Last year, with the publication of The Abbey Psalms and Canticles, I decided to start using the revised texts when saying the Office, to get something of a head start to internalizing the texts that would be used in the forthcoming re-translation of The Liturgy of the Hours. I expected to be happy about some alterations and irked by others, but what I didn’t expect was how having to look up the psalms in a psalter would make me keenly aware of what is omitted in the Liturgy of the Hours. Yes, omissions were noted in the headings, but I had never really paid much attention to them. Praying the entire psalm from which certain verses had been omitted sent me off in a quest to find out what went into the decision to edit the Psalter in the official prayer of the Church.
Many are no doubt aware that in the revision of the Office three whole psalms (58, 83, 109), along with select verses of other psalms, were omitted from the Four-Week Psalter because of their imprecatory or “cursing” nature (see here). The story of how this came about is recounted in Annibale Bugnini’s invaluable The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975. It is, to be honest, a rather odd story.
There was at the time of the Council a widespread sentiment that a problem was posed by the cursing psalms, particularly if the Hours were to be celebrated in the vernacular with the people, who might not have the theological and spiritual formation to understand how such texts ought to be understood in light of Christian teaching. Among the members of Study Group 3, charged with examining the distribution of the Psalms, as well as the participants at the 1967 Synod of Bishops, a majority coalesced around the idea that it was important to retain the whole of the Psalter in the Daily Office, not only to honor tradition, but also lest the selection of psalms betray an subjective set of preferences. But, they said, the imprecatory psalms might be restricted to particular liturgical seasons (as came to be done with the “historical psalms”—i.e. 78, 105, and 106) or relegated to Hours other than Lauds and Vespers, so that they would generally be prayed only by those with sufficient formation to understand their context and spiritual interpretation. Likewise the imprecatory verses in other psalms could be marked in such a way that they could be omitted if necessary—for example, in celebrations with the people or if they posed a particular problem for an individual. In reporting these majority views to Pope Paul VI, however, both the president of the Consilium, Cardinal Lercaro, and its secretary, Bugnini, appended their own views that there was no real need to retain all of the psalm in their integral form (the lectionary, after all, selects among the passages of Scripture it includes) and that the cursing psalms and imprecatory verses in other psalms posed an insurmountable psychological barrier to prayer for Christians and should be omitted entirely.
The arguments of Lercaro and Bugnini seem to have swayed Paul VI, who, despite the views of the majority of both Group 3 and the Synod of Bishops, directed that Psalms 58, 83, 109 not be included in the office and that imprecatory verses in other psalms be omitted at well. These omissions are noted in the General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours, along with a somewhat ambivalent explanation:
The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty, even though the psalms of imprecation are in fact used as prayer in the New Testament, for example, Rv 6:10, and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (§131).
So now to a few thoughts about all of this:
- The process itself by which this decision was made is a bit troubling, since it seems that the president and secretary of the Consilium, along with the Pope himself, didn’t really care what the majority of the Study Group or Synod of Bishops thought. Bugnini, in his memoir, is particularly harsh with regard to the eminent liturgical scholar Aimé Georges Martimort, who worried about “the dangers of an arbitrary selection.” Martimort, Bugnini says, “lacked the courage to enter upon a new path. Therefore he did not give much weight to the thinking of the Pope on the new proposals…; the result was a loss of time and a waste of energies” (500-501). The idea that having a strong bias in favor of the tradition of praying all the psalms is a lack of courage (particularly when those verses might fit uneasily with the image we would like to have or God or ourselves), or that presenting the view of a majority of scholars, even though the Pope might disagree, is a waste of time is…well…troubling to say the least. It presents an extraordinarily top-down view of matters and one that can be subject to abuse, particularly given that Bugnini seems to have used his access to the Pope to press his own, minority view. I don’t think Bugnini to be the comprehensive villain that some do, but it is hard to escape the impression that in this case he had his thumb rather heavily on the scale.
- Martimort’s concern about the arbitrariness of the omissions seems to me to be somewhat borne out in the results. Why is it unChristian to pray “Let those who seek my life/ be shamed and disgraced./ Let those who plan evil against me/ be routed in confusion” (35:4, omitted from the Psalter along with 11 other verses of that psalm) but not to pray the extraordinarily grisly, “Then you will bathe your feet in their blood,/ and the tongues of your dogs take their share of the foe” (68:24, appointed for Tuesday, Week III in the Office of Readings). Perhaps the inclusion of this verse was simply an oversight. But such oversight regarding what was included does not inspire confidence regarding what was omitted. Indeed, all of the verses excised from Psalm 35 seem to simply ask that one’s enemies suffer a humiliating defeat by being caught in their own machinations, not that they be physically harmed or destroyed. Is such prayer really unworthy of Christians? Who decided which verses were unacceptably imprecatory and which were not?
- The cursing psalms are troubling and, at times, difficult to pray. When we think of Jesus’s teaching on love of enemies, we can wonder what it might mean to pray “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” (58:7) or “The just shall rejoice at the sight of vengeance;/they shall bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:11). They do present “a certain psychological difficulty.” And there might well be contexts in which they are inappropriate, particularly occasions of public worship when there is no opportunity to address the difficulty they present. After all, I have been know to choose the shorter form of the reading from Colossians on the Feast of the Holy Family if I am not going to address explicitly the statement “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.” So I don’t think it is necessarily condescending to say that some parts of scripture require theological and spiritual formation in order to pray them fruitfully.
- It is something else entirely to say, as the position taken by Lercaro, Bugnini, and Paul IV seems to imply, that the cursing psalms can never be prayed fruitfully; not only are they not for everyone; it seems they are not for anyone. Paul VI had the option of leaving the imprecatory material in the Psalter, but not requiring that it be used. The decision to exclude these psalms and verses entirely seems to put them beyond the pale–not quite removing them from the canon, but certainly forbidding that they ever be prayed as part of the official prayer of the Church.
- One of the glories of the psalter is that it lays every human emotion bare before God. The very fact of praying that God would take vengeance is a way of acknowledging our own desire for vengeance and of leaving such vengeance up to God. It is a kind of emotional safety valve that any realistic assessment of fallen human nature would seem to require. Prissy concern about expressing negative sentiments before God seems to at the same time overestimate human nature and underestimate the divine nature. We hardly need to protect God from the sentiments expressed in Scripture.
I’ve now been praying all of the imprecatory verses excised from the psalms for over a year now and have not noticed any ill effects on my spiritual life. Once the complete revision of the Liturgy of the Hours appears I will probably stop, simply because it will be inconvenient to look them up. But I will miss them. Not only have they not harmed me spiritually, but on a few occasions is has even felt salutary to give vent to my anger and frustration because, in case you haven’t noticed, there is a lot to be angry and frustrated about.