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William Van OrnumJune 29, 2012

Why study the Psalms? Henry Wansbrough notes the following. Compellingly, they were used by Jesus in addressing his Father. Martin Luther noted that "the entire Bible is contained in the Psalms.” The Psalms put our inchoate longings, or as St. Paul would say, groanings, into words. Wordsworth echoed this when he wrote “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  The Psalms express our feelings in hymns, pleadings, sorrows, penitence, petition and thanksgiving. In understanding the Psalms, it is helpful to compare and contrast them to English poetry. Whereas rhyme is one hallmark of English poetry (excluding, of course, the free-rhyming poetry of recent years), parallelism is the structural component that distinguishes Hebrew poetry. While parallelism may not be as pleasing to our contemporary ears as rhyming (and this may be because of our own historical conditioning—who knows what calming and hedonic effect it had upon ancient listeners?), it served a very practical purpose in Old Testament times: since the Psalms were presented orally, the repetition of themes in a slightly different way helped create  a meld of what was being expressed. The second line is often an intensification of the first, as in the beginning of the Divine Office: “O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”

Father Daniel O’Leary, writing in The Tablet (7 April 2012), notes that “Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls for a poetic language where the Church’s communication is concerned. When homiletic, liturgical, and prophetic texts are all reduced to prose, ‘there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit, and we all become mindless conformists. He [Brueggemann] writes passionately about our desperate need for ‘a new word, a new verb, a new conversation, a new possibility.’ There is a crucial time for poetic words to appear. That time is now, he says, when, because of a ‘fearful rationality’ in our prescribed and routine rituals and proclamations, there is no room for ‘the excitement of our hearts (p. 10).’”

There continues to be use of parallel structure in modern poetry. Brueggermann cites Walt Whitman:

After the seas are all cross’d

(as they seem already cross’d,)

After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,

After the noble inventors, after the scientists,

the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,

Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,

The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

Three dyads of parallel structure may be noted in the six stanzas above: seas are crossed/they seem already crossed; great captains, engineers have accomplished/chemist, geologist, ethnologist; the poet worthy of that name/the true son of God. In the last two lines, one might even surmise that Wordsworth had in mind Jesus praying the Psalms, not only vocally but through the perfect congruence of his loving actions to inspired thoughts which were passed down lovingly from over a thousand years before.

Jesuit Father Joseph Gelineau has an interesting way of describing the parallel structure of the psalms. He uses the metaphor of hammering: “A psalm is a religious song. The word ‘psalm’ suggests a musical instrument, tambourine or sistrum, harp or primitive lyre, with which the singer accompanied his song. The psalmist recited the verses to a simple chant, some echoes of which can be heard in certain Jewish and christian psalmodies. These verses showed a balanced symmetry of form and sense, they scanned rhythmically in three, four, or five feet, and were linked in more or less frequent stanzas. When he speaks a whole world of images rises from his words as they call to each other, repeating, following or clashing with each other. He makes the point not by reasoning but by hammering; he reveals not by describing but by actually touching; he teaches not by explaining but by putting his words on our lips (Gelineau, 1963, p. 5).”

A. Gregory Murray uses the analogy of nursery rhymes to explain the parallel structure of the psalms and adds to this Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notion of “sprung rhythm," by which he means a repetitive structure containing limited and internal variance which adds variety to the basic parallel structure: “Hebrew verse was organized on an accentual basis. Every line had a stipulated number of accented or stressed syllables, although the total numbers of syllables in the line was variable. In this respect Hebrew verse employed the same rhythmic principle as early English verse, for which Gerald Manley Hopkins invented the term ‘sprung rhythm.’ Spring rhythm, as Hopkins observed, is to be found also in much of our later poetry and frequently occurs in  ursery rhymes and popular jingles. A simple instance if found in ‘Three Blind Mice’. Each line has 3 stressed syllables and a fourth beat. But the number of syllables in the lines varies between 3 and 11. That all the lines may be sung simultaneously shows that they all have the same rhythmic structure of 4 beats” (Murrray, in Gelineau, 1963, p. 11).

C.S. Lewis affirms parallelism as the central feature of the Psalms: “Their chief formal characteristic, the most obvious element of patters, is fortunately one that survives in translation. Most readers will know that I mean what the scholars call ‘parallelism’; that is, the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words. A perfect example is ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision” (2, 4), or again, ‘He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light; and thy just dealing as the noon-day”’ (37, 6). If this is not recognized as a pattern, the reader will either find ‘mares’ nests (as some of the older preachers did) in his effort to get different meaning out of each half of the verse or else feel that it is rather silly.”

