Bless the Lord, my soul

The song for today is a chant from the French Taize community, and is (as John points out) a setting of Psalm 103.  The setting in Sing Praise includes nine short chants for solo cantor, each intended to be sung over a choir singing the 4-part refrain.   The refrain is often used on its own: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life”.    

That last phrase intrigues me – “who leads me into life”.  I have also seen a version of the same song giving it as “who rescues me from death”, both of them probably deriving from verse 4 of the original Psalm, “who delivers your life from the Pit” (NRSV).  I happen to have a Taize prayer book so I looked to see how the community translates the psalm for their own worship: the relevant phrase is “qui rachète à la fosse ta vie” – literally, “who buys back from the ditch your life”. The translation in this English version of the song puts that idea into one of the cantor’s verses: “The Lord is forgiveness and redeems our life from the grave”.

All these carry the same idea, not yet the full Christian concept of Jesus dying to redeem us from our sins, but a foretaste of that, a germ of the idea.  Without God’s blessing we would all end up in the ‘pit’ of death or Sheol – the old Hebrew concept of the afterlife as neither heaven nor hell but an undesirable, eternal nothingness or meaninglessness.  A pit is a hole that is too deep to climb out of unaided, as the biblical Joseph found. To believe in God and accept his blessing is to accept a hand up out of the pit, to find meaning where there was none, to find eternal life instead of merely existence, to receive (as Jesus would later put it) “life in all its fulness”.  Which is presumably why the refrain uses the more positive interpretation: if we are bought back from death, then by implication we are indeed led into life.

Imagery like this seems pertinent at this time of Covid lockdown and isolation.  Today is the tenth and last day of our isolation at home, and even though the freezing weather has not been conducive to going out walking much anyway, it will be good to get out tomorrow, if only to the shop with a mask on.  I can get out of this little pit and get on with life in the limited way currently allowed, and look forward to a ‘new normal’ at a later time. For those who live alone all the time and cannot get out on their own, for those in prison or trapped in controlling relationships, or in unrelieved pain, it must be far worse.  For some people, even death may seem like a positive way out, and God is the only one who can lift them up.

The Christian promise is that the reality is much better than we might dare to hope.  If we give ourselves to God, then we can find peace among the troubles of this life, and know that beyond death is not mere existence in a pit but a new creation where fullness of life will be something more than we can now imagine. Bless the Lord, my Soul!

1 thought on “Bless the Lord, my soul”

  1. I think I’m the “John” who points out that this is a setting of Psalm 103 – very appropriate on a Tuesday in Ordinary Time when this psalm is the set opening canticle for CW DP MP (Common Worship Daily Prayer – Morning Prayer … we Anglicans really know how to make a mouthful of these titles!).

    I suppose Stephen’s comment about how to translate v4 takes me back to Old Testament theology lectures many years ago: that the OT mostly teaches that man is finite, that Sheol is pre-eminently a place of dust, that death is a kind of “weak form of life” into which people drift at their ends, that the earlier ideas of resurrection are not really about individual resurrection and a person’s future is found in the success of his/her descendants, and that even by the later parts of the OT the idea of a personal resurrection into the presence of God is still cloudy. Resurrection doesn’t really get crystallized into a proper hope until the New Testament. I suppose that is part of the reason that there are a lot of Christians who find the OT very difficult, and the fairly recent demise of singing and saying Psalms in the church today is all bound up with this fact.

    Well, I agree that this demise needs addressing, not least because the Psalms of Lament and other parts of the Old Testament have a crucial part to play in ministering to people who are finding things difficult in life. A Christian life which has not engaged with the kinds of despair and frustration expressed in the Psalms is ripe for a fall.

    The artist and musician in me quite likes the Taize way of doing a Psalm like this, but I feel bound to say that I don’t really agree with the theory behind it. The theory goes: (1) the Psalms were originally songs, therefore (2) we ought to sing them. However, (3) literal translation of the verses gives something that neither rhymes nor scans, so (4) we have to find some way of fitting them to tunes despite the non-rhythmical and non-lyrical nature of the translation. The best way of doing this is (5) pick a verse and make a tune for it – this verse will then act as the “refrain” or “ostinato” and then (6) the remaining verses can then be treated like jazz over the top of the refrain, for which purpose (7) these remaining verses have to be delegated to soloist(s) since it would be unreasonable to expect a congregation to keep together on them. One of the problems is that (7) means that the congregation has become separated from the actual text of the Psalm, which defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. Another is that the refrain text in (5) is often unable to bear the weight placed on it (as has happened in this case – for Stephen rightly queries the translation).

    But please don’t think I’m criticising Taize alone! Anglican Chant (whether by Parish Psalter or Cathedral Psalter) suffers the same problem. So does the Grail Psalter. So does Gelineau.

    To me, the fatal flaw is the step from (3) to (4), and the key to singing Psalms is to recognize that English is a versatile language in which there are many ways to paraphrase while translating. Endeavours such as the Scottish Psalter show that it is almost always possible to cast a translation into a metrical form: the result sounds more or less convincing according to how far one allows oneself to depart from literalism whilst paraphrasing, and also according to the extent to which one is prepared to try unfamiliar meters, and hence to write new tunes when there aren’t existing tunes in the eventual meters.

    Anyhow, beginning with the CPAS book “Psalm Praise”, I think new ways have been found to cast the Psalms into songs, and I’ve become keen on doing so, as part of the aim of trying to help people engage with the Psalms nowadays. So I’ve written quite a lot of hymn versions of Psalms, including this one – which can be heard in our YouTube Morning Prayer services (search for ECCLESHILL ST LUKE to find the channel on YouTube).

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