MAKING MELODY IN YOUR HEART
For lo, the winter is past;
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of singing has come.
Songs. 2. 11- 12.
Jerome who taught those beautiful holy women in Rome such as Paula and Melanie to sing the psalms in Hebrew in the 4th C. wrote in his commentary on Ephesians, on the quotation I used at the Noon Office:
Even if you are tone deaf, … if your works are good, your song is sweet to God. If you would serve Christ, don’t worry about your voice but concentrate on the good words you sing.
I wonder if there are some of you like me finding yourself making melody and putting sacred words to it as you go about daily routines throughout the day. If you do, you are following Jerome advice but also that innate instinct in human beings and indeed all creation.
Ever since human beings have walked this earth, melody, songs in the heart, songs in the soul, songs of the earth, songs of ancestors, songs to the gods and the like have been part of the various races of people who have inhabited this planet.
Let me give you give one example of this. John Steinbeck in a beautifully written book that has its own tune, tells of a very, very poor native family living in La Paz. Kino the husband dreams of finding the pearl of the world so he can provide for his family in a better way. Of course he does, but this only brings disaster because of the greed of the so called privileged class.
I want to read to you how the book begins and you will see for yourself the innate songs for this native couple.
Kino awakes in the early dawn and his wife, Juana, is awake beside him. He cannot remember waking when Juana wasn't already awake and looking at him. He hears the waves lapping the shore and feels the music of his life within him. The sounds of his world are songs that have existed in his people for hundreds of years, and among those ancient songs in Kino's head are his own songs, the Song of Family and the Song of the Pearl that Might Be. As Juana fixes breakfast for her husband, he stands at the door and looks out into the dawning morning. The motion of Juana's cooking and the sounds of her work inside the house make up the Song of Family for Kino. Behind him, he hears the creaking rope as Juana takes their baby, Coyotito, from the hanging box he sleeps in and wraps him in her shawl to carry him close to her breast. The sounds are so familiar to Kino that he doesn't even have to look to know what is happening. As Juana works, she hums an ancient song, and this melody is also part of the Song of Family along with every other sound of their home. That is the song that constantly plays in Kino's head. "Sometimes it rose to an aching chord that caught the throat, saying this is safety, this is warmth, this is the Whole."Ch.1 – the Pearl
Whenever Kino went diving he heard the song of the Pearl that might be. When he found it and others sought the pearl, it was the song of Evil he heard. When the song of Evil killed his son, it was the lunatic music of the pearl he heard. After throwing the pearl of the world back into the sea, “the music of the pearl drifted to a whisper and disappeared." Ch. 6.
That brief description of Kino and Juana sums up the way so many have lived throughout history and how many still live in primitive places. Their songs are often a mixture of ancestral history and Catholicism as indeed featured in Juana’s singing.
When we turn to biblical times we discover that the oldest parts of the bible are the songs, some of which are associated with remarkable women of the Old Testament.
The first of these is the Song of Miriam which we hear every Paschal Vigil. It is a wonderful scene that immediately fires our imaginations. Miriam and the women with their tambourines not only sing but they dance to express their joy that Pharaoh has been defeated and thrown in the sea. Powerful words! But made more realistic through the music. Let’s listen to part of it, and as I read it try to visualise Miriam and her women joyously dancing and singing somewhere out there in the Sinai desert.
Sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father’s God and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his host have be cast into the sea: his chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.
The depths have covered them: they sank into the bottom as a stone.
Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O Lord, has dashed in pieces the enemy.
And in the greatness of your excellency you have overthrown them who rose up against you. Ex. Ch.15.
Just as old is the Song of Deborah. You find this in the Book of Judges Who was Deborah, you may ask? Like Miriam she was a prophetess and the fourth, and the only female, Judge in the very early history of Israel shortly after they enter the Promised Land and long before David was king.
In chapter five is her victory song. The victory to which the Bible refers is that of the Israelites led by Barak and Deborah over the Canaanite Sisera, the general of Jabin the king of Hazor. Barak only went into battle if Deborah agreed to accompany him. Of course she assented, declaring "I will surely go with you: notwithstanding the journey that you take shall not be for your honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kadesh where she prophesied a victory and the death of Sisera through the bravery of a woman fighter, Jael (Judges 4. 9ff.).
