Why I Love the Psalms

Ever since I began playing guitar for the “Folk Masses” back in 1969 in my sophomore year at St. Fidelis High School Seminary, contemporary Catholic liturgical music has been a major part of my life. For my 15th birthday, my Dad went to Logan’s Candy Company (long since out of business) in Butler, PA, and spent a whopping $32 to get me a brand new Barclay Guitar. (Even back then that was a cheap guitar, but it had a nice tone to it.)

I started learning as many chords as I could, and my classmates taught me to play many popular folk and religious songs. Within a few months, I was playing along with a group of 4 or 5 other guys for Masses at the seminary, and a couple of years later I was leading a folk group at the local parish.

Since then, I’ve been playing, singing, and writing music for the liturgy, as well as growing as an effective music minister; I’ve always tried to learn something from every liturgical musician with whom I have worked. I’ve led music groups and ministered music for all sorts of conferences, retreats, days of recollection, prayer meetings, weddings, funerals, baptisms, penitential services, and of course many, many Masses – probably over 1,000!

But there’s one special musical part of the Mass that I have really grown to appreciate: the Responsorial Psalm. After all, when King David (and others) wrote the Psalms, they were written as SONGS – not poetry, prose, or literary works. They were written to be SUNG!

When I participate at a Mass now and the Responsorial Psalm is recited rather than sung, it just feels like something is missing – there’s a spiritual energy that is absent from that “space between the readings” when the Responsorial Psalm is read instead of sung. Our musical response to the first reading reinforces the message we’ve heard by letting us express and assent to the truth of our faith, integrate it into our lives not only in words but in song – something that reaches into the depth of our souls.

Singing Is Praying Twice

For a composer like myself, I especially like the Psalms because half of my work (writing the lyrics) is already done for me! I just have to immerse myself in the spirit of the psalmist’s words and let the music start to bubble up from within – I don’t know how else to describe it. No wonder music and dancing were so intertwined with the prophetic profession in the Old Testament!

As Augustine, bishop of Hippo, once said, “One who sings, prays twice” (“Qui cantat, bis orat“) Apparently, Augustine did not have a good singing voice himself, so he appreciated those who had that gift! But his main point was that authentically singing praises involves not just our mouth, but also lifts our mind and heart to God. He described the praise in singing as a foretaste of the abundant joy of our prospective life in the “new heaven and new earth.”

I especially see this in our “special needs” adult son, Paul, who lives with us at home. All three of us are active in the music ministry at St. Francis by the Sea Church on Hilton Head Island. Paul plays the keyboard and is an essential part of the “Echoes of Heaven” music group there along with us. Being mildly autistic and intellectually disabled, playing music seems to really touch him spiritually and emotionally.

He plays his electronic keyboard as a melodic instrument, utilizing the wide range of instrumental sounds that it supports. He can’t read music at all and plays everything by ear, but having him play along with our couple of guitars, a bass and a flute makes a world of difference in our group’s sound – and its effectiveness.

Watching and hearing Paul get “in the spirit” when playing makes me realize what an awesome responsibility we liturgical musicians have – helping bring our fellow worshipers closer to the heavenly realms through our liturgical music!

That IS your goal as a liturgical musician, right?

Pax et Bonum,

David G.