Marking the Entire Day with Prayer
Wednesday General Papal Audience in Paul VI Hall from April 4th
1. Before beginning the commentary on individual Psalms and Canticles of Praise, today we complete the introductory reflection begun in the last catechesis. And we do so by grasping the movements of a very dear aspect of the spiritual tradition: When singing the Psalms, the Christian experiences a kind of unity with the Spirit, present in the Scriptures, and the Spirit dwelling in him through baptismal grace. Rather than praying with his own words, he makes himself the echo of those "inexpressible sighs" of which St. Paul speaks (see Romans 8:26), with which the Spirit of the Lord urges believers to unite themselves to Jesus' characteristic invocation: "Abba, Father!" (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
The ancient monks were so certain of this truth, that they were not worried about singing the Psalms in their own maternal tongue, it being sufficient for them to know that they were in some way "organs" of the Holy Spirit. They were convinced that their faith would allow a singular "energy" of the Holy Spirit to burst forth from the verses of the Psalms. The same conviction is manifested in the characteristic use of the Psalms, which was called "ejaculatory prayer" -- from the Latin word "iaculum," that is, dart -- to indicate very brief expressions of the Psalms that could be "thrown," almost as red-hot points, against temptations, for example. John Cassian, a writer who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, mentions that some monks had discovered the extraordinary efficacy of the very brief beginning of Psalm 69: "Save me, O God!; Lord come quickly to my aid," that from then on became like the entrance portal to the Liturgy of the Hours (see Conlationes, 10,10: CPL 512,298 ss).
2. Together with the presence of the Holy Spirit, another important dimension is that of the priestly action that Christ develops in this prayer, associating with Himself the Church, His Spouse. In this connection, referring precisely to the Liturgy of the Hours, the Second Vatican Council teaches: "The High Priest of the new and eternal Covenant, Jesus Christ, [...] unites to Himself all the community of men, and associates Himself in raising this divine canticle of praise. Indeed, Christ continues this priestly office through His Church, which praises the Lord incessantly and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world, not only with the celebration of the Eucharist, but also in other ways, especially with the recitation of the Divine Office" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 83).
Therefore, the Liturgy of the Hours also has the character of public prayer, in which the Church is particularly involved. It is illuminating, then, to rediscover how the Church progressively defined this, her specific commitment to prayer, articulated over the various phases of the day. In order to do this it is necessary to go back to the early times of the apostolic community, when there still was a close link between Christian prayer and so-called legal prayers -- that is, prescribed by the Mosaic law -- which took place at specific hours of the day in the Temple of Jerusalem. From the book of Acts we know that the Apostles "attended the Temple together" (2:46), and that "they went up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour" (3:1). Moreover, we also know that the "legal prayers" par excellence were, precisely, those of the morning and evening.
3. Gradually, Jesus' disciples identified some Psalms that were particularly appropriate for specific times of the day, week and year, grasping their profound meaning in relation to the Christian mystery. St. Cyprian is an authoritative witness of this process. In the first half of the third century, he wrote: "In fact, it is necessary to pray at the beginning of the day to celebrate the Lord's resurrection in morning prayer. This corresponds to that which the Holy Spirit indicated once in the Psalms with these words: 'You are my king, my Lord, for to thee do I pray. O Lord, in the morning thou dost hear my voice: You will hear my supplication; in the morning I will come before You and contemplate You' (Psalms 5:3-4). [...] When the sun rises and day is at hand, it is necessary to pray again. In fact, because Christ is the true sun and true day, at the moment in which the sun and day of the world end, we, requesting through prayer that the light will return above us, pray that Christ will return to bring us the grace of eternal light" (De oratione dominica, 35: PL 39,655).
4. Christian tradition did not limit itself to perpetuate the Hebrew [tradition], but innovated some things that ended by variously characterizing the entire experience of prayer lived by Jesus' disciples. In fact, in addition to reciting the Our Father in the morning and evening, Christians freely chose the Psalms with which to celebrate their daily prayer. Throughout history, this process suggested the use of specific Psalms for particularly significant moments of faith. Among these, in first place, was the vigil prayer, which prepared for Sunday, the Day of the Lord, in which the Easter Resurrection was celebrated.
A typically Christian characteristic was later added from the Trinitarian doxology, at the end of every Psalm and Canticle, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit." So, every Psalm and Canticle is illuminated by the fullness of God.
5. Christian prayer is born, nourished, and develops around the paschal mystery of Christ, the event of faith par excellence. Thus, in the morning and the evening, at the dawning and setting of the sun, Easter, the Lord's passage from death to life, was remembered. The symbol of Christ "Light of the world" appears in the lamp during the prayer of Vespers, also called for this reason, skylight. The hours of the day recall, in turn, the account of the Lord's Passion, and the third hour also [recalls] the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Lastly, night prayer has an eschatological character, evoking the vigil recommended by Jesus in awaiting His return (see Mark 13:35-37).
Therefore, in keeping the rhythm of prayer, Christians responded to the Lord's command to "pray incessantly" (see Luke 18:1; 21:36: 1 Titus 5:17: Ephesians 6:18), but without forgetting that the whole of life must in some way become a prayer. Origen wrote in this regard: "He prays without ceasing who unites prayer with works and works with prayer" (On Prayer, XII,2: PG 11, 452C).
All together this horizon constitutes the natural habitat of the recitation of the Psalms. If these are so experienced and lived, the Trinitarian doxology that crowns every Psalm becomes, for each believer in Christ, a continuous plunging on the wave of the Spirit and in communion with the whole people of God, into the ocean of life and peace in which he was immersed in Baptism, that is, in the mystery of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
[Translation by ZENIT]
For past Papal Pronouncements, see THE VICAR OF CHRIST SPEAKS Archives
April 8, 2001
volume 12, no. 98
THE VICAR OF CHRIST SPEAKS