Afterwards Deborah sings the song of triumph, the triumph that the Lord had given.
Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel, When the people willingly offered themselves. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the Lord; I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel. Lord, when you went out of Seir, When you marched out of the field of Edom, The earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water. The mountains melted from before the Lord, Even that Sinai from before the Lord God of Israel.
This is followed by the song of Jael’s triumph.
Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be; Blessed shall she be above women in the tent. He asked water, and she gave him milk; She brought forth butter in a lordly dish. She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen's hammer; And with the hammer she smote Sisera, She smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: At her feet he bowed, he fell: Where he bowed, there he fell down dead. The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots? Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to herself, Have they not sped? Have they not divided the prey; To every man a damsel or two; To Sisera a prey of divers colours, a prey of divers colours of needlework, Of divers colours of needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take the spoil? So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord: But let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.
Judges v, 2-5, 24-31
Not a pretty sight to sing about in our eyes but important for that time, and so enlightening that there were brave women in Israel’s history. Both Deborah and Jael are portrayed as strong independent women.
There are many other songs we can find in the Old Testament such as Hannah’s song after the birth of Samuel, that will appear in New Testament time almost identical as Mary’s song, the Magnificat. Jepthah’s daughter with her women took her instruments and went to the mountain to mourn her virginity in song. This would have been an elegy. There are other mournful songs such as David’s lament over the death of his closest friend, Jonathon and his father Saul in the second book of Samuel.
The beauty of Israel is slain upon high places: how are the mighty fallen! …
You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offering: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil. …
Saul and Jonathon were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. …
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle! O Jonathon you were slain in high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathon: very pleasant you have been unto me: your love for me was wonderful surpassing that of women.
How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished (II Sam. 1. 21 – 7).
Yet it is in the death of his son Absalom, his rebellious son, that David’s lament is even deeper than that for Jonathon. In his chamber, David lamented, “O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I have died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Sam. 18. 33).
When we turn to the New Testament again we find that the oldest parts are the songs of the very early Christians. In the Ephesian letter the early Christians were directed that when they gathered together they were to sing the words and tunes of the psalms, and to go on singing to the Lord in their hearts, so that always and everywhere they were giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some of those very early hymns we find in the prologue of Luke’s Gospel, what we know as the Infant Narratives. They are more Jewish than Christian, being a collection of quotations from the Jewish Scriptures, the way that Jews sung and prayed. When we go to the Pauline Letters we find Paul also including early Christian hymns in his writings, the most obvious is the one in Philippians. “Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Phil. 2. 5 – 11).
The Prologue of the Johannine Gospel is also a hymn as is the prologue to Hebrews.
Then there is what we know as The Odes of Solomon”. These were found among a pile of old Syrian manuscripts brought to England by a Cambridge academic, Rendell Harris in 1909. To his wonder and surprise here was a collection of psalms in the Jewish-Christian tradition composed before the end of the first century A.D. and not unlike similar material from the Essene community as seen in the Thanksgiving hymns in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The most prominent features of the Odes are there God not Christ centred nature and joy in the presence of eternal life and love, and therefore they are more Jewish than Christian. No other piece of writing comes close to their joyous, unclouded atmosphere. Absent is the dark, punitive fever of end-of-the-world prophecy. There is no mention of blood sacrifice, oppressive, moral injunctions, and rancorous sectarian attitudes. These songs have an exceptional expression of purity and grace.
So let’s have a look at a couple of these.
The Lord is on my head like a crown, and I shall never be without Him.
Plaited for me is the crown of truth, and it caused Your branches to blossom in me.
For it is not like a parched crown that blossoms not;
For you live upon my head, and have blossomed upon me.
Your fruits are full and complete; they are full of your salvation....
What melody do we hear? It is one of life. The crown I am wearing is woven from living plants that blossom and bear the fruit of salvation, a gift from the Lord that signifies His presence within me that is ever transforming.
A similar melody is found in John's gospel. Jesus gives living water that wells up to eternal life but in reality is the Spirit of God drawing us into communion with the Father and the Son.
