Sing a New Song, Chapter 1: Psalm-Based Piety

Last Friday, Jim alerted you to an upcoming URC Psalmody series reviewing and discussing Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).  Indeed, this book struck us as so applicable to the purpose of this blog that we each got a copy and began reading through it together.  So over the next several weeks we’ll be discussing and summarizing each chapter of this helpful little resource.  We hope all of our readers will feel free to join in as well!

Chapter 1, written by Hughes Oliphant Old and Robert Cathcart, traces the historical tradition of psalm-singing from the pre-medieval church right up to the dawn of the Reformation.  Its title: “From Cassian to Cranmer.”  Old and Cathcart begin:

It may seem odd that this book, headlined by so many brilliant Reformed scholars, begins with a look at John Cassian.  Cassian, a monk born in Scythia Minor (modern-day Romania) around AD 360, may be best known as the leading proponent of Semi-Pelagianism in his day.  In addition, he championed an ascetic lifestyle as the means to true piety.  Both of these attributes might be enough to make a Reformed reader skip ahead to the next chapter.  That, however, would be a grave mistake because Cassian observed, described, and propagated an approach to the singing of psalms that was replicated, with some modifications, during the time of the Reformation and still resonates within the Reformed tradition today (p. 1).

MRK: It would have never occurred to me that a semi-Pelagian monastic such as John Cassian would have been so influential in establishing the role of the psalms in Christian worship.  Jim, were you previously aware of Cassian and his work in the psalms?

JDO: Yes, I am aware of John Cassian.  In fact, many of my friends have in the past complained about how often I gush over him.  I wrote a paper on Cassian’s life for a church history course.  He was pretty fantastic.  He decided to go spend time with the Desert Fathers (a group of extreme hermits in Egypt).  Then he took what he learned from them and applied it to monastic life in the Western church.  As Old and Cathcart point out, the Desert Fathers inspired Cassian’s passion for praying through the psalms systematically.

MRK:  Again, that’s a tradition we probably don’t associate with Egyptian hermits.  I think this might reveal a possible fallacy in the Reformed conception of worship: when we think of utilizing the psalms, we tend to assume it’s a practice unique to our tradition.  In reality, of course, it is plainly commanded in Scripture for all Christians, not just Reformed.

JDO: Yes, the practice of psalm-singing is rich in history.  The early church recognized the book of psalms for what it is: a songbook meant to be used.

MRK: It’s a schedule that Old and Cathcart call “modest and prudent,” yet Cassian still calls for the singing of twenty-four psalms each day in his works The Institutes of the Cenobia and The Conferences.  Our attempts at utilizing the psalms certainly pale in comparison.  Why, congregants might blow their tops if a Sunday worship service involved the singing of even twelve psalms in their entirety!

JDO: Indeed, and yet how much it would benefit us.  Of course, perhaps we wouldn’t sing that many at one time (after all, vocal cords do have their limitations).

MRK: The chapter moves on to talk about the psalms’ function as an invitation to prayer.  Do you combine the psalms with prayer in your personal devotions?  This is a practice I hope to implement regularly; so far it has proved to be a blessing.

JDO:  Cassian wisely saw the power of the psalms to induce prayer and elicit praise.  Actually, it’s because of my study of Cassian that I often recommend that people read a psalm before they pray.  One might say it “gets the juices flowing.”  Further, Cassian pointed out that using the psalms in our prayers can also safeguard us from praying selfishly or “getting off target.”  I also love Cassian’s admonition, as Old and Cathcart point out, to sing, read, and meditate on the psalms during daily work.  The psalms “transform our daily tasks, however menial, into God’s work, as they are consecrated by the scriptural prayers that rise in the midst of them” (p. 5).

MRK: It’s one thing to have a catchy song stuck in your head; it’s entirely another to meditate on the text of a psalm and pray it back to God throughout the day.  Oh how I long for that level of devotion!  Further, I appreciate that Cassian emphasizes the “intelligence of the mind” rather than “the quantity of verses” (p. 3).

