Some considerable time ago I started a series on the Gradual Psalms, or Psalms of Ascent as they are labelled in Scripture. I didn't quite finish it, so I thought I'd try and come back to it now as they are a great set of psalms to pray through Lent.
The Gradual psalms are an important part of the Benedictine Office, but I have to admit that I rather struggle them, as, read literally, they often seem somewhat obscure. As with all of the psalms though, deeper study can help.
Accordingly this series will be a mix of reposting of previous material, links to previous posts, and time permitting (no promises!), some posts on the psalms I haven't yet covered in the series.
This week, though, some introductory material.
The significance of the Gradual Psalms
The fifteen Gradual psalms, Psalms 119 to 133, were originally used both as pilgrim songs and liturgically: they were probably originally sung on the journey to Jerusalem, as well as liturgically when the pilgrims ascended each of the fifteen steps of the outer Temple to the inner at Jerusalem on the three major feasts of the Jewish calendar.
As the temple itself was viewed as a microcosm of heaven, they seem always to have been interpreted as a mystical ascent to heaven as well.
The Gradual Psalms are traditionally used both devotionally, as a group, and as part of the Divine Office.
Although they were taken over from Jewish liturgical and devotional use, the early Christians saw the number of the set as having particular symbolic significance to the new covenant, since the total of them, fifteen is the product of seven (days of creation; the Old Testament) and eight (the eighth day of the Resurrection, and hence the new covenant). Cassiodorus, for example, commented:
Their purpose is to unfold in fifteen ordered steps the blessedness of the faithful people, celebrated in that previous song in which their wide-ranging merits are assembled, to elucidate the mystery of the New and Old Testaments. The number seven, as has often been said, denotes the week occasioned by the sabbath of the Old Testament; the number eight signifies the Lord's day, on which He clearly rose again, and this is relevant to the New. When joined together, they are seen to make up the number fifteen. The psalmist begins with renunciation of the world, for he shudders at the worldly ways which constitute the burden of his ills. From this base he mounts by the steps, so to say, of merits, and reaches the perfect and eternal love of the Lord, which as we know is set at the very summit of the virtues....I think that I should advise you that through the bounty of divine grace, fifteen steps are laid in these psalms to denote in various ways the saints' merits, just as there was the same number in the temple at Jerusalem, which we know was completed by Solomon. This was so that the present order of the psalms, prefigured in that building, should be seen to be foretold, for that earthly construction seemed to bear the likeness of the heavenly temple. So when we hear the word steps in the psalms, we are not to think of anything material to be mounted by physical movement, but we should interpret it as the mind's ascent...The ascent through humility...
St Benedict seems to rather play on that symbolism as well in various ways, as St Bede the Venerable noted in his commentary on Nehemiah 3:
They arrive as far as the steps that come down from the city of David when one has learned to advance by means of spiritual desires from the common life of the faithful to the things of heaven. For the steps that come down from the city of David to the lower parts of the city of Jerusalem are the aids of divine inspiration or protection by which we should ascend to his kingdom. For David made the steps by which we should ascend to his city when divine mercy taught us the order of the virtues by which we may seek heavenly things and when it granted us the gift of seeking these same virtues. Doubtless it is about these steps that the psalmist said: Blessed is the man whose help is from you O Lord; he has placed ascents in his heart... and so on until he says: They will walk from virtue to virtue; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. (Ps 83:6-8).