1. As the eyes of a son upon his father, so are my eyes, O Lord, at all times towards You.
2. Because my breasts and my pleasure are with You.
3. Turn not aside Your mercies from me, O Lord; and take not Your kindness from me.
4. Stretch out to me, my Lord, at all times, Your right hand, and be to me a guide till the end according to Your will.
5. Let me be pleasing before You, because of Your glory, and because of Your name let me be saved from the Evil One.
6. And let Your gentleness, O Lord, abide with me, and the fruits of Your love.
7. Teach me the odes of Your truth, that I may produce fruits in You.
8. And open to me the harp of Your Holy Spirit, so that with every note I may praise You, O Lord.
9. And according to the multitude of Your mercies, so grant unto me, and hasten to grant our petitions.
10. For You are sufficient for all our needs.
These lines remind me immediately of Psalm 121. The song is directed to God the Father who will take care of all our needs and guide us according to His will.
The verse that leaps out for me is “And open to me the harp of your Holy Spirit, so that with every note I may praise, you O Lord.”
Isn’t that a most beautiful image? Taking the case off a harp so that it can be played; the melody that is played by the Holy Spirit. As I listen to its very notes, may I in turn utter every one of those beautiful notes in praise of you O Lord.
1. Fill for yourselves water from the living fountain of the Lord, because it has been opened for you.
2. And come all you thirsty and take a drink, and rest beside the fountain of the Lord.
3. Because it is pleasing and sparkling, and perpetually refreshes the self.
4. For much sweeter is its water than honey, and the honeycomb of bees is not to be compared with it;
5. Because it flowed from the lips of the Lord, and it named from the heart of the Lord.
6. And it came boundless and invisible, and until it was set in the middle they knew it not.
7. Blessed are they who have drunk from it, and have refreshed themselves by it.
When I reflect on this ode, the image I have is the Samaritan woman at the well with our Lord. She came to know and believe that the fountain is the Lord, and in its water she is refreshed. It comes “boundless and invisible”, once again enlightening us that the well of water is always inside of each of us. Blessed are those who know this.
This song expresses joy of knowing there is salvation from the Lord who gives immortality.
These Odes of Solomon inevitably remind us of our very Jewish heritage as do the Psalms. Whenever we think of music and song, harps and lyres of the Old Testament, don’t we inevitable think of the Psalms?
As St. Basil, one of the Cappadocian Fathers wrote in the 4th C.
A psalm is serenity for the soul, the bringer of peace, restraining the disorder and tumult of thoughts. It softens the agitation of the soul and disciplines its rebelliousness.
Our word psalm comes from the Greek word, psalmos. The Hebrew word is zmr, means "to pluck" and that is how a stringed instrument is played with the fingers. Immediately we know that the psalms were originally composed to be accompanied by a stringed instrument. They are songs for the lyre, and therefore psalms are lyric poems in the strictest sense. Musical instruments are mentioned throughout the psalms of which the classic is Psalm 150: "Praise Him with blasts of the horn; praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with lute and pipe. Praise Him with resounding cymbals; praise Him upon loud-crashing cymbals. Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah."
So the psalms are essentially prayers that are sung. The Psalter grew out of the life of a community of faith as the people used their songs to worship God.
We have come to think of 150 psalms but in actual fact we know of 155 psalms. I’ll come back to that. Regardless of how many psalms were composed, they cover many years of history of Israel from c. 1100 B.C. to 400 B.C. Examples of the oldest are psalms 90, 29 and 68 and of the latest psalm 119. The books are divided into five, each ending with a doxology that we find at the end of psalms 41, 72, 89, 106 and Psalm 150.
Although David is traditionally seen as the author of most of the psalms, it is better to understand the Psalter, not primarily in terms of individual authorship, but as the product of a community of faith who composed, collected and passed on their prayers, hymns, songs and liturgy as a witness to their experience as the people of God. While there were obviously "authors" of these poems, the significance of the psalms lies not in who wrote them, but in what they communicate about God's revelation of Himself to His people and the people's response to Him.
In Israel’s history the psalms became part of the prayer life at home and with the temple once it was built by Solomon, David’s son. Psalms were sung by the priests and temple choirs, and in this way, not much different from the Offices that are said in monasteries and individuals in the Christian tradition.
