Praying the Psalms at Bunda Pemersatu-Gedono

(This article is the fruit of collaboration: a group of temporarily professed and recently solemnly professed sisters discussed together their personal experience and wrote their reflections which were edited into one text by one of them, then translated and edited again in English.)

Introduction: Learning about the Psalms

Most of us did not know anything about the psalms before we entered Gedono except that there was a responsorial psalm after the first reading of the Mass. But we did not really know that those verses were taken from the book of psalms in the Old Testament. We were not at all familiar with the Scriptures. Our prayer was basically the mass, the rosary and other parish activities.  A few of us had a little exposure to the psalms when visiting and praying at Rawaseneng (the Cistercian community of monks in Temanggung) or some other religious community but had never really paid too much attention. Perhaps that shows that the Church fails to make known the psalms as the prayer of the Church - except in religious communities. But as we began to visit Gedono more frequently, many of us found we were deeply touched by words and phrases in the psalms. Often it was one of the ways we felt God was speaking to us, calling us personally to this life of prayer.

Nonetheless when we entered the monastery and participated in the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day, we often found that the psalms were quite foreign to us. We didn't know the meaning of some words and place names or incidents referred to. Often we felt that the psalms had little to do with the problems we were facing or with the desire for God that had brought us here.   We were helped to enter into the prayer of the psalms through classes given in the novitiate and the teaching of the abbess. We learned how the psalms were born out of the relationship between God and the people of Israel and expressed the whole length and breadth of salvation history. Through the psalms we began to experience the wonder that God wished to enter into communication with the human family and wanted to enable us to open ourselves and trust in Him in any situation, in joy or in sorrow, in times of difficulty and danger as well as in times of victory and peace.  We began to see that the relationship of God's people to Yahweh expressed in the psalms is very spontaneous and touches every dimension of human life; a dynamic relationship that is full of life and expresses every feeling and emotion of the human heart: loving gratitude, praise, gentleness, trust, requests for help, complaints, demands for justice that sometimes arouse anger, cries of rebellion and even swearing. We learn to accept all these feelings in our own hearts and find the freedom to direct even the negative movements of our hearts to God instead of suppressing them as our culture has trained us to do. We recognize ourselves in the psalms because we find there the whole reality of human experience. Through them, our limited, personal experience, that we often exaggerate, enters into a wide stream of universal dimensions. We begin to find the beauty and profundity of the psalms. United with our ancestors and forbears in the faith, we become active protagonists of the people of God on pilgrimage through history to the fullness of time, bringing to God the needs and struggles of all nations, especially our own Indonesian people. In the midst of the violence and conflicts of our times, in the midst of so many possibilities offered for consumer comfort, material well being and pleasure - the endless choices that lead to confusion - the psalms give to all who seek God a treasured tradition of prayer that can be trusted. We learn to pray from the lips of the Divine Master himself together with the first disciples who turned to Jesus and asked, "Lord, teach us to pray."  (Lk 11:1).

The Prayer of Jesus

As a Jew, Jesus prayed and sang the psalms all his life and through them He embraced all the feelings and difficulties, all the hopes and fears, all the good intentions, requests and praise that are present in the human heart and brought them to the Father. Every Sabbath he prayed the psalms in the synagogue with his neighbors in Nazareth. When he went out to preach the Kingdom of God in Galilee and Judea, he prayed in many other synagogues (Mat 4:23; Mk 6:2; Lk 4:44; Jn 6:59). When he went to Jerusalem to celebrate the big Jewish feast days, he sang Psalms 120 -140 (Lk 2:41; Jn 2:13).  After the Paschal supper he sang the Hallel (Ps 113-118) with his disciples (Mat 26:30; Mk 14:26). Praying the psalms we use the same words that Jesus used, albeit in another language. We are called to enter into the depths of Jesus' heart and find the Spirit that inspired the psalms and canticles to the point that we feel we have written them ourselves. Christ himself prays to the Father in us in and through the psalms. They are "the new song" (Ps 95) of praise which Christ brought into the world and which he continues to sing through us, using our voices and our beings. This prayer forms Christ in us and transforms us into him. Our community helps us to realize this by the blessing1 given to those will perform liturgical functions in the coming week on Saturday morning in the chapter room after the reading of the Rule. We become more and more conscious that it is a grace and a privilege to read or sing the Word of God, a special participation in the priesthood of Christ. By setting up a schedule of the liturgical services for months in advance, we are encouraged to prepare the texts we are to sing or read through lectio and prayer so that the Word of God can penetrate us before we can announce that Word in such a way that it enters into the hearts of the listeners.

