At Sunday Lauds…
Why should we praise Him?
We come now to the Divine Office of Lauds, named after the final three psalms (148, 149 and 150), ‘Laudate’ which means ‘praise’.
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
There are times, in the Christian life, when praise is hard; when God seems to be silent to your endless cries for help and mercy. There are those times when we can only place blame on God for a series of events; blame which, even if it’s not considered God’s direct action/intervention that’s caused pain and suffering, is seen rather as His lack of involvement that caused them. At these times we find ourselves asking,
Why should I? Is He even worthy of my praise, adoration and thanksgiving?
In isolated circumstances this response is normal and common but here is where the Benedictine pattern of saying 279 Psalms a week, repeating them again and again, comes in helpful. After months and years of repetition of all the different types of psalms a monk will know the balance of expressions and the revelation of both God and humanity will become clear.
When I was at college, I started, with a colleague, an annual all night vigil reading of a particular book of the Bible. In the last two years of the three years I was there, we used the Book of Psalms (you can read about my reflections at Monasticism and Asceticism (part I & III)). We had decided to do this when, in the first year, Tom Wright, who was, at the time, bishop of Durham, established a full public reading of the whole Bible in Durham Cathedral throughout Lent. A small group of us had signed up to read for two hours. After we had finished our slot we went and discussed how we found it. It was here that myself and TMBI (The Monastic Ball of Intensity) decided we’d like to read the whole of Isaiah through the night.
When one reads the whole of the Book of Psalms, one psalm after the other, you begin to see a broader, more rounded view of what’s going on in these verses. You find yourself feeling and saying things that you consider wrong or distasteful, you express vengeance on others which conflicts with an inner yearning for forgiveness but in the wider collection those feelings are balanced with expressions of who God is and how He works in our lives. Even though you proclaim death on all your enemies, the next moment you’re acknowledging that you deserve to be treated badly for your sin. Despite expressing the perceived absence of God you equally articulate the faithfulness of Him who surprises us with His presence.
Monks who go through this wide spectrum of experience and emotion will quickly learn and digest a more rounded view of reality. It is in the repetition and assimilating of these words that will balance out our instinctive emotional response to situations and remind ourselves of the bigger picture. The cycle of psalm readings here enables us to rise above the dense forest we so often get lost in and see the overview of the landscape to find our way out. With this view, however difficult it is to grasp and believe during dark and lonely times, the praise of God, properly understood and known, will fall from our lips. It is in the discipline of learning and memorising the words of Scripture, which reveal the Word of God, that we will defend ourselves from making Him in our image and allow Him to make us in His image.
For most of this week I have been thinking about the trend in ‘emergent’ theological circles to interpret Scripture in ‘new’ ways. This was sparked by Kester Brewin’s re-reading of the parable of the Lost Son. I want to explore my difficulty with Brewin’s approach at a later date but, for now, I want to say something on the danger of reading into Scripture our own presuppositions, biases and agendas. This process is not altogether bad or wrong; indeed it is a natural part of reading any text. We must, however, surround ourselves with the voice of others and the Other who will correct our perspective and subjectivity. We must have an external authority which connects us with reality beyond our own perspective. This is a challenge to the basic understanding of Cartesian philosophy (the thinking of Rene Descartes) which states that the only thing you can know is that you exist because, with Cartesian skepticism, your senses are fallible and therefore you don’t know that anything outside of yourself is possibly false or imagined. I won’t go into that too much out of fear that I will lose many of you who have managed to stick with this so far!
What this type of philosophy has bred is distrust, cynicism and skepticism. Authority is placed firmly on the subject (you). This leads, in my mind, to the break down of community and connectedness. What St. Benedict has taught me as I read his Rule is that despite the fallibility of our senses obedience to an authority in God is a way of protecting ourselves. This protection, certainly in the mind of Peter Rollins et al. is a form of slavery. I would argue that obedience and humility are characteristics of Christ’s walk on earth and so we should follow. Yes, authorities need to be scrutinised and tested but ultimately so must our own perspective, agendas and biases.
My thinking, at the moment, is that the problem of authority arises when there is only one. When there is a sole authority then it becomes a dictator and blinds us all from right thinking. What the Church promotes, and St. Benedict supports, is multiple authorities, to be used to test one against another. In Anglicanism there is Richard Hooker’s three legged stool which suggests that, Scripture, Tradition and Reason are our three means of authority. Scripture reveals God. Tradition helps us to read Scripture and Reason helps us to test Tradition. Scripture balances Reason. (This is my understanding.)
The psalms and the repetition and learning of Scripture gives us a broader perspective and it must be taken in that context. We need to find ways in which we can protect ourselves from individualised, subjective readings of Scripture and reality. In this way I support Descartes philosophy but I would offer the optimistic suggestion that it is in community that we defend ourselves from thoughts and beliefs that lead to darkness, nihilism and despair. Rollins, Brewin and co. are radical theologians but I fear that they throw many babies out with bath water. From my personal experience of their work; the fruit of reading them is a spiritual darkness, isolation, cynicism and hopelessness. Their freedom, is short lived in practice. I know this is not their desired outcome but by reading their work without a degree in Hegelian philosophy, etc. I’m led into confusion and slavery to doubt. This is ironic as they are saying exactly the same thing about the Church which they speak against. It seems they are hoisted, like the rest, by their own language and argument.
I admit I am lost and broken and lacking the intellectual rigour to engage fully in the ‘ground breaking’ thought that they are wrestling with but I am going on a gut instinct and suggesting that I feel uncomfortable, not with what they are saying but where it leaves me. What character does it foster within me? How do I interact with others? Does it, in the end, lead me to worship and praise the God who created all things, sustains all things and leads me to life eternal (both before and after death)?
I fall again onto His grace and mercy and ask that God, whose love endures forever and is never absent from me, despite my experience of his loss, is indeed right beside me inviting me into relationship with Him; to know Him better.
Ever present God, You are life to me. You give me hope. You strengthen me with Your righteous right hand.
Come, Lord Jesus.