Lewis, in his indomitable manner of explaining the complex via the simple and vice-versa, offers first, an example of parallelism from Christopher Marlowe, and then, a childishly simple form from the Cherry Tree Carol. From Marlowe: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight/And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough.”  From Cherry Tree Carol: Joseph was an old man and an old man was he.”

Perhaps the Creator has embedded the receptacles for parallel structure in our neural networks. Noam Chomsky (Syntactic Structures, 1957), a psycholinguist who studies the structure and function of language, suggests that the understanding of parallel structure resides within the brain itself. Chomsky’s interest in studying language evolved from reading his father’s book, David Kimhli’s Hebrew Grammar  (1952). It is intriguing to discover a meld between ancient Hebrew poetry and modern cognitive science, a confluence made possible by Wisdom herself.

William Van Ornum

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Cynthia Pon
11 years 9 months ago
The Psalms are a gift, a rich inheritance! I have not read Brueggemann. But I think he has it right. The God of Genesis and of Incarnation is about ‘a new word, a new verb, a new conversation, a new possibility.’

Besides parallel structures, the psalms also narrate a series of movements, seemingly in opposite directions, but that are somehow reconciled. In Psalm 84 (one of my favorite psalms):

As they pass through the Valley of the Balsam,
they make there a water-hole,
and-a further blessing-early rain fills it.
They make their way from height to height,
God shows himself to them in Zion.

The pilgrims pass through lowlands, perhaps on a journey that they repeat many times. They ascend ''from height to height'' to where God shows himself (at the very top). But as they make their way through the Valley, the people delve deeper; they ''make there a waterhole,'' a depression. And God does not wait for them to come up to Zion. God already shows himself. Where there is a hollow, God is.

And the people recognize the presence, a surprise, a favor-''a further blessing-early rain fills it.'' As the psalmist scales the heights and scours the depths, we who read or pray along, also recognize a further blessing.
Angel Hugo Guerriero
11 years 9 months ago
The objects of our prayers are: to praise God (latreutic), to thank his gifts (eucharistic), to beg his mercy for our sins (propiciatory), and to ask for help in our necessities (impetratory). For these reasons, the Psalms are one of the best ways of praying. It would be a good work to make a selection of these in accord with its object. On the other hand, the psalms are the expression of our sentiments, fears, irritations, happiness, etc. They are an invitation to speaking with God sincerely, as creatures, as human beings, weak and sinners. Last, but not least, the psalms – as Brueggemann said- invite us to live poetically, ideally, proclaiming to all the world that exists another way of living, not only in “our way” (Sinatra), but singing the goodness of our Lord. From Argentina, Angel Hugo Guerriero.
Bill Collier
11 years 9 months ago
A very informative commentary. Plenty to think about!
The commentary also reminded me about the Carthusian monks in the French Alps singing the Psalms in the film "Into Great Silence." Singing the Psalms is such an integral part of the monks’ daily devotions that after years and years of such singing, each of the monks had memorized all of the Psalms. I’m guessing that by then the monks had internalized the Psalms, and their poetic structure, to such a degree that the experience had become transcendent. And adding to the special nature of the experience would be the fact that except for their singing (and recitation of prayers) in unison, the monks are silent throughout the rest of each day.
Michael Casey
11 years 9 months ago
For a nice, accessible commentary, try Mary Ellen Chase's "Psalms for the Common Reader". It's lovely, and supplimented with a couple appendices that shed helpful light on both the backgraound and structure of the Psalms.
we vnornm
11 years 9 months ago

Thank you, (Fr.?) Eastward.

Fr. Alexander Jones writes about this psalm (in Gelineau, p. 151): "God is everywhere already but consecrates certain places where men can meet him and feel his presence more intimately...Such a home of God stood on the hill of Zion-a weary climb for the pilgrim at the end of his journey but strengthening him when he paused to raise his eyes. Our city is heaven, but in a sense it is here, too: 'You have come to mount Zion, to the city of the living God'(Heb. 12:22), because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us: in a new sense the earth is the Lord's."

Gelineau's translation:

As they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs
[the autumn rain covers it with blessings].
They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion.

One day within your courts
is better thn a thousand elsewhere.

Cynthia Pon
11 years 9 months ago
Thank you for the reference to Gelineau. I looked him up and learned about the Gelineau Psalmody (and his links to Taize). It is good to hear the Psalms sung, and in a way that preserves "the parallelism and the metrical structure" of Hebrew poetic style.

(I am not a Father. I am a priest in the sense that all Christians are baptized to be priest, prophet and king.)

I look forward to reading other blogs by you.

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