Chanting the Psalms: An Invitation

This blog offers a brief overview of the sacred practice of chanting the psalms and reflects on its place in one’s daily Wisdom toolbox. Our gratitude to chant leaders Shirley Willihnganz and Adele Ver Steeg for writing this piece. We invite you to join the Wisdom Waypoints online community for chanting of the psalms in our Wisdom Psalm Circle, Monday-Friday at 8:30am ET.

At the ringing of the bell, we join with the cantor, entering into the psalms, allowing them to work their transformative alchemy in us. Within this space, we have been humbled by the psalms’ ability to transcend the limits of technology, to ground us and nourish us, and to directly pierce, and begin to heal us, from the center of our hearts.

Zoom can’t recreate the experience of chanting the psalms with the monks in a monastery, we know. But, even so, and surprisingly to some of us who have been meeting daily to chant the psalms on Zoom, we have entered into sacred space.

And like other monastic practices that have become mainstays of contemporary spiritual practice, such as Lectio Divina, chant, contemplative prayer, mindfulness, and simplicity, we think it’s time for psalmody to take a prominent place in our Wisdom toolbox.

We understand why some might feel reluctant — the smiting is hard to read, let alone speak and chant. There may be an understandable hesitation to engage with the perceived violence, vindictive-ness, desolation, and nationalist vision that some of the psalms voice. But in these ancient songs, one also finds hope, trust, love, forgiveness, longing, devotion, jubilation, praise, stead-fastness, and faithfulness — those fruits of the spirit that feed and sustain us. And as we live into the psalms, we find ourselves moving into a greater and deeper understanding of the spiritual fodder we have here. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes in her book, Chanting the Psalms, a literal reading is just a first phase in our understanding of the psalms. This literal phase gives way to what Cynthia describes as the christological — the sense that all the stories and images of the psalms point directly to the Christ mystery. This phase deepens to the tropological, where we slowly begin to realize that the psalms are the story of the soul’s journey, the journey of transformation. We begin to see, as Thomas Keating did, that: “This is the story of my own life!” And finally, in the unitive phase, we enter the single story of creation in which we feel like we are the authors and creators of the story itself (Bourgeault, p. 51).

Father Keating called this process “divine therapy” (Keating, 1992). Cynthia theorizes that the psalms do this “soul work,” by creating a safe container for recognizing and processing our dark shadows — the conscious and the unconscious ones. And as we chant a line like: “Destroy all those who oppress me, O Lord,” we begin to see that the psalmist’s anger (or desolation, hopelessness, loneliness, grief, or terror) is not so different from our own. This acknowledgement of the universal nature of these experiences can free us a bit from the tangled webs of our own emotions, and open us to a more impartial and spacious seeing. We see, as Kathleen Norris says in her book, The Cloister Walk, both our holiness and our humanness — the uplifting and the dark moments in our own spiritual journey. And that can let us begin to heal and know from the deeper, truly compassionate, centers of our hearts (Bourgeault, pp. 43–44).

If we’ve intrigued you at all, you might now be asking, “So, how do you chant the psalms?”

You chant with your whole self, and a full three-centered presence — Presence of Mind, Presence of Feeling, Presence of Body. And then the chant is formed from “all four holy elements out of which the earth was fashioned and through which all spiritual transformation happens” (Bourgeault, p. 32). Following Cynthia, these include breath, tone or vibration, intentionality, and community.

Chanting the psalms requires work with the breath. And not just any breath. Chanting requires a good in-breath followed by a controlled, complete, and measured out-breath with a deep, full expulsion of air — an out-breath that is longer than the in-breath. This requires full attention (intellectual center), and also produces a state where the blood cells are flooded with oxygen (a sense of aliveness in sensation). This conscious breathing pattern also introduces an element of the sacred (feeling center) as you breathe consciously and fully and the breath reaches all the way into the center of your being, the I AM.

Chanting also requires tone, or vibration. As Cynthia notes, most religious traditions name this vibrational tone as that out of which worlds were created. And again, to replicate this sacred creative act, you have to find that place in you where the vocal column and the diaphragm are anchored — your center. Singing from that place, you can hear your own authentic voice which “catapults you directly into the heart of your own deep selfhood, the authentic ground of all spiritual work” (Bourgeault, p. 34). And here, the chant becomes a prayer. Not only is this feeling center work, but, as you produce sound you are flooded with sensation as your vagus nerve is activated, producing a sense of ease and release. Even more, as the sound enters the ear canal it moves into your bones themselves and echoes though the entire skeletal structure.

Cynthia names the third sacred element of this process intentionality, because especially in Christian Sacred Chanting “you have to know and understand the words; you have to accept them into your being in a fundamental way….contemplative psalmody is a matter of staying close to the text, of being with it and in it” (Bourgeault, p. 34). We listen for the word that calls to us and maybe that becomes the day’s inner task or a breath prayer that we carry with us. Something in the psalm shimmers, and we know it as ours. As we stay awake to our own woundedness and vulnerability, we are purified and healed (Bourgeault, p. 47). This practice engages the intellectual center, but teaches it a bit of obedience in that the practice entrains the spiritual force of the feeling center to take the lead.

