17 April 2010

Catching Up: End of Break, the Psalms

A friend of mine at church here mentioned that he’s been reading my blog.  He seems like a cool guy, so I was surprised to discover that he has no life.  (Just kidding, Martin!)  And then I decided that I’ve been neglectful of the ol’ blog, and I should write something.

There’s one measly week left of my break.  It’s been a good one – I enjoyed an Easter trip to the Belfast area with my friend Amy, and the rest of my time in Oxford has been pretty low-key.  I took walks, read books, played games, tried out a new pub each week with friends (sort of a gradual pub crawl!), baked bread (and devoured it! Yum!).  I even got a little work done… not as much as I’d like, but hey, there’s still one week left!

I have yet to write that thesis proposal, but I have definitely found a topic that I’m interested in.  I’m waiting for the ‘okay’ (or ‘nay’) of a faculty member.  As I was reading in the library several weeks ago, I came across an article about a 6th century figure named Daniel of Salah.  In the midst of a rather tumultuous time for his church community, Daniel was commissioned to write a commentary on the Psalms.  Daniel wasn’t just interested in creating something scholastic: he wrote his commentary as a series of homilies, crafting one sermon per psalm, so they could shape many people at once and be easily disseminated.  It’s the oldest extant Psalm commentary that we have in the Syriac language, and it made a huge impact on the generations after him.  Daniel’s was a minority Christian community, persecuted by the Byzantine orthodox authorities because of their theological differences, and his commentary helped to shape their identity.  That influence lasted longer than Byzantine rule – soon the Islamic conquest swept the historic home of Syriac-speaking Christians out of Byzantine hands forever, and this commentary continued to inspire generations of marginalized Christians in a new era.  

As I was reading about this, I also discovered what a pivotal role the Psalms played in Syrian Christianity in general.  In the Syriac-speaking churches, a person couldn’t even be ordained as a sub-deacon without knowing and reciting the entire Psalter by heart.  (Being able to sign one’s own name was desirable, but negotiable!)  Monastic life was characterized by the daily recitation of Psalms, and memorization of the Psalms formed the cornerstone of Christian education. The language of the Psalms is the prayer language of this community, so imagine the kind of impact that Daniel’s text would have had on those who gathered to hear it and ruminate on it, homily by homily, and who then passed on their knowledge to a wider audience.

Studying this has challenged me personally in several ways.  Why don’t I try to memorize the Psalms, too?  I presume that these would have been sung or chanted by these churches, aiding memorization.  Maybe I could find a Psalter adapted for plainsong chant to help in that task?  (Any recommendations?)  Those of you who’ve spent any amount of time with me know that I hum/sing/whistle incessantly – why not harness one of my irksome personal habits for good?

My own Christian fellowship has been going through a long period of identity-shift.  We’re mostly content to argue about fairly surface level stuff – what happens in our worship services and who does it.  It seems like pretty sandy ground for us to build our house on.  I wondered – what books of the Bible do we turn to in order to remember who we are?  (For the C of C, my guess is Acts. What’s yours?)  What communication tools are effective for shaping communal (not just individual) identity today and how can we use those best?  


Amber Joy said...

Hey Kel.
It's does my heart good to hear from you on the "ol' blog." I'm very excited that you've found this amazing figure from early church history to study and learn from. I hope she gives you the okay.
Love you much.

Amber Joy said...

So.... Kent found a note you wrote on Facebook, and I'm thinking... why do I continue to check this blog EVERY DAY?!

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