JDO: As Protestants, we are often highly suspect of the “vain repetition” of monastic life, and perhaps rightfully so in light of what it can easily become.  But Cassian, Benedict, and others like them were very careful to guard against empty ritualism in their writings.

MRK: And, as a side note, it’s fascinating to see how psalm-worship meshes perfectly with the Reformers’ view of vocation and the proper relationship of sacred and secular.  “[F]rom Cassian’s observations, it is clear to see the power that a psalm-based piety, filled with singing, meditation, and prayer, has to remove any sense of a sacred/secular dichotomy in the life and work of a faithful Christian, regardless of occupation” (p. 5).

The authors go on to describe the schedule proposed by Cassian and later by Benedict in greater detail.  That prompts me to ask: Are you more inclined to support a substantial study of several psalms in the morning and at night (like the Desert Fathers’ method), or do you think breaking it up into smaller and more frequent segments might be more beneficial (as Cassian and Benedict advocated)?

JDO:  I’m inclined to support anything that gets people into the psalms.  Let’s face it: the average Christian isn’t going to be able to read twenty-four psalms a day.  Work, family life, and the demands of modern living would really cut into Benedict’s eight-psalms-per-day regimen.  That said, I just read yesterday that the average American spends 48 hours a week on the internet and television as of 2010.  I don’t know how accurate that is, but seriously—we still have a lot of time that could be better prioritized.   Whether we decide to read half a psalm before going to school and half a psalm upon getting home, or maybe reading two psalms at breakfast, one at lunch, and three before bed—I think the best application is just to make a consistent and careful effort to spend time in the psalms every day.

MRK: I think this ties in wonderfully to the authors’ comments that in the tradition of the Desert Fathers “there was a glorious balance between freedom and fixed forms that so often marks the most mature and edifying prayers of the Christian church” (p. 7).  Scheduled times of devotion can be great helps in our spiritual lives, so long as our hearts are in the right place and we are not merely following routine.

As we approach the end of this chapter, Old and Cathcart suggest three points of application for the 21st-century church on p. 14.  We’ve summarized and reflected on these implications below.

  1. The authors hint at re-establishing the practice of regular morning and evening church services throughout the week, times to work through the psalms and pray together.  While a daily application of this idea is probably impractical despite its benefit, could we incorporate the idea of working through the psalms into a weekly prayer service?  Could Wednesday night prayer time (a common practice for some congregations) be improved by adding a regular study of the psalms?
  2. The authors challenge congregations to make a real commitment to learning and singing all of the Psalms for their relevance to all of life.  “Whether their text emphasizes prayer, praise, lament, devotion, or any response or emotion, there is no better place to find the perfect matching song than in the Psalter” (p. 14).  Happily, this practice already thrives in many United Reformed churches, thanks to the stipulation of our Church Order.  But how might we continue to ensure that as congregations we are familiar with not some but all of the psalms?  How might we sing them not occasionally, but regularly?
  3. “The final application,” the authors declare, “for applying the ancient principles of psalm piety in the twenty-first century is a reestablishment of family prayer.”  Does the idea of singing the psalms in family devotions strike us as odd or old-fashioned?  Do our families possess their own copies of psalters besides the songbooks at church?  Let us read the psalms with our families, sing the psalms with our families, learn the psalms with our families—for the Bible commands it!

Of course, we (as well as the authors) realize that the devotional insights of Cassian’s monastic movement do not necessarily justify the entire theology and practice of monasticism.  Nevertheless, we can undoubtedly learn much from their “psalm-based piety.”  The words of Laura Swan in The Benedictine Tradition: Spirituality in History, quoted in this chapter of Sing a New Song, paint a beautiful picture of the benefit that accompanies a regular and serious study of the psalms:

Like water slowly dripping on rock until that rock’s shape has changed, the daily mundane task of chanting the Divine Office slowly works on an individual’s heart, shaping the person into the image of Christ.


Next Thursday, Lord willing, we’ll return to consider Chapter 2 from Sing a New Song: “Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans.”  Until then,


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