The builders of the holy city arrive at these steps, therefore, after building the walls of the Pool of Siloa and the King's Garden when, after the mysteries of the Lord's incarnation have been revealed whereby the Gentile world blind from birth has been cleansed and illuminated, and after the sprouts of good action have begun to grow through faith, holy teachers at the appropriate moment more diligently reveal the progress of the virtues to their hearers, whereby they may ascend to the vision of their Creator, namely him 'of the strong hand' or 'the desirable one', which is the meaning of the name David. Benedict, a father very reverend both in his name and in his life, realized that these steps especially consist in humility when, interpreting our journey to celestial things to be designated by the ladder shown to the Patriarch Jacob, by which angels ascended and descended, he distinguished in a very careful and pious examination the steps of the ladder itself as the increments and stages of good works that are performed through humility...(trans Scott DeGregorio)St Bede's link to Psalm 83 can also be found in Cassiodorus' comments on the set:
The word canticle has been placed first so that we may apply it rather to the progress of the soul. Step here is the ascent of humility, confession of sins, as was stated in Psalm 83: In his heart he has disposed to ascend by steps, in the vale of tears. We shall deserve to mount these steps only if we prostrate ourselves for our sins. So let us continually entreat the Lord....SS Benedict, Cassiodorus and St Bede were, however, probably all drawing on St Augustine, who makes the link to Jacob's Ladder in his commentary on the first of the set, Psalm 119:
For it is, according to the title prefixed to it, A song of degrees. Degrees are either of ascent or of descent. But degrees, as they are used in this Psalm, are of ascending...There are therefore both those who ascend and those who descend on that ladder. Who are they that ascend? They who progress towards the understanding of things spiritual. Who are they that descend? They who, although, as far as men may, they enjoy the comprehension of things spiritual: nevertheless, descend unto the infants, to say to them such things as they can receive, so that, after being nourished with milk, they may become fitted and strong enough to take spiritual meat...When therefore a man has commenced thus to order his ascent; to speak more plainly, when a Christian has begun to think of spiritual amendment, he begins to suffer the tongues of adversaries. Whoever has not yet suffered from them, has not yet made progress; whoever suffers them not, does not even endeavour to improve. Does he wish to know what we mean? Let him at the same time experience what is reported of us. Let him begin to improve, let him begin to wish to ascend, to wish to despise earthly, fragile, temporal objects, to hold worldly happiness for nothing, to think of God alone, not to rejoice in gain, not to pine at losses, to wish even to sell all his substance, and distribute it among the poor, and to follow Christ; let us see how he suffers the tongues of detractors and of constant opponents, and— a still greater peril— of pretended counsellors, who lead him astray from salvation...In the design of the Office
In the traditional forms of the Roman Office as it has come down to us, the Gradual psalms (save for Psalm 133, said at Sunday Compline) are part of the Vespers sequence. In St Benedict's form of the Office though, as St Bede hints, they play a much more important role.
In the Benedictine Office, Sunday and Monday at Terce to None are devoted to the great psalm of the law, Psalm 118; the rest of the week to the Gradual psalms, which symbolise our spiritual ascent through grace. We need of course both grace and the law to progress.
There is arguably some interesting number symbolism in the way the Gradual psalms are used in the Benedictine Office.
In the Benedictine Office, the last of the set, Psalm 133, which talks about standing in the courtyards of the house of God, is said every day at Compline. As the week starts on Sunday, which is both the first day of the week and 'eighth day' of the Resurrection, this can perhaps be interpreted as symbolically reminding us of our ultimate objective, of standing in the true house of God, heaven or the New Jerusalem, forever after our own Resurrection.
On Monday (feria secunda), two of the set are said, viz Psalm 133, and Psalm 128 at Vespers.
On Tuesday (feria tertia), fourteen of the psalms are said (Terce to Vespers, Compline), perhaps signalling our ascent to heaven through Christ (for there are three times fourteen generations of humans between Adam and Christ).
And on Wednesday to Saturday, nine of the Gradual psalms are used each day (Psalms 119-127) at Terce to None, and of course Psalm 133 at Compline makes ten, equalling the number of commandments.
All of this adds up to 53 Gradual Psalms said each week, a number St Augustine (and many others) provided several symbolic explanations for in the context of explaining the meaning of the 153 fish caught in John 21: 1-14 which you can read a summary of over at New Liturgical Movement.
You can read the next part in this series (which provides the set arranged for devotional use) here.