We know that Hezekiah, king of Judah in the time of Isaiah, did much to restore the temple worship. He took pains to teach the people of Judah (2 Chron. 17:7-9); he appointed people to collect the proverbs of Solomon (Prov.25:1); and he did much for the temple music (2 Chron. 29.30) It seems probable that the Psalm-book was at that time enlarged. There was also the time after the return of captives from Babylon when Ezra the scribe did much to teach the people and to develop the worship in Jerusalem. (Ezra 7:6-10; Neh. 8) Some of the psalms seem to belong to this time of religious revival, and perhaps some even to a later day.
The psalms also became very important to the Jews as they went on pilgrimage. Three times a year they were expected to travel to Jerusalem for the celebrations of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles (cp Ex 23 & 34; Lev 23). That's why, in the New Testament, there are references to Jews going to Jerusalem for the Passover and other feasts (Lk 2:41; Jn 5:1; Jn 7:2). That's why too when the day of Pentecost came "there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:1-11).
Let us imagine now that we are a pilgrim going up to Jerusalem for one of these festivals. You would be travelling in a caravan group with others from your village. Remember the last story of the Lucan infant narrative is Jesus and His family and others travelling to Jerusalem for the Passover (Luc. 2. 41 – 52). As you travel along the dusty road passing sheep and goats, groves of olive trees and native flowers, your hearts swell up with the music of those psalms, known as the psalms of ascent, psalms 121 – 134, that you sang en route and took on an especial significance when Jerusalem came into view.
The first of these psalms, 121 is one of the most beautiful of all the psalms. Let’s have a closer look at it.
Imagine Jerusalem coming into view when the pilgrims sing, “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence comes my help.”
Jerusalem is situated in the hill country of Judea. As well as Mt. Zion, there is also Mt. Moriah and the Mount of Olives. Yet God dwells on Mt. Zion and so it is to Yahweh that the pilgrims know from whence comes their help.
The pilgrims no doubt know that passage from Joel 3:17 “So shall ye know that I am the LORD your God dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain: then shall Jerusalem be holy, and there shall no strangers pass through her any more.”
The Psalm continues the Lord who helps me “has made heaven and earth”. The God who dwells in Mt. Zion is the creator of everything. Pilgrims would have pondered on “in the beginning” of how God made the whole world from nothing. Everything owes its existence to the Lord.
Such is Yahweh’s protection that “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keeps thee will not sleep.” Yahweh will protect them as they travel, but how comforting is to know that He is always dependable, never sleeping, always attentive to the needs of His children. Night time was always seen as a time for demons to be active, but knowing that the Lord is always vigilant is a great encouragement, especially on pilgrimage.
Yet it is all Israel that the Lord keeps vigilant over.
The psalm continues: “The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy defence upon thy right hand.” Only Yahweh can give defence and protection from any enemies as “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.”
“The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.”
“The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.” As the pilgrims travel to and from Jerusalem they know that the Lord will accompany and protect them. They are completely in God’s hands and cares.
Psalm 122. It would have been sung en route. Imagine how realistic those words would be when Jerusalem came into view. With that glimpse of the holy city the pilgrims would have sung lustily, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘We will go into the house of the Lord.’”
And then when they entered the outer court of the temple – “Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem.” Here we shall give thanks unto the Lord and pray for the peace of Jerusalem. What joy those pilgrims must have felt to be in the house of the Lord after their long journey.
Now a quick glance at the rest of the pilgrim psalms-
In Psalms 123 – 131 the pilgrims would have thought of those blessings they received from their own homes and for their harvests.
Ps. 132 would remind them of David's bringing up the ark to Zion
And the last of the pilgrim psalms, psalm 134, expresses the pilgrims having reached the end of their journey and to be able to lift up their hands in the temple to bless the Lord. It is the same psalm that Christians sing at the end of the day at the office of Compline.
Once at the Temple, the psalm most associated with it, is one of my very favourites, the 84th Psalm. “O how amiable/lovely are thy dwellings O Lord.” Let me read it in its entirety to savour its beauty and holiness.
