains for the same psalm often diverge widely, not only in terms of which images or themes are prominent, but also regarding what they invite a congregation to do with a psalm. In recent Catholic and Protestant hymnals, Psalm 31 has been paired with the refrain “Lord God, be my refuge and strength,” which orients the psalms as an act of expressive or aspirational intercessory prayer, and with “You have redeemed us, Lord God of truth” which frames the psalm primarily as an expression of trust, thanks, and praise, and with “into your hands I commit my spirit,” which indelibly links the psalm with Jesus’ passion.

In some traditions, psalm collects frame a psalm retrospectively. In one sixth century source, Psalm 122 is paired with the collect “Build the heavenly Jerusalem in us so that members might be united to members by divine grace and there might be peace in your power and abundance in your towers,” firmly interpreting the contemporaneous praying of “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (v. 6) as an eschatological prayer with a scope far wider than the city of Jerusalem itself.4

Musical allusions can provide memorable interpretive frames. As Emma
Hornby explains, in some medieval monasteries, Psalm 91 was framed as an anti-temptation psalm by its use on Quadragesima Sunday alongside the
account of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4, in compline, as monks faced the
temptations and terrors of the night, and on Good Friday, where it evoked
Jesus’ resistance to the taunting temptation of the chief priests that he come down from the cross—a set of associations powerfully reinforced by the interplay and cross-references of melodic motifs in chant settings for these three occasions.5 In Cantata 112, J. S. Bach placed a thick Trinitarian frame around Psalm 23, setting it to the chorale tune associated with the Gloria in Excelsis (Allein Gott), and closing with a doxology that makes the shepherd’s identity as Jesus altogether clear. Recently published metrical settings of Psalms 96 and 97 for use on Christmas signal a Christologically focused mode of engaging the Psalm text by setting them to the tunes of the familiar Christmas carols Noel Nouvelet and Es ist Ein Ros’.6

Iconography can powerfully reinforce or subvert particular approaches to a
psalm. In medieval books of hours, one’s encounter with Psalm 51 could be shaped quite differently if it was juxtaposed with an image of the final judg-
ment, which reinforced the liturgical use of the psalm in prayers for the dead, or with an image of David watching Bathsheba bathe, designed to complement the Masoretic superscription for the psalm. In Eamon Duffy’s words, the image of David, while more particular, may be “less pressing and immediate than the Doom’s generalized call to penitence.”7

A congregation’s engagement with liturgical psalmody can also be powerfully shaped by informal and formal encounters with psalms outside of liturgy. If a congregation never hears instruction or testimony about the value of apprenticing one’s personal prayer to a psalm or other pre-written prayers—as is the case in a wide range of free church traditions—then the idea of singing or reciting vast portions of the Psalter as prayer will seem incongruous. When a congregation becomes more aware of how a given psalm was thought to illuminate a particular narrative by a Masoretic scribe, or how it was prayed by Jesus or quoted in the New Testament, that knowledge can open up points of access to psalms that may otherwise seem inaccessible and obscure. When a community becomes aware of how a given psalm sustained the faith of someone in hospice care, that testimony can powerfully transform their singing of the psalm in a funeral liturgy.

There is a lot to be said for simply reciting psalms, without thick, explicit
liturgical frames. A simple recitation of the text lets the mysterious symphony of liturgical participation unfold naturally, without a hint of coercion, especially in communities with robust practices of liturgical formation and high biblical literacy.

Yet, I also want to make a case for the select use of more explicit liturgical
frames, especially in traditions that need to be reacquainted with the richness and vitality of these ancient texts. This is pastorally crucial for dealing with the many psalm texts that leave congregations either mystified or miffed, especially in an era of waning biblical literacy. Worshipers hear Psalm 26:1 (“I have trusted in the Lord, and not faltered”) and might be struck by the Psalmist’s apparent arrogance. Worshipers sing Psalm 122:6 (“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”) and may well wonder about the Palestinians. Worshipers encounter imprecations and we hope they are alert enough to be offended. In each of these cases, resourceful Christian liturgists and songwriters have produced ways to frame a congregation’s engagement with text in pastorally astute ways. Consider three relatively recent examples of metrical psalmody. Michael Perry takes the indicative mood of Psalm 26:1, and cues an aspirational mode of identifying with the psalmist by using a cohortative verb: “let this be my supreme desire . . . to lead a blameless life.” Adam Tice, in his metrical adaption of Psalm 122:6, invites the congregation not only to pray for Jerusalem, but rather to sing, “God’s city can be anywhere, we seek the peace of God,” while a recently written psalm collect echoes the approach of the ancient African collects, inviting the congregation to express its longing for the day “when our feet will stand within the gates of the New Jerusalem.” Richard Leach responds to the violent imprecation of Psalm 137:9 by framing it as an act of retrospective identification: “God of memory, I remember children tumbling, not in play. I will not forget the longing to strike back in that same way.” The disturbing image of the text remains, but the metrical setting, in a relatively “thick” framing of the text, cues worshipers to set that disturbing image inside a redemptive trajectory, to resist rather than amplify the imprecation.8