Persevering in Desire

But the art of learning to fully enter into that prayer is a long journey that calls for perseverance. We experience our weakness and sometimes our fervor is tepid and our concentration wanders so that we are not present, we feel bored and we sing with our mouths as our thoughts fly away. Thanks be to God, the community carries us, invites us to return, to open ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the abbess and the teaching of the Church. We realize that we need to have a great desire in order to have the energy needed to persevere in our effort which does not always give satisfying results but rather often feels heavy, dry and without meaning. That desire is the Holy Spirit himself who touches our hearts and moves us to begin again. That desire is renewed through the support and the witness of the entire community. The energy with which the community sings the psalms becomes our own energy.

The Prayer of the Community

We cannot separate our experience of the psalms from our experience of being members of our monastic Church. We pray as the Body of Christ, as members of one another, as the Bride of Christ. The more we enter into and become a part of the community, the more deeply we enter into the prayer of the community - and vice versa. It is not something we do individually but rather the common responsibility of all. Constitution 19.21 of our Order states: "The celebration is to be such that it expresses the spirit of the community and leads the sisters to full participation."  Constitution 17.1 adds "the spiritual character of the community is especially evident in the celebration of the liturgy. The liturgy strengthens and increases both the inner sense of the monastic vocation and communion among the sisters." It is important that each one gives of herself for the celebration of the Office as one of the principal ways in which she gives herself to God in and through the community. Every aspect of our participation is an act of love not of obligation. It is not a duty or a discipline but an experience of communion. Even arriving on time is an act of fraternal love so that we do not disturb others by our tardiness but rather add to the spirit of recollection together by being present beforehand. Otherwise the reciting of psalms and readings can be an empty formality in which we are physically present but humanly and spiritually asleep.

A lot of effort is needed to become increasingly aware of this responsibility and to give ourselves in any way we are asked in order to prepare for and to celebrate the liturgy. It is easy to pull back and say we are not capable of this or that but we try to trust in the judgment of the community who gives us the courage and ability to sing and play instruments far beyond our expectations. This helps us to participate in gratitude and gratuity rather than in rivalry and false timidity. We support each other in an ecclesial spirit in which the important thing is not perfection but participation. Room is given for learning and that means allowing for mistakes. We have weekly singing practice and the entire community participates willingly. We pay attention not only to learning to sing the melodies on the right notes but also to the interpretation of hymns and antiphons, so that we can feel the reason for the rise and fall of the music that expresses the meaning of the words. The constant effort to improve the quality of our office is a continual stimulation to participate more fully and actively. The schola and has frequent sessions of vocal training with a teacher from a nearby university while those who play the organ, the zither and other instruments devote themselves generously to the musical preparation of the office. A team of sisters continues to compose antiphons, hymns and responsories to complete and enrich and our liturgy and each time another feast is finished, we all feel renewed. All that requires discipline and sacrifice but also build up unity and loving enthusiasm for our liturgy and helps is to create a prayerful atmosphere in its actual celebration. Art needs attention to detail and we try to make our prayer a sacred art with attention to movements, pauses of silence, rhythm, unity of the choirs, etc. 

