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LIFE IN THE PSALMS: CONTEMPORARY MEANING IN ANCIENT TEXTS – PATRICK WOODHOUSE

The Psalms are the bedrock of Christian prayer and worship, having been the foundation prayers of the Jewish people, and recited by Jesus in his living and dying. R.M. Benson, in his 1901 commentary, called them the ‘War-Songs of the Prince of Peace’.  Here we have a series of meditations on the Psalms, not so much a commentary as a number of reflective essays exploring the meaning of the Psalms for today.

The author of the book, the Revd. Patrick Woodhouse, previously a Canon of Wells Cathedral, will be well-known to some readers of franciscan, as Patrick  has been a friend of the community at Hilfield Friary for many years. His sermons have graced many a Sunday morning Eucharist in the friary chapel.

Although structured as a Lent book, with six weeks of five readings each, it can profitably be used at any time of the year. Each chapter prints out a Psalm, offers reflections based on the author’s experience or quoting writers he has been influenced by, such as Etty Hillesum.  Most helpfully he guides the reader in a kind of lectio divina or sacred reading of the text, highlighting particular verses or phrases to accompany the reader throughout the day.

One particular insight that has stayed with me is the likelihood that many of the Psalms were composed as prayers before battle.  I have always struggled with the juxtaposition of expressions of sacred awe and violent curses that repeatedly interweave the text.  The latter have been bracketed in our current Daily Office book, perhaps seen as additions by a later more vindictive psalmist, and we ourselves at Glasshampton omit them in public recitation.  But, in private at least, perhaps we should indeed see the connection between the two moods: the creation fills us with awe, and we rejoice that our lives are miraculous, because we stand at the threshold of imminent suffering and death.  (And, reading the requests for intercessory prayer left by guests, when are we not at this threshold ourselves?)  These are poems to be recited in trenches on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, not as a coda to afternoon tea; war-songs of the Prince of Peace indeed.

Nicholas Alan SSF