Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Memorizing the Psalms (1-10)

Over the last 7 years I have worked daily with the Hebrew text of the psalms. It has been a long slow learning process - and just because one publishes a book, the process does not stop.  In fact, publishing the book is a critical step in learning. As I said in the introduction,
This was the volume I would have liked to have in my hands when I began learning Hebrew poetry. I couldn’t find it, so I developed the ideas for it as I learned.
Now that I have it, I am studying the Hebrew daily and refining the search for mnemonic devices that will enable memorization of the whole.  It is very clear that the first line of Jerome's Latin translation was used as an aide mémoire.

Don't be put off by the Latin. Plow right through it.

The well-bred were to recognize immediately the intent of a Psalm from its first line, so these Latin first lines are all included in the Anglican Prayer Book.  Regrettably that Psalter is seriously defective. It lacks Psalm 58 (57) Si vere utique justitiam loquimini, the closing verses of Psalm 137 (136) Super flumina Babylonis, and more than half of Psalm 109 (108) Deus, laudem meam ne tacueris  - 16 verses excised.  There is no place in the world for a sanitized Psalter.

Such a set of choices fails miserably. Just imagine for a moment that the abused children of the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom I knew personally, had been able to pray the invective of Psalm 109 against their abusers. Just think what justice might have come of such words, words that form the character of steel that inhabits Psalm 110 Dixit Dominus, and that is celebrated in Psalm 112, Beatus vir.  But these titles are from a different time and place. They were even then, as history has revealed, in desperate need of a close rereading.

Don't be fooled by piety.

A diagram might help memorization... - but the complexity of this House of Poetry would demand a carefully selected set of links and high-wires.  Maybe some day: there are diagrams that I have done here and here and here and here (absolutely the wrong approach) and here - but none of them is the right one yet. There's a hint of a selected high-wire here.

The problem with all of these is simple: too much information.  What are the real mnemonic clues that will help?

You may ask - why bother?  Why not play golf?  (I did a round today - 18 beautiful tee shots - not one missed, but none of them went in exactly the right place.) I have enough time to play golf and memorize the Psalter and ride my bike, and travel, and eat, drink, and be merry.  The champagne is in the fridge. There's a new single malt in the cupboard.

God is not a spoil-sport. 

I do have a series of summaries in my book: what if I summarized the summaries - maybe: here's the first 10 Psalms.  You know - this is a no-brainer.  It works beautifully as a psychological sequence.  Imagine yourself a child of God, reading these poems and knowing their real impact...

אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ1Happy the person who does not walk...
לָמָּה רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם2Why such a throng of nations?
יְהוָה מָה רַבּוּ צָרָי3יהוה how multiplied my straits!
בְּקָרְאִי עֲנֵנִי4When I call, answer me.
אֲמָרַי הַאֲזִינָה5To my promise give ear
יְהוָה אַל בְּאַפְּךָ תוֹכִיחֵנִי6יהוה do not in your anger correct me.
יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי בְּךָ חָסִיתִי7יהוה my God in you I take refuge.
יְהוָה אֲדֹנֵינוּ מָה אַדִּיר שִׁמְךָ בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ8יהוה our Lord how majestic your name in all the earth.
אוֹדֶה יְהוָה בְּכָל לִבִּי9I will thank יהוה with all my heart.
לָמָה יְהוָה תַּעֲמֹד בְּרָחוֹק10יהוה Lord why do you stand in the distance?

Just wait for the rest!