How lovely is your dwelling place O Lords of hosts. The temple was indeed beautiful, just as many old cathedrals were as they were built for the glory of God. The key words “your dwelling place”. It is precisely because the Lord dwells in his temple that makes it beautiful. You can see the parallel Christians can made.
“My soul longs, indeed it faints for the court of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” What a yearning there is to be in the Lord’s court, every part of my being explodes with joy because of the presence of the Lord there.
“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.” Is there a more beautiful imagery than this? Even those little creatures whose life-span is so short want to be as close as they can be to the Lord. The inner sanctuary in the temple as it is in church is a very special place, expressly set apart to denote God’s presence.
“Blessed are those who live in your house, ever singing of your praise.” What joy there is simply being in the house of God where we can sing our praises for ever. A home where one would like to linger and linger.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion … they will go from strength to strength; the God of god will be seen in Zion.” This expresses the joy of pilgrims as they set out to be in the temple of the Lord. That knowledge gives them the strength they need on that journey of many days.
“O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!” This is a petition that sums up their history, their God who has always heard the plea of His people and now He continues to hear when they and we pray.
“For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” How precious is the time we spend with the Lord; it is just so precious. One moment compensates for days anywhere else. All those days of travelling was worth it, to have just one day in God’s holy place. Who would not want to be a doorkeeper in the house of God – to be in His presence at all times. What joy that would be! Have you ever pondered on that?
“No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.” The Lord is continually showering so many good things upon us. Those who walk with the Lord will always know the goodness of the Lord.
“O Lord of hosts, blessed is everyone who trusts in you.” That no doubt would have been the pilgrim’s prayer as he travelled towards Mt. Zion. The pilgrims knew in their hearts that the Lord would bring them safely through. Their trust would have been the rock on which they journeyed. Isn’t that the same for us too?
As Christians that is a very appropriate psalm for us to use in preparation for attending Mass, one I began using in my teen years and taught to be conscious that the church was a very special place, as it was God’s house, and therefore one entered the church reverently and behaved reverently the whole time.
As the psalter was basically the Jewish Prayer Book (siddur) the Jews had special psalms for each day of the week and on each day they prayed three times a day –morning, noon and evening.
There were the psalms for the Sabbath – both for in the evening when the Sabbath began and the next day
There were psalms for the Festivals. – Pesah –Passover, Shauvot -Feast of Weeks, Sukkot- Tabernacle. On these occasions the Hallel Psalms 113 – 118 were always recited – as these allude to the Exodus, crossing of the Sea, the giving of the Torah, and the coming of the Messiah.
The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumram community.
One of the fascinating elements from the discovery of these scrolls after World War II is that it had enabled us to know much about how Jews lived at the time of our Lord. This is not the time to talk about that, but in the Psalm scroll found, it has substantiated an old Syriac script that has 155 Psalms. Some of the old Greek bible have Psalm151, and in the Orthodox tradition 151 psalms are canonical. The 151st Psalm relates to part of the life of David. As I read it, you will see how scriptural it is from the book of Samuel. Great emphasis is made on how David praised God on his instruments and joined the creation which endlessly praise their maker. It tells of how Samuel the prophet came to anoint him, his battle with Goliath.
The psalms should be a prayer book for us too. Phrases and sentences should spring into our mind constantly. “Where can I go O Lord for you are everywhere – if I go up to heaven you are there, if I go down to hell you are there also.” “You are my comfort even in the valley of the shadow of death.” “Out of the deep have I cried unto you, Lord, hear my prayer.” “Create in me a clean heart O Lord and renew a right spirit within me. You will wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” “O be joyful in the Lord all you lands.” “God be merciful to me.” “I shall go unto the altar of God; my soul thirsts for the living God;” “I shall receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.” “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his holiness; praise him in the sound of the trumpet”. 2I shall lay me down in peace and take my rest, for it you Lord only who makes me dwell in safety.”
These are just some quotations that have come quickly to my mind. I suggest when you read the various psalms pick out a line or so that you want to remember from that psalm. By doing that you will build up a repertoire of quotations that will come to you so easily when you most need them. You may even like to make your own psalter of your favourite quotations that you can refer to over and over again. I don’t think it was any accident that the psalms became the pivot for the prayer life of monasteries and churches. Their melody will always linger in our heart and speak to us.