Finally, when we chant the psalms together, we create community (Bourgeault, p 34). And here we circle back to where we started. Zoom does not produce the same experience as chanting together in person. But, we also aren’t alone. We see each other — many days the same core group faithfully coming together to chant the psalm of the day. And in that liminal space, we support and hold each other, strengthen each other, as we stretch to grow and bear more in this shaken world, we are indeed together, a collective.

Cynthia has said that some of the practices in our wisdom lineage could be summarized as St. Benedict meets G.I. Gurdjieff. Part Two of this blog series on chanting the psalms will look more deeply at these two streams and explore the rich tidal pool that is created as we bring the devotional, ancient tradition of chanting the psalms together with our understanding of Gurdjieff’s ideas of three-centered knowing and the three fold nature of our work. And as we do this, we create both devotional prayer and medicine for ourselves, each other, and for the Great Work itself.

We invite you to chant the psalms with us in our online Wisdom Psalm Circle, Monday-Friday at 8:30am ET.

Shirley Willihnganz and Adele Ver Steeg are Wisdom students of Cynthia’s. Shirley divides her time between Ohio and Vermont, and Adele lives in Iowa. 

Resources Referenced:
Bourgeault, Cynthia. Chanting the Psalms. Boulder: New Seeds. 2006
Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love. NewYork: Element. 1992
Norris, Kathleen. The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead. 1996

Blog Archives

7 thoughts on “Chanting the Psalms: An Invitation

  1. I am interested in this morning practice with others.
    It will be a 5:30 adventure for me here in Interior B.C. Canada.
    I do have The Cloister Walk .
    I have a series of recorded tapes and a booklet from Cynthia titled “Singing the Psalms”
    Is there a cost .
    Or a donation to Wisdom Waypoints?
    When does it begin?

  2. I love listening to the psalms but I am one of the few people in the world with no sense of pitch. So in order to chant in community my contribution is a low hum. I wonder how best to experience chanting with an ear unable to distinguish or discern tone? Thank you.

    1. Dear Nancy,

      First, I’m not an expert, so please read this as from someone who will gladly be corrected by anyone else who wants to replay who knows more!

      Second, the wonder of ZOOM is that nobody can hear you but you, so make a joyful noise without worry about how it might sound to others. Make a sound that pleases you…be it just to talk the psalm, or hum, or be gloriously loud and off key. You are so welcome to join us because all are welcome, just as you are, and everyone belongs, whether they think they can sing or not.

      Third, and maybe a serious response to your very honest and vulnerable question is this….many of us were told we couldn’t sing, were silenced, and as you did, learned to quietly hum along so you wouldn’t disturb anyone. Truthfully, any kind of singing exposes some essence of ourselves, and it’s a really vulnerable activity. As Cynthia points out in Chapter 7 of Chanting the Psalms, chanting strips away our masks and forces us to work with what’s real because that’s all you’ve got. But the good news is that what is real in you is beautiful…I’m going to quote Cynthia because what she says is so wonderful: “First and foremost…your real singing voice is beautiful…because your true singing voice is so closely connected to your authentic self, and because this authentic self is nothing less than the glory of God written in you as your being….so you can relax and enjoy the ride” (p.77).

      Isn’t that marvelous? Your authentic self is nothing less than the Glory of God.

      She goes on to say that some of our work in chanting is actually learning to deeply breathe from that place where the vocal column connects to the diaphragm, that place in the middle of your torso just below your heart, your center. If you can try to inhale to that place, and exhale deeply from there, you’ll go a long way toward “taking away the strain, constriction, and the anxiety….while staying connected to the breath” (p. 77-78). She also says that when people relax and breathe deeply from that center, most find that as they sing, they can comfortably follow along.

      And if you want chant along with us to not only become more comfortable with your voice but to begin that process of “divine therapy” Fr. Keating talked about, “working with your voice in chanting is an absolutely marvelous way to deepen the process of self-inquiry, exploring the material of your essential being and the blockages and constrictions in your personality. If you’re willing to see it this way, it’s an opportunity to move beyond egoic performance anxiety and learn more about the creature you truly and magnificently are” (p. 78).

      I hope this helps.

      1. Dear Shirley,
        Thanks for the very useful answer. I chuckled when I read “many of us were told we couldn’t sing, were silenced.” That’s me- my fith grade teacher told the entire class I had a tin ear and could not sing at all. I really appreciate your answer and, of course, this wonderful opportunity on Zoom. With much gratitude for all the good work at Wisdom Waypoints.

  3. Thank you for offering this opportunity. I am called to practice the chanting and will join you at 6:30 am Mountain Standard time Blessings.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.