Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

When do the psalm-prayers happen?

Posted by universalis on 23 February 2018

In the revision and renewal of the Liturgy of the Hours that was completed in the early 1970s, one of the important and interesting changes was the addition of “psalm-prayers”, collects that are inserted after each psalm and canticle. As §112 of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours puts it:

Orationes super psalmos, quae recitantes adiuvent in eorum interpretatione praecipue christiana, in Supplemento libri Liturgiae Horarum pro singulis psalmis proponuntur et possunt ad libitum adhiberi ad normam veteris traditionis, ita scilicet ut, absoluto psalmo et aliquo silentii spatio observato, oratio psallentium affectus colligat et concludat.

“Prayers on the psalms, to help those who recite the psalms to interpret them in a particularly Christian sense, are offered for each psalm in the Supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours. They can, if wished, be added to the Office, following an ancient tradition – that is, the psalm having been completed and a certain period of silence having been observed, to bring together the thoughts and feelings of those who have recited the psalm, and to bring them to a conclusion.”

The psalm-prayers were controversial. Some of the people charged with the revision of the Divine Office felt that the psalm-prayers were “burdensome and contrived” and should not be included in the Breviary: the more texts you put into an Hour, the more it seems as if the point of the Hour is to get through those texts, and the presence of an imminent psalm-prayer may discourage rather than encourage proper reflection and meditation on the psalm itself – like a hurried Mass without pauses, which stops one from praying because there is always another thing to be said or done, and then another. On the other hand, another participant in the discussion said that he had, from personal experience, found the psalm-prayers helpful, and a good way of avoiding the “horse race” effect of consecutive psalms, in which the sense of “one down, two to go”, “two down, one to go, nearly there” squeezes out any opportunity for real prayer. All in all, the decision to push the psalm-prayers into an optional Supplement was aimed at getting the best of both worlds: to offer the psalm-prayers to those whom they help while not distracting those for whom they would be a burden. Nowadays, of course, the optional inclusion can be done by a simple on/off setting within an app.

Forty-seven years after the new Breviary was published, the promised Supplement has still not appeared.

This is not really a matter of politics. The fact is that there are many ancient traditions (often Spanish ones) and thus many possible sets of psalm-prayers to choose. More scholarly research and development was needed to provide something that would be of use to the universal Church. To take one example: there was the question whether the Old Testament and New Testament canticles which take the place of one of the three psalms at Lauds and Vespers should count as “psalms” for the purpose of psalm-prayers. In the view of Félix Arocena Solano in Orationes super Psalmos e ritu Hispano-Mozarabico (1993) the answer is clearly Yes: I think he is right, but of course that makes more work for everyone. At present there are various collections of psalm-prayers around, and they are different and incomplete in various ways. Arocena’s own work covers only the four-week cycle, and only Lauds and Vespers. It does cover the canticles, though, which the other well-known collection, the one produced in English by ICEL and translated from a different set of Latin prayers, does not.

The Church’s official view of these unofficial enterprises is given in Notitiæ 76 (Sept-Oct 1972): that collections of psalm-prayers could be published, and submitted for approval, before the promised Supplement was published.

How to do a psalm-prayer

With all the concern about the texts of the psalm-prayers, what to do with the texts once you have them has received less attention. Arocena says that they should be treated like the short prayers at Mass, with the usual short endings, “Through Christ our Lord, Amen”, and so on, depending on to whom the psalm-prayer is addressed, and in his book they are presented in that form. The more general consensus (followed by ICEL and the Dominicans) is that there should be no ending added.

A correspondent raised another point. He said that he had always thought that the psalm-prayer should come before the final antiphon of the psalm. It wasn’t clear whether he was looking at a book in which this was the case, or whether he was looking at the one-volume Christian Prayer from the Catholic Book Publishing Company in the USA, which, to save space, prints antiphons only before a psalm and not after them and leaves you to insert them at the end. “At the end”, he thought, meant after everything including the psalm-prayer. We don’t think so. Universalis puts the psalm-prayer after the final antiphon, making it the last thing before we clear our minds and move on to the next psalm.

It is very easy to see which of us is right! Simply consult the official Latin Breviary, and if it says nothing, ask the Congregation for Divine Worship and hope for an official answer. However, since the psalm-prayers do not exist in the official Latin Breviary, it can’t be consulted as an authority; and Cultu Divino can’t be asked for a ruling on the use of books and texts that do not exist.

Accordingly, here is a reasoned argument in favour of the arrangement used in Universalis. We are not concerned with claiming that anyone who does things another way is wrong: merely in justifying the arrangement we have adopted.

Arguments in justification

The intention of a psalm-prayer is that once a psalm has been completed, a period of silence follows. This period is intended for us to respond to the psalm we have recited (or listened to) and to follow the threads of our feelings (affectus) wherever God, through the psalm, has told us to go. It is not intended to be a period of clock-watching, of waiting for the next thing to happen, of the recitation of the psalm being suspended in mid-course. That is: the psalm, at this point, should have been completely completed. This does not mean having a final antiphon hovering just out of sight, waiting to be said or sung.

Equally, the conclusion provided by the psalm-prayer, ending with its “Amen”, should leave the whole thing conclusively concluded, all loose ends tied up, our minds ready to start afresh with the next psalm. To untie everything and reopen a closed box by interjecting an antiphon which, by now, belongs very much to the previous psalm would break the whole rhythm and frustrate the intention of the psalm-prayer.

Finally, there is standing and sitting and speaking and singing. One common pattern of recitation of psalms is for the psalm and its antiphon to be sung, standing – with two half-choirs, or cantors versus choir, or… the permutations are endless, and rightly so, since different communities and different circumstances lead to different answers. Prayers and collects, on the other hand, are usually spoken rather than sung; and even when chanted, are chanted by one person while the others listen. This is because the aim of a collect is not for each of to worry about keeping together with the others in pace and pitch, but actually to pray.

To draw these arguments together, the structure of each psalm in each Hour is (we argue) as follows:

At the core: the psalm itself.

Inseparably attached: the doxology.

Top and tail: the antiphon.

Optional conclusion: the psalm-prayer.

You might say: the ham; the mustard; the two slices of bread; and the plate.

This is the arrangement that Universalis uses.

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2 Responses to “When do the psalm-prayers happen?”

  1. Chris said

    While I agree with your assessment, my 1976 version of the one-volume Christian Prayer does not print “final antiphons”; the antiphons are written before the psalm/canticle but not after (likely in an effort to save space). The four-volume Liturgy of the Hours does print the final antiphons after the psalm-prayer, so that may be the book you were thinking of.

    • Or I may have misread the Christian Prayer book, because this blog post was written in reply to a correspondent who was sure the antiphons ought to come last, and he said he had got it from the book. Thank you for the clarification! >

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