Friday, September 22, 2017

Chanting the Psalms

Chanting the Psalms
Mary Beene

“For God is the ruler of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.”  - Psalm 47: 7

We know that the Divine trinity “spoke” the world into being – but I wonder sometimes if this glorious world wasn’t really sung into existence. The way it all works together, the melodies and harmonies and counter-melodies and counterpoint of our natural world all seem the work of a glorious musical composer, as much as great poetry and prose almost sing off the page.

In fact, our greatest Biblical poetry, the psalms, are meant to be sung. The word “psalm” means song. And I was never more convinced of this than when I read Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms as part of my coursework for the Shalem Institute’s Nurturing the Presence program this past year. This wasn’t a mandatory reading – it was just sitting on the bookshelf next to another book I had to read. But the voices of thousands of years called to me from that shelf – and I now sense the song of Creation more strongly than ever before.

Bourgeault walks Christians – even Presbyterians – through a simple process to integrate chanting the psalms into our regular prayer life. As I have begun this practice, I have been amazed how her words have come to life for me. She relates a story where monks mysteriously fell ill after the Gregorian chanting was scrapped in their monastery. When the chanting was restored so were the monks, a result of the chapel as “a perfectly tuned reverberating bowl, allowing the monks to receive energy – actual physical sustenance – directly from the vibrations of the chant. (p. 30)” I do not have a fancy chapel in which to practice, but I have sensed the healing energy from the vibrations of my very simple chanting.

There are probably other books on chanting out there, but I have not yet needed to move beyond Chanting the Psalms. The included CD helps even beginning singers begin chanting immediately with simple monotone chanting and singing more complicated chants “by ear.” No complicated notation needed. Now even sitting in my hotel room in the storm I can feel the vibrancy of creation with my simple chanting of Psalm 104: “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.”

You will be happy to know that our Presbyterian Mission Agency has offered an online “How To Chant the Psalms” with audio files so that you can follow along.  I encourage you to add chanting to your spiritual practices and tune in to the vibrations of God’s amazing creation.

Mary Beene is a spiritual director and pastor in the Savannah Presbytery.  Her business, Openings: Let the Spirit In, helps individuals and groups touch their spiritual center with retreats, workshops and one-on-one spiritual guidance.  She is a participant in the Shalem Institute’s Nurturing the Presence program and member of Spiritual Directors International.

All images in this article © Eric Beene and may not be copied or used without permission. Prints of all photos are available; for information about ordering, go to

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