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A 21 Psalm Salute

When Breanne Valerie first agreed to experience what it might mean to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict in the twenty-first century, she didn't anticipate that she might be faced with the daunting task of reading approximately 21 Psalms a day. Discover how her encounter with the Psalms became a treasured practice. 

4 minute read
A 21 Psalm Salute March 13, 2018  |  By Breanne Valerie
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I often wrestle with establishing new habits in my life. Other than brushing my teeth and drinking coffee there are very few habits that I do every single day without fail. So when Benedict wrote about the importance of reading the Psalms everyday it struck a chord. Not that every other Rule Benedict requires of his monastic followers is anything less daunting to undertake. But somehow the sheer magnitude of the call to read the entire book of Psalms in a week is overwhelming.

It’s not as abstract as some of his other Rules seem. It is literally reading approximately 21 Psalms a day, 150 a week, to be repeated indefinitely. And Benedict says anything less than this is “extreme indolence and lack of devotion.” Cue heart beating rapidly, stomach in throat, and the need to sit down.

Benedict, you mean to tell me that if I am not reading 21 Psalms every day that I am essentially a noncommittal lazy Christian?

I feel as though Benedict would reply to my sheer panic with: “What are you paying attention to? What are you giving your time to? And to what were my monastic followers paying mind to that you are not?”

Lump in throat. If I am being honest about this question, I scroll through my social media feeds for amounts of time that likely add up to what it would take to read through 21 Psalms a day. Does this mean that Christians who aspire to adopt more of a monastic lifestyle or seek to draw closer to God should be reading the entire Psalter every week? No. And yes.

Benedict does not want his Rule to become merely prescriptive. That would pervert his original intention of his Rule being transformative, a way to set the monastics apart for the Glory of God. When Rules become primarily prescriptive, like reading 21 Psalms everyday, it can easily become routine, and more about checking boxes. It isn’t going to do anything but make us more pious by removing the feeling of guilt that we aren’t doing enough and setting us further apart from the God that we desire to feel near to. So, no, I would not expect that Benedict would want us to read 21 Psalms a day if it is primarily about checking boxes.

The seemingly prescriptive Rules are given to Benedict’s monastic followers in hopes of creating a transformative community that draws nearer to the heart of God and what His coming Kingdom looks like. So with that being said, yes, Benedict does expect those following after the heart of God to be doing as much as they can to immerse themselves in the Scriptures. And his charge to read the Psalter in its entirety every week is evidence of this expectation. Benedict urges the monastics to live a life of complete devotion to God in a way that changes the way they live, and ultimately changes the heart.

And what does diving into the Psalms actually look like for a modern? While I do not proclaim do be a 21-a-day Psalm reader (hardly even an entire Psalter a year reader), I am well acquainted with its God breathed power and depths. I love the Psalms. Many of them feel etched into my very bones, words that have formed my inner being in such a way that brought me to the place I am today.

You see, I grew up with an extraordinary fear of the dark and often would wake up in the middle of the night with debilitating anxiety. These fears could be soothed only by my mother reading me the Psalms, over and over again. Although my fear of the dark has subsided (mostly) with age, the ability for the Psalms to sooth my weary and anxious heart did not.

So when I think about the anxiety and unrest in my life and what I pay attention to, I see a direct correlation between reading the Scriptures (particularly, in this case, the Psalms) and my feeling of calm. When my scrolling of social media increases, so does my anxiety. What quickly follows is a decrease in calm.

Benedict would say, easy solution: READ MORE PSALMS.

And so lately I have. Nowhere near 150 a week. Initially it started with a couple of week, read over the phone with a dear friend and ended with prayer. As of late, I try to read at least a Psalm a day, if not more. And reading a Psalm with a friend, because let’s face it we all need accountability, has actually become a treasured practice.

Benedict recognized the importance of the Psalms, which is why he required that those in his order read so many daily. He even notes in his rule that he has adapted this important practice to the needs of his order. Twenty one Psalms a day was nothing in comparison to their predecessors many hundreds of years before who read the entire Psalter daily. In this acknowledgement and subsequent adaptation, Benedict proves the intention of this discipline to be meaningful and transformative.

There is no point in overloading the monastic followers to the point that they resent the very practice. In the same way, when we read his charge that anything less than 21 Psalms a day is extreme indolence and lack of devotion, we are to adapt the practice in our context, just as Benedict did to his. However adaptation without seriously taking stock of what is taking up the majority of our time is laziness.

We must ask ourselves where our priorities lie and what is important to us. What are we spending our spare time doing and to where is our brainpower going? How will we increase the quantity of the Psalms in our daily lives so that it is transformative and not merely prescriptive? These questions can only be answered by each individual.There is no formula to reading the Psalms.

So, however you choose to adapt this practice into your lives I hope that this practice becomes as transformative as it has been for me. That it becomes as near to you as the blood coursing through your veins, and as automatic and life giving as the very air you breathe. Because when the Psalms are read along with the Spirit, beautiful things take place on a cellular level that can only be described as pure Joy. And when you experience the Joy that comes with engaging in the transformative power of the Psalms you can’t help but getting lost in reading them over and over and over again until habit takes over and you can’t imagine living without them.

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