I recently had an enlightening conversation with my priest about the role of scripture, or more specifically, the Psalter, in Christian piety. We were doing a bit of “compare & contrast” of the eastern western styles of piety. I’ve made no secret of my preference for certain aspects of the western style of piety and it was this preference that got the conversation going.
But let me be more specific. In broad strokes, the things I like about western piety are its directness and pace. A vespers service at a Benedictine monastery includes a couple of hymns with responsory and intercessionary prayers and brief readings, but the lion’s share of the service is dedicated to the reading of the Psalter in slow, measured tones.
There’s an art in learning to listen to the Psalter being read in this lectio divina style. One doesn’t so much interact with what’s being read as dwell within the text. When the new liturgical resources for the PC(USA) were being published back in the 80s there was a theological debate about whether the reader should say, “Let us listen to the Word …” or “Let us hear the word …” when introducing a reading. “Listen” – the preferred term in the classic Reformed tradition – is an active verb and implies that the one listening will interact with the text: What does the text mean? How can I apply it to my life? etc. “Hear,” on the other hand – the term used in the new resources – implies willing acceptance. It doesn’t wrestle with the text, it receives.
The Presbyterian theological debate had to do with wrestling and receiving. We were great text-wrestlers, but wrestling had its downside. It tended to put us in the driver’s seat (rather than Jesus Christ, the living Word). In the context of worship, so the argument went, the appropriate posture of the ear was not listening but rather hearing. Listening was appropriate in the study while hearing was appropriate in the sanctuary.
And this arcane debate gets to the heart of how one learns to attend to the Psalter in lectio divina. It’s an active process in so far as we attend to the text, but there ought to be no wrestling with the text in that setting; it’s rather dwelling within the text. It’s the process of letting the content of the Psalter flow over you, seep into your cracks and fissures, soak deeply into your heart, without your intellect reshaping the meaning of the text for its own purposes.
Toward this end the worshiper sits straight, comfortable but alert, silent, yet attentive. The reader reads slowly (the term typically used is “measured” reading) with little or no inflection (no drama or interpretation should be added to the text by means of reading style). Often the text is read antiphonally, the worshippers divided into two groups, facing each other.
Compare that with Orthodox vespers: The Psalter is read; typically six psalms at the beginning and another group of psalms mixed with prayers later in the service. At that point the comparison ends.
Now let’s contrast the western and eastern vespers: In the Orthodox church the psalms are read so fast it’s mind boggling. A good chanter would make a first-class cattle auctioneer blush. At times our priest reads the psalter so fast that my brain can’t even comprehend the words that are being said. It becomes a blur that is only clarified by familiarity with what’s coming next: “Oh yes, there’s that leviathan, next God will give them their meat in due season.” But of course, by the time I think all that, the people in Psalm 103 (LXX version; Ps. 104 in the Protestant-preferred MT) have already gathered up what Thou givest and are filled with good things because Thou hast opened up Thy hand (vv. 26-28).
(Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a wee little bit. Think of it as a touch of Byzantine excess decorating my description. I haven’t been immersed in the Byzantine Rite for five years for nothing!)
From someone who was trained in, and learned to appreciate, lectio divina, this style of reading borders on being offensive because it sounds rushed and careless, as if the goal is to merely get to the end of the service, not to pray the Psalter. But the Psalter has a very different function within Orthodox vespers. In the series of essays I did in the legacy site under the title, Essays on Eastern Orthodoxy, I frequently claimed that Orthodox worship is like a drama in which everyone – priest, deacon, chanter, person in the pew – all play a different but critical roles in a larger unified event. This is yet another example of this phenomenon.
The purpose of the reading of the psalms, as well as the chanting of the prayers and hymns and recitation of the prayers, is not for everyone to do the same thing. These are not corporate activities in the same manner that lectio divina – the “divine reading” of the psalms – is corporate: everyone present attending to the very same words of the Psalter at the same time. In Orthodox vespers, the psalms, prayers, hymns – all done by the chanters – are the background of the service from the worshiper’s perspective. An Orthodox temple has a particular smell (the incense), look (the layout, the icons, the candles, the dim light), and sound (the service being chanted by the clergy and chanters) that all say, “This is a place of prayer.” All that remains is for worshipers to come to vespers in order to pray. That is, to attend to God’s presence, not to attend to the specific words and actions of the priest, deacon, and chanters.
Fr. Paul described it as a garden. One rarely goes to a garden in order to study each flower individually; rather, a garden is an environment that is conducive to other activities: a stroll with a loved one, quiet meditation or relaxation, an opportunity to just get away and take it all in. All the individual flowers, taken as a whole, create an environment that encourages other activities.
This is how Orthodox vespers works. The recitation of the psalms, in conjunction with the lighting, the icons, the incense, and the simultaneous prayers of the clergy said in whispered tones in the altar, all create an environment in which the worshipper can come and offer their own prayers. The job of the worshiper praying vespers, is not to follow along with the leaders, but rather to pray, using all the other holy noises and smells to dispel all the internal distractions that make praying privately in one’s own prayer closet so difficult and tedious.
When everyone plays their part it all comes together in a glorious and harmonious whole. And the Psalter is not the whole, nor the focus, but one piece in a much larger and more intricate mosaic of praise and intercession offered to God.
Once I understood this, I no longer felt compelled to stumble or take offense over the fact that the Psalter was auctioned off to the hearer with the quickest ears. Conversely, once a Byzantine Christian understands lectio divina, they no longer are compelled to stumble or take offense at the tortoise tournament of antiphonal reading that allows the mind to wander or – God forbid! – wrestle with the text, if the hearer has not developed the discipline to dispassionately wait for the divine Word to be spoken.
It is two different disciplines that require two very different styles of reading. It is two disciplines that hold contrasting, yet complementary views of how scripture operates in our life. But in both cases we must head the deacon’s call: “Let us attend!” or “Let us hear the Word of God.”
Thanks be to God.