The Book of Common Prayer provides for two different ways to read the Psalms at Morning and Evening Prayer. The most common way is to use the lectionary in the back of the BCP, which divides up the Psalter into fairly small-sized portions, often appropriate for the season of the year, the time of day or the particular day in the week, and allowing for some verses (or whole Psalms) we might find objectionable to be dropped. It takes about two months to make it through the (mostly) complete Book of Psalms this way.
The other way is to go through all 150 Psalms in a thirty-day cycle—called praying the Psalms “in course.” The Prayer Book makes this easy by putting notations in the Psalter indicating where each set of Psalms for morning and evening prayer begins and ends. Praying the Psalms this way means we see and experience everything…wrestling with difficult and obscure passages as well as delighting in familiar or popular sections. This is the way ancient Christians often experienced the Psalms. Celtic monks, for instance, would have had all 150 memorized for recitation each day!
As a modern and admittedly at times lukewarm Christian, during much of the year I use the Lectionary for my daily Psalmody, but in the summer I tend to use the 30 day Psalter.* This was how I initially learned the Psalms, and I remain convinced that the orderly walk through what the Early Church called the greatest commentary on the Gospel is essential to understanding these ancient hymns and prayers from a Christian perspective. It also sharpens our understanding of the entire Christian faith. I find I need the depth of exposure and the level of prayerful focus I receive only in the monthly cycle of Psalms. Those monks knew what they were doing!
Whenever we enter into the Psalms, we are going to find a world both familiar and radically different. Some of the concepts found here are comforting and instantly recognizable. Others are seem completely at odds with the Gospel. Still others are so remote from our own way of life as to appear irrelevant at the outset.
The Psalms are ancient Hebrew texts, and have an intellectual and cultural context that must be studied and understood in order to be appreciated with the mind. But, when prayed by Christians, these hymns must also be approached in the light of the risen Christ. After all, the Psalms are widely quoted throughout the New Testament, and they form much of the earliest Christian commentary on the faith.
St. Augustine, for instance, wrote a commentary on the Psalms with the assumption that they all could be viewed as prayers of Christ. This led to some extraordinary reflections on their contents and application. Others have viewed the Psalms as the Prayer of the Church to its Lord. Still others have interpreted them as a kind of Encyclopedia of the Christian life. Many, many other approaches have been taken.
Anglican prayer forms all take the Psalms as an essential starting-place. In order for us to do this, having them in our heart is important and the traditional Monthly Psalter is a good way to get there. Give it a try and tell me what you think…
*In those months with 31 days, it is customary to say the Psalms for the 30th day again on the 31st day.