The Psalter: (A Model and Means of Prayer)By Fr. John Ealy, St. Stephen Orthodox Church, Orlando, Florida
The Psalter, portions of which are chanted at all services of the Church, is considered to be the hymn book of the Church. A great importance has been ascribed to it by Christians from the earliest times. Psalms make up the bulk of Vespers, Matins, Compline and the Hours. The Typical Psalms are used at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. The antiphons of feast days, which replace the Typical Psalms, are taken from the Psalter, as are the Prokeimenon and Alleluia verses.
Why is this book so significant?
It is the Word of God and a teacher of prayer. Attentively chanting the Psalms teaches one how to pray. The early saints testify to this fact. They chanted the Psalms daily, and in this manner were taught to pray. The saints explain to us that the Psalms' importance lies in the fact that through them, God Himself, provides us with the words which we need in order to pray. One who chants the Psalms will learn how to pray in the correct manner and for the proper things.
Why chant the Psalms? Why not just read them in a plain, straightforward manner?
The chanting of the Psalms enables us to hear the Word of God, clearly and in a unique way. It enable us to remember God's Word. A good example of what we are speaking about can be heard during the singing of the Kathisma at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts ("In my distress I cry to the Lord, that He may answer me..."). Watch the children during this part of the Liturgy. They all seem to know this section by heart (at least in part because of the special Lenten melody used). If, however, these particular Psalms were merely read aloud, the children would not remember them half as well.
Psalms should be chanted daily in our homes. They should be chanted with attention so that we might hear our Lord speaking to us. In this way we will become better in our prayer life because we will be accustomed to using prayers that God Himself has provided. St. Benedict tells us that when we chant the Psalms we must put our minds where our mouths are. Chanting the Psalms enables us to do this, and thus learn the Psalter.
Why should we pray with the words that God Himself provides?
In the Gospel of St. Matthew when the apostles came to Jesus and asked Him to teach them how to pray, He did not say, "Make up your own words", or "Meditate on the wonders of nature", or "Just let the Spirit move you". He said, "Pray like this: Our Father, Who art in heaven..." In St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus is just as emphatic while instructing His followers how to pray. "And He said to them, when you pray, say: Father, hallowed be Thy name..." We pray with the words that God gives. It is for this reason that all of our prayers should be in conformity with the prayer that Jesus gave to us, the Lord's Prayer. In it we find no petitions for health, wealth, prosperity or power. It is for this reason that we also learn the Psalms and read the other Scriptures. True prayer always begins with the words that come from God. Then, when we do use our own words they will be based on what we have learned from the Psalms, the Lord's Prayer and the Bible generally.
Where is the best place to learn the Psalms?
In Church. On Sunday before the Liturgy the Hours are read. These are made up mostly of Psalmody. Come into the Church and listen to the Psalms. Come to Vigils on Saturday nights and on feast days. The Psalms are chanted at these services as well. (A good liturgical suggestion) is for communities to begin chanting the Psalms antiphonally. If we desire to hear the Word of God, learn it and keep it, there is no substitute for coming to Church. Once we are there we must work at listening and perhaps even join in the chanting of Psalms, (when appropriate and possible). This is just one of the important reasons we come to Church. One cannot really pray properly if one does not come into the Church and immerse oneself in the services (particularly the Liturgy), experiencing the power of God, through the presence of His Holy Spirit, in the assembly of His people.
To do what is mentioned above is hard work. Nothing worthwhile, however, is accomplished without effort. This is very true of our Church services, partly because of many distractions that are possible there. In addition to the normal distractions of children and other people, the devil also distracts us. The last thing he wants us to do is pay attention to the Word of God, experiencing His presence in our midst. But it can be done with the power and help of God...
From The Dawn Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America