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A call to psalmody

| Tuesday, April 12, 2022

I am a convert to Roman Catholicism. As I write this column, I’m celebrating 10 years since my confirmation (a late confirmation in my diocese, the Diocese of Saginaw, which confirms its cradle Catholics in 2nd grade). My baptism, confirmation and first reception of Holy Communion in 7th grade came two years after our family made the decision to transfer from the public elementary school in our village to Sacred Heart Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Having fallen in love with the theology of the Catholic faith, I was elated when our family had the conversation in 2012 about converting, and I largely haven’t looked back since.

But the funny thing about calling myself a convert or sharing that story with other people is that almost without exception, the person on the other side of that conversation is interested to know what exactly I converted from. And my answer is less than satisfactory, because it’s not really as though our family was in the practice of a particular faith before we found the Catholic tradition. The result, then, is that I typically identify my pre-convert self as a “non-denominational Protestant” — non-denominational because we didn’t have a church and Protestant because I wasn’t Catholic. 

Except that’s not really the end of the story. No, our family didn’t have a church we went to on Sundays in my earliest years, but yes, they saw me formed in a Protestant tradition, and the best evidence I have to support that proposition was that the Bible was my textbook of faith, and it was a 66-book Protestant Bible rather than a 73-book Catholic one. And perhaps the key formative moment of those years to my faith today was an incident in 3rd grade in which I made an attempt at reading through the Bible cover-to-cover. Despite a valiant effort, though, I ended up throwing in the towel at the Psalms.

Let me emphasize — I was sufficiently transfixed by the Book of Numbers for that to not be my stopping point. The historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah gave me no pause. It was “those miserable Psalms,” to steal a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that induced my 3rd grade self to give up on a Bible read-through. And while I can’t totally pinpoint why the Psalms posed this sort of difficulty, it might have been because at that point in my life I wasn’t really a fan of poetry. Even the book of Job, which is right before the Psalms, alternated between prose and poetry enough that you could tell what was going on in the story, but it was the character of Fear from “Inside Out“ who put words to my sentiment on arriving at the Psalms in the 3rd grade: “Boo! Pick a plotline!”

And so I gave the Psalms a rest. Of course, in 5th grade, when I started going to weekly school mass while at Sacred Heart, I started hearing responsorial psalms, but I didn’t really associate those with the Book of Psalms because (1) you repeated a response and (2) that response wasn’t always the first verse, which led 5th-grade Devin to conclude that the setters of these texts to tunes had really, technically, created new texts. So, while the responsorial psalm quickly became a favorite part of the liturgy for me, I dissociated my favorable outlook on responsorial psalmody from the actual book itself. The Book of Psalms continued being background jibber jabber in my life of faith.

Until Ash Wednesday 2018. It was my first year at Michigan State University, I was attending an Ash Wednesday Mass at St. John Church and Student Center, and Fr. Ryan Riley was giving the homily. Every Ash Wednesday, the responsorial is Psalm 51 (“Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love”), and this was no exception. Fr. Ryan preached about King David. Psalm 51, after all, is one of many of the Psalms whose authorship is attributed to him, and as its first two verses note, it was written “when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The point of Fr. Ryan’s homily was that as we begin Lent, we should have a penitential focus, and that regardless of the severity of our iniquities, mercy awaits those of us who are willing to truly, authentically answer the call to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” It was at this moment that I heard a voice that could be none other than our Heavenly Father himself. With His characteristic acerbic wit, he said, “Devin, David wrote these Psalms as a penance. The least you could do would be to read them.”

At the start of Lent in 2018, then, I made a second attempt at a read-through of the Psalms, only to stumble away from my resolve by like day five. I had experienced personal divine revelation, and still my heart was hardened to embracing the poetry of the Psalms for what it is. Then, when we sang Psalm 51 for Ash Wednesday of 2019, our Heavenly Father spoke to me again: “After Mass, go ahead and Google just how long it would take to read the Psalms cover-to-cover. The answer might surprise you.” So after Mass, I investigated the matter and found full read-throughs of the Psalms on YouTube that took between 4 and 5 hours. That was it — if it only took 4 hours not just to read the Psalms but to read them out loud, I had no excuse. So I got some friends of mine together on the Wednesday of Holy Week that year, in one of the basement lounges of St. John’s, and we read the Psalms, all 150 of them, out loud. There were the familiar Psalms, like Psalms 22 and 31 that Jesus quotes while on the cross, or Psalm 34, the “taste and see” song that has a bazillion musical settings. And then there were the oddball Psalms, like the 176-verse-long Psalm 119, which is really 22 distinct eight-line poems, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The marathon psalm reading bore great spiritual fruit, so on Ash Wednesday of 2020, I was resolved to organize another. While COVID got in the way, my friends and I still held a marathon Psalm reading on Wednesday of Holy Week over Zoom. We did the same thing in 2021, though spread out over a couple of days rather than in one sitting so that some of my law student colleagues could participate. But as this year’s Holy Week comes to its apex at the Triduum, I found myself called to share this story more broadly, and so I have written this week’s column. I challenge you, dear reader, to take four hours over the course of the upcoming Triduum to read the Psalms, out loud, in their entirety. If you can’t do it in one sitting, break it up. If you don’t have four hours, even broken up, to dedicate to this pursuit, then at least go for a selection — the aforementioned 22, 31, 34, and 119, plus Psalms 1, 139, and 150, make for a solid subset. But mark my words: “those miserable Psalms” aren’t really “so depressingafter all. 

Devin is a member of the Notre Dame Law School’s class of 2023. Originally from Farwell, Michigan, he is a 2020 graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison College. In his free time, he sings with the Notre Dame Folk Choir and discusses the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. Inquiries into his surplus of law journal articles and note ideas can be directed to [email protected] or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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