A little over eleven hundred years ago, in the north of France, a scribe whose name we don’t know sat at a desk in a place which probably no longer exists, and laid out a fairly simple set of tools. He had a pointed stylus, probably made of bone, with which he drew an almost invisible grid on the flattened piece of parchment which lay in front of him. He also had a quill, more than likely a feather from a goose’s wing; a knife, for sharpening the quill and for rubbing out mistakes; and a pot of ink, which was made from beechwood which had been burnt and then boiled up with water. He had been asked to write out the book of psalms, as well as a few other canticles and hymns, the Te Deum and the Athanasian Creed. We don’t know exactly why it was commissioned, but it could have for young monks learning the psalms by heart in groups. One reason for this suggestion is that not only does this book, now known as the Utrecht Psalter (1), contain these texts, but also illustrations to them, in a style that has been variously described as ‘nervous’, ‘dynamic’, ‘surrealistic’ and ‘baroque’, and compared with the work of Hieronymus Bosch.(2) By around the year 1000, the book had reached Canterbury Cathedral, where the style of its drawings dominated English religious art for a generation.
Perhaps one of the most enchanting of all the illustrations is that to one of this evening’s psalms, Psalm 148. It provides rich material indeed for so imaginative an author, as a representative catalogue of all creation is invoked in praise of God. Just as we would expect from the text, and from what we have seen of the images over the previous 147 psalms, our man, or one of his colleagues, makes full use of what is offered him: they are all there: Angels, sun, moon, stars, light; heavens, waters, dragons, deeps; fire, hail, snow, vapours, wind and storm; mountains, hills, trees, beasts, cattle, worms, feathered fowls; kings, people, princes, judges, young men, maidens, old men, children. As you’d expect, the final psalm, psalm 150, is also fully illustrated. You can spot them all: trumpet, lute, harp, cymbals, dances, strings, pipe. The ‘pipe’, here interpreted as an organ, is being played enthusiastically by two people, whilst another four man the bellows, which seems, from their expressions, to be pretty hard work.
If anyone were going to take issue with these illustrations, it would be St Augustine, not on account of their exuberance, but in pursuit of accuracy. In his commentary on Psalm 150, he writes of this verse: ‘But
organ is a general name for all instruments of music, although usage has now obtained that those are specially called organ which are blown with bellows: but I do not think that this kind is meant here’. He goes on: the word ‘organ’ signifies that the instrumental praises of God ‘sound not each separately, but sound together in most harmonious diversity, just as they are arranged in a musical instrument.’(3)
So what are the psalms, then, which were and are so fertile a ground of inspiration for artists, poets, spiritual writers, saints and even preachers? If we look at the book of psalms, we find hymns of praise, songs of thanksgiving, cries of lament, voiced from the perspective of the individual and from that of the community. Taking the psalter as a whole, we see that these songs of lament are more frequently found in the first half, whilst the hymns of praise come more often in the second half. Indeed, the general title of the psalter in Hebrew is tehillim, ‘praises’. They have been prayed in different times and places since their composition, in Jewish worship and from the very beginning of Christianity. Our Lord knew them and sang them, Our Lady was said to be meditating on them when she was visited by the Archangel Gabriel. St Basil the Great, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor, thought the psalms, and particularly the singing of them, a gift of the Holy Spirit. He wrote that
When, indeed, the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words […], that they who are children in age, or even those who are youthful in disposition, might to all appearances chant, but in reality, become trained in soul.(4)
That goes for us, whether we chant the psalms ourselves, or hear them sung as we do this evening. The psalms teach us how to praise God: to go back to St Augustine, he tells us that ‘So that God may be praised well by man, God himself has praised himself; and since he has been pleased to praise himself, man has found the way to praise him.’(5) They are part of that great praise of the Almighty and most merciful Creator to which all things are called, and most especially we who are made in God’s image and likeness, and so if we seek eternal life, we had better get used to them. As our first reading so happily reminds us: As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’(6) We can only wonder at what the scribe of the Utrecht Psalter would have made of that image!
And so let us give ourselves over to the melodies of the praises sung by all creation, joining with the Angels and Archangels, and the whole company of heaven, joining with the ‘daughter of that hymnody which is constantly sung before the throne of God and the Lamb’.(7) Simply put, as the poet John Milton wrote (paraphrasing a psalm, of course)(8), ‘Let us with a gladsome mind praise the Lord for he is kind’.
Fr Daniel Lloyd,
Oxford Ordinariate Group
(1) Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr 32.
(2) at http://bc.library.uu.nl/node/599
(3) St Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 150.4
(4) St Basil the Great, Homily on Psalm 1
(5) St Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 144.1
(6) Isaiah 55:10-12
(7) Urban VII, Divinam Psalmodiam, 1631
(8) Ps 136