Over the past year I have been periodically posting from a group of medieval 13th century psalms from The Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What is the significance of these psalms in particular and of psalms such of those of the Bible in general? Are psalms just pretty poetry, full of metaphors, exaggerations, and imaginative language not to be taken too seriously? Are they just of entertainment value as most of us today take poetry? Well the biblical psalms and the medieval Marian psalms are certainly beautiful. However that is not all that they are.
To look at the question of the significance of psalms we first have to look at their significance in the history of religion. To do that we must look at some aspects of what they do. Enclosed are two Marian psalms to help in this.
Wound my Heart – psalm 82
O my Lady, who shall be like unto thee ? In grace and glory you surpass all.
As the heavens are above the earth: so are you high above all, and exceedingly exalted.
Wound my heart with your love: make me worthy of your grace and your gifts.
May my heart melt in thy fear: and may the desire of thee inkindle my soul.
Make me desire your honor and your glory: that I may be received by you .
The Foundation of Life – psalm 86
The foundation of life in the soul of the just is to persevere in love unto the end.
Your grace raises up the poor man in adversity: and the invocation of your name inspires him with confidence.
Paradise is filled with thy mercies: and by the fear of thee the infernal enemy is confounded.
He who hopes in thee, will find treasures of peace:
And he who invokes you not in this life, will not attain to your kingdom.
Grant, O Lady, that we may live in the grace of the Holy Spirit: and lead our souls to a good end.
On viewing both of these psalms / poems / hymns it becomes clear that praise of the Deity lies at their center. “Wound my Heart” begins its first line with “O Lady who shall be like unto you? ” It continues with ” As the heavens are above the earth so are you above all.” Within “The Foundation of Life” the spirit of praise is not so direct. However it is implicit in the text. By citing the Lady’s achievement and actions “Your grace raises up the poor man,” “Paradise is filled with your mercies.” the praise is still very much there. In the centrality of praise both of these hymns are very typical of psalms in general.
The second primary aspect of the psalms is that they address the Deity in the form of petition. Historically peoples and individuals have tended to pray for concrete things such as good harvests, help in personal troubles, help in war, etc. The Marian and Biblical psalms are some what different for in them more spiritual gifts are often requested. Thus the saint asks that he or she be brought closer to the Lady by “having her heart wounded by the [Lady’s] love,” that ” we be made worthy of her gifts and grace,” that we may live by the grace of the holy spirit.” Of course in other hymns other things are asked for such as deliverance from enemies, sins, or illness.
In all these things the Biblical and Marian hymns are not exceptional. They do for certain religious communities i.e. the Jewish national community and the monastic communities of the Medieval period what all religious communities have done, that is to address the Deity(s) in praise and thanksgiving and to petition the deity for the good things of life. Certainly the hymns and writings of the monotheistic faiths of the West, of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are full of both praise and petition. The hymns and sacred songs of Hinduism, Sikhism, and other world religions often do much the same.
The ancient pagan religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, Sumeria, etc were no exception to this. The ancient peoples all regularly sang hymns of praise and petitions to their gods and goddesses. Unfortunately because these religions were ultimately eradicated by a triumphal Christianity, their psalms generally preserved orally by religious priesthoods have generally been eliminated. Ask yourself a question. How many songs of praise do we still have for Athena, Demeter, the Celtic Bridget? The fact that we have so few is not because they did not exist. They were eliminated.
The significance of psalms? While some may not feel any loss, I and, I suspect, many others have felt great loss. I feel loss in the fact that almost all of the beautiful devotional psalms and songs that are now used in worship are used only in masculined religions to a masculine God. The songs that exist are to Jesus , the Father, the King and Lord and never to the Queen of Heaven and Earth. It is a misfortune that almost all communal worship in this society is addressed only to a Father and Lord and never to a Mother and Lady. This is at least part of what the monopolization of religion by both Christianity and Islam has done to us.
However fortunately the Queen of Heaven in her mercy in Christianity at least has revealed herself in the form of the Virgin Mary and by inspiring her psalms and other devotions has given us songs of praise by which we may praise her name.