Explicit liturgical framing can also prevent glib, destructive nationalistic identification with texts. Isaac Watts once set Psalm 75 to refer to the “happy accession of King George to the Throne.” Herbert Howell’s “O God Our Defender” (Ps 84) was used as an introit at the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth. On the Sunday after 9/11, thousands of Christians all over the United States were asked to say or sing: “God is our refuge and strength. . . . The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” Psalm 46 was a poignant occasional choice for that Sunday, not the least because of its promise that God “makes wars to cease,” “breaks the bow,” and “shatters the spear.” While it may be that many who sang that day did receive this text as a vicarious prayer offered in solidarity with all God’s children, it is also likely that many sang it in the United States as an ecclesial complement to the Star Spangled Banner. Christians in North America need an Arabic setting of Psalm 46 for use in non-Arabic speaking congregations as a musical act of resistance to the tendency toward a simplistic nationalism. Failing that, a firmly worded superscription could help: “A psalm of trust in the God who makes wars cease.”

Finally, there may well be wisdom in learning the humility of identifying not with the psalmist, but with the implied audience or even the enemy of the psalmist. When congregations are asked to identify too quickly with the writer of Psalm 14/53, things can easily go wrong. It is tempting to identify with the psalmist’s proclamation “fools say in their heart there is no God” not as an achingly sorrowful acknowledgement, but rather as a self-righteously arrogant dismissal of others. But there is another way to receive this text—as a prophetic injunction against a tendency toward unbelief in all people, including the gathered congregation. Try reciting the text with the refrain “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” identifying with the audience of the psalm.9 What about approaching Psalm 52, 75, or other laments against enemies by prompting congregations to identify with both the victim or the victimizer, just as an effective sermon on the Prodigal Son narrative might prompt listeners to see themselves as both the younger and older brother? Melissa Haupt offers us two psalm prayers to follow these psalms—one for “those who have been wronged,” and another “for those who have done wrong”10—designed to be used in juxtaposition to suggest how these complaint psalms evoke responses of both lament and penitence. How poignant such renderings could be for congregations in which bullies and the bullied, bankers and foreclosed homeowners, company owners and the recently laid off, pastors and pastoral agitators worship side-by-side.11

In many worshiping communities, vast portions of the psalms are never engaged in liturgy. In other communities, psalms are engaged more frequently, but often in a relatively homogenous way, with little awareness of the stunning range of ways these texts have and could function liturgically. May the next generation of liturgical scholars and pastoral liturgists and musicians sense the rich potential here for both academic and pastoral exploration.

Pray Tell is pleased to feature the first article from each issue of Worship, the “Amen Corner.” Sincere thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for their gracious reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.

[1] Merton, Praying the Psalms (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1956), 21.

[2] Thus, the allusion in my title to the speech-act theory of J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[3] The Paraclete Psalter (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010).

[4] See Thomas S. Ferguson, Visita Nos: Reception, Rhetoric, and Prayer in a North African Monastery (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1999), 47.

[5] Emma Hornby, “From Nativity to Resurrection: Musical and Exegetical Resonances in the Good Friday Chants Domine Adiui and Qui Habitat,” in Perspectives on the Passion: Encountering the Bible Through the Arts, ed. Christine E. Joynes, 92–98 (London: T & T Clark, 2007).

[6] Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2012), 603 and 607.

[7] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400–1580 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 226.

[8] Psalms for All Seasons, 161, 807, 900.

[9] From the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” as found in Psalms for All Seasons, 68.

[10] Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive, 2013), 31.

[11] To be sure, the vision generating these examples would need to be thoughtfully considered in each cultural and liturgical context. In some places, these (mostly Protestant) experiments might at least become a perspective explored in a homily or in any number of catechetical or pastoral occasions.

One comment

  1. Excellent. I would be in agreement on this point:

    “There is a lot to be said for simply reciting psalms, without thick, explicit
    liturgical frames …”

    And the natural unfolding you mention. Yet I know that nearly every Christian community outside of academia has a minority of folks who benefit from such thoughtfulness on the Psalms, let alone other Bible passages.

    “Yet, I also want to make a case for the select use of more explicit liturgical frames, especially in traditions that need to be reacquainted with the richness and vitality of these ancient texts.”

    I think the case can be made most often during the homily, and optimally with the assistance of a good lector or good musicians. I could envision a parish retreat or mission devoted to unpacking the Psalms in this way, as a doorway for the various opportunities a person, small group, or the whole faith community. I might suggest that communities without resident clergy are well-placed to provide this during a Bible Vigil, or during a Liturgy of the Word with or without Communion. In other words, this deep engagement isn’t necessarily a liturgical option.

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