I am not well today, and so I have spent part of this morning in bed with my iPad skimming around the archives of Fr. John Hunwicke’s outstanding blog while also writing some overdue e-mails. A post from January 8, 2010, entitled “The Psalter,” recounts the days when bishops would refuse elevating folks to the episcopacy or, in some instances, even confer ordination due to candidates being able to recite the Psalter — yes, all 150 Psalms — by heart.
It is very difficult to conceive, living as we do in the digital age, that anyone could, let alone would want to, commit so much text to memory, and yet that is exactly what Christian monks and clerics of a bygone era did. Of course, having ready-at-hand access to choral recitation of the daily office didn’t hurt. Oh, and having — at least for one’s general geographic area — a static recension of the Psalms, whether in Latin or Greek or Church Slavonic, was no doubt useful. Today, Anglophone Eastern and Roman Catholics, along with the Orthodox, are flooded with English-language texts, some more worthy of notice than others. (Actually, the dismal reality is that many are unworthy of any notice.) Depending on what source you go to, the Roman Church has done a terrific job making the Psalter accessible and chantable in English, or they’ve just banalized the whole thing. And those noble few who still want the Psalms in the same Latin King David sang in were, in the last century at least, faced with three choices. (Today, thankfully, it is essentially down to two choices, though only one has any authentic claim to consistent use through the centuries.)
When I was Orthodox, I used the readily available, somewhat controversial, and probably not-all-that-great Psalter According to the Seventy, a.k.a., “The HTM [Holy Transfiguration Monastery]” or “Boston” (Brookline!) Psalter. The choice was made out of convenience. Setting aside the handful of English liturgical texts produced by the Orthodox Church in America, the Greeks, and the Antiochians, all of the “mainline” liturgical books available, ranging from the Horologion to the 12-volume Menaion, rely on the HTM Psalter. Despite that text’s defects, path dependency has taken hold in Orthodoxy and it would be a vexing chore to revise so many books after revising a Psalter which, for better or worse, has been going strong for four decades. Though the book only came out as I was on my way out of Orthodoxy, David James was kind enough to furnish me with a draft copy of his A Psalter for Prayer – a reworking of the classic Miles Coverdale Psalter in the light of the Greek and Slavonic texts currently used by the Orthodox. (In an “ecumenical nod,” James even works in the Latin titles of the Vulgate Psalms and, in footnotes, highlights some alternative readings.) If the (Russian) Orthodox in America ever get around to adopting a new normative Psalter, that’s the one to run with. Out of support for James’ work, I purchased the official publication of his text last year and still use it from time to time when I am feeling “bi-ritual.”
After having committed a good number of Psalms from the HTM Psalter to memory during my Orthodox years, I just started noticing how I now conflate that edition’s text with the text found in the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB). In many instances, they are quite similar; in others, not so much. Poor Psalm 50, Miserere, is a real mess in my head and off my tongue, and De profundis fares no better. I don’t know if it is a defect in my brain, but sometimes I notice I will repeat the verses, reciting one according to the HTM and the other following the DRB. I suppose all of this is just another one of God’s many clear and unambiguous signs that I never had a true vocation to the priesthood.