Friday, November 15, 2013

Notes on the psalm notes

The psalm notes on this blog generally include an overview of each psalm, particularly with a mind to praying it in the context of St Benedict's schema for his Office.

In addition, there are some posts on particular psalms in other liturgical contexts, such as the Office for the Dead, or the Mass.

The verse by verse commentaries are intended to provide a basis for the deeper penetration of the meaning of the psalm through lectio divina on them based on the commentaries of the Fathers and Theologians.

Praying the Office with St Benedict

The first focus for the notes on this blog is to encourage those using the Benedictine Office to consider the deeper structure of that Office.

St Benedict devotes almost a third of his Rule to specifying the particular order of the psalms to be said in the form of the Divine Office to be followed by his monks.  And it is clear that he exercised great care and deliberation in selecting the pattern of repetitions and particular groupings he specified for each hour and day.

It is true that St Benedict does give permission for other (weekly) orderings of the psalter to be adopted.  Yet for centuries - up until the most recent one in fact - the overwhelming majority of his monks and nuns treasured the patrimony handed to them, and allowed themselves to be formed by the distinctive Office St Benedict bequeathed to them.

It is often suggested by modern liturgists that there is no underlying programmatic content to St Benedict's Office.  It is true of course, that liturgy - at least when it is the product of a process of organic development over centuries - rarely runs in clear straight lines.  Instead, as the theologian Catherine Pitstock argued in After Writing, it stutters and stops, re-beginnings and repeats in patterns borne of its cultural context.  Nonetheless, I believe that there is considerable internal and external evidence that St Benedict did in fact seek impose a particular implicit program on his Office.

It is generally agreed that St Benedict's starting point was the old Roman Office of his time.  He made many changes to it, however, and I would argue that those changes are spurred by three objectives: to give greater shape the nature of the particular hours; to emphasize particular aspects of his spirituality through repetition; and above all, a desire to give greater emphasis each day to the themes set out in the traditional (ferial) Office canticles set for Lauds each day.

In approaching this task, St Benedict, I would suggest, takes advantage of some of the distinctive sub-groupings of psalms as they appear in Scripture in order to give a more thematic feel to his Office.

Some of these linkages are horizontal, giving a thematic unity to particular hours of a particular day, or across the psalms of Prime and Vespers for example.

But there is also, in my view, a vertical unity, for I think that, taking its cue from the Lauds Canticles, the Benedictine Office is deeply Christological in character, tracing the life of Christ  - and its implications for us - in each day of the week.  In particular:

Monday covers the Incarnation to his baptism (Vespers) and the Temptation in the Desert, with a    particular focus for the nun or monk on the renewal of monastic vows;
Tuesday reflects on the public mission of Jesus, whereby he teaches us how to live the Christian life and thus ascend the steps towards the heavenly Temple (reflected in the use of the Gradual Psalms from Terce to Vespers);
Wednesday focuses on his betrayal;
Thursday to Saturday provides recapitulates the events of the Triduum; and
Sunday celebrates the Resurrection.

Whether or not you agree with the arguments I develop for the existence of this particular mystical seven days of the remaking of the world in the notes provided herein, I hope you will nonetheless find meditation on the life of Christ in the context of the psalms worthwhile.

Praying the Office in Latin

The notes are also intended to assist those who wish to learn to pray the Office in Latin, particularly since there is no officially approved English version of the traditional Benedictine Office, and the translations that are included for study purposes in editions such as the Farnborough Monastic Diurnal do not always mirror the Latin Vulgate.

In general, the English translations provided (unless otherwise indicated) are from an updated version of the Douay-Rheims (previously on the New Advent site), since this is generally the most literal translation from the Latin Vulgate.  Text comments will often focus on the reasons for variations in the translations most commonly used for reference purposes for those saying the Office, viz Coverdale and the early twentieth century Collegeville translation used in the Farnborough edition of the Monastic Diurnal, as well as variations adopted by the 1979 Neo-Vulgate (used in the Novus Ordo Divine Office).

The vocabulary lists are generally derived from Dom Matthew Britt, A Dictionary of the Psalter (Preserving Christian Publications 2007 reprint of Benziger Brothers, 1928), supplemented by others sources such as Cassell's Latin Dictionary and Lewis and Short.

Where other translations are provided (note that the selection is limited by copyright considerations), the abbreviations used are as follows:

V            =Vulgate (available on the New Advent website)
NV         =Neo-Vulgate (available on the Vatican website)
JH          =St Jerome's translation from the Hebrew
Sept       =Septuagint (available on the New Advent website)
DR         =Douay-Rheims (generally the version previously on the New Advent website)
MD        =Monastic Diurnal published by Farnborough Abbey (Collegeville translation)
Brenton  =Sir Lancelot Brenton's translation from the Septuagint
NETS    =New English Translation from the Septuagint, available here
RSV       =Revised Standard Edition
Cover    =Coverdale
Knox      =Ronald Knox's translation available from the New Advent site
Grail      =Grail Psalter

The Hebrew, with links to Strong's Concordance, can be found (along with numerous other translations) at Blue Letter Bible.

The word by word translations, text notes and commentary are my own, but draw heavily on the commentaries of the Fathers and Theologians (on whom overview notes can be found elsewhere on this blog), Magisterial teaching, and other psalm commentaries.  As well as these, the next notes draw heavily on the following sources:

TE Bird, A Commentary on the Psalms 2 vols, (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1927)
Msgr Patrick Boylan, A Study of the Vulgate Psalter in the Light of the Hebrew Text, 2 vols (Dublin: M H Gill and Son, 2nd ed 1921)
David  J Ladouceur, The Latin Psalter Introduction, Selected Text and Commentary (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2005)

Suggestions, comments and queries

Comments, questions or suggestions on the content or presentation of these notes are always welcome.

In terms of content and layout, I've tried out several different formats in these notes and am currently moving to a slightly different one, and I'm always keen to get any feedback on issues such as whether the commentary notes are too long or not (I'm planning on shortening them henceforth) and so forth.

I'm also open to requests to look at particular psalms as a priority.

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