The Prayer of the Church

Besides the courses in the novitiate and monasticate, we have many books in the library and the teaching of our abbess which continually deepens our knowledge of the psalms as the prayer of the Church, which from the beginning was based on the Jewish tradition. The apostles followed the Jewish tradition of going to the Temple to pray at the ninth hour. Gradually the early Christians incorporated the psalms as the basis of their prayer at certain hours, certain days, in a cycle of weeks and the liturgical year developed. Praying the psalms with a Christian interpretation became an important means of deepening the faith. We find this is as true for as us as it was for the early Christians. The psalms take on new meaning as we learn that the Liturgy of the Hours flows from the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Christ's passage from death to new life with its center in the Eucharist. The words of Vatican II "the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian prayer" become a living reality for us and the office becomes a means of commemorating Christ's suffering, death and resurrection in morning and evening prayer. At Tierce we remember the descent of the Holy Spirit and ask that we be open to the Spirit throughout our day of work. At Sexte we commemorate the passion of Jesus; at None the psalms of pilgrimage give us strength to continue our daily journey. At Vigils we are invited to watch and pray as we wait for the coming of Jesus at the end of time - teaching us to hold fast to our hope even in periods of darkness and crisis. The dawn of new light will come. We unite ourselves in spirit with all those who are in the darkness of sin, meaninglessness, suffering or despair. Thus we discover that the liturgy of the Hours and the psalms becomes a school of prayer and faith and hope. "The Liturgy of the Hours is a school of continual prayer and an outstanding component of the monastic way of life". (OCSO Constitutions 19)

¤   School of Prayer

When the northern coast of Sumatra was hit by a tsunami in 2004, the whole world was shocked. So many people were killed and so many others lost everything in the blink of an eye. In the face of such catastrophic suffering, and other natural and manmade disasters in our country before and after that, how can we pray? We found our cry expressed in Psalm 45 and we clung to the psalmist's faith in the faithfulness of God:

God is our refuge and strength, a helper close at hand in times of trouble.
so we shall not fear, though the earth should rock
though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
even though the waters rage and foam,
even though the mountains be shaken by its waves.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

¤   School of Holiness

"Besides being the official prayer of the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours is a source of holiness that enriches personal prayer." (Sacrosanctum Consilium 90) The antiphons that we use for Psalm 50 (which our community has chosen to include in the office of Lauds three times a week) are as follows:
Sunday: Create a new heart in me O Lord, renew
Tuesday: A humbled heart you will not refuse, o God.
Thursday: Have mercy on me, O Lord according to your faithful love.

If we remember just that one verse all day long, it is enough. We can remain in the attitude of a person who is conscious of him/herself as a sinner but trusts in the infinite mercy and love of God. Even though we fall 7 times a day, or 77 times a day, we can rise and return to the mercy of God just as many times and so instead of getting discouraged we can grow in happiness.

¤   School of Wisdom

A person who longs for real happiness can learn many things from the psalmist. For example, Psalm 14 gives concrete indications about how we can be pleasing to God and our neighbor. Psalm 33 and so many others give us the opportunity to meditate the sources of the Rule of St Benedict

¤   School of Interior Peace

In our struggles and crises, when temptations and thoughts badger and disturb us, we can pray Psalm 34.  O Lord, plead my cause against my foes: fight against those that fight against me." The antiphon we use is simple and direct and becomes a cry of help: "O Lord my God, fight for me!" In our helplessness we call upon him to come to our aid to defeat the enemies present in our hearts and thoughts.

When we are sick or feeling lonely, even feeling abandoned by the Lord and our sisters, when we feel we have been treated unfairly, we can enter into the cry of the psalmist with which Jesus called out to his Father on the cross: "O God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

If we enter into the breadth and depth of the psalms, we do not need to seek to find our own words to pray in whatever situation that we find ourselves in. The psalms are a door. All we need to know is the key. We are given the keys by the Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Church, the Fathers of the Church and all those who have preceded us.

The more we use those keys, the more we desire to orientate our whole lives into continuous prayer. As Origen wrote: "Someone who prays without ceasing prays while he works and works as he prays.

In the Local Culture

Our monastery is located in Central Java, which is the center of the rich and ancient Javanese culture, in the midst of a predominantly Moslem society. We are situated in the foothills of Mount Merbabu and the people around us are mostly poor farmers without much education who, although officially Moslem, are still very influenced by animist beliefs in spirits and superstitious traditions. What can our prayer of the psalms mean to them? The sisters, although mostly from the island of Java, come from very different backgrounds and places but we all wish to be become part of our local people. We cannot dialogue with them on the level of religion or of culture but we can become a presence of prayer. Our bell rings out over the hills and everyone knows the sisters are praying. In both the animist and philosophical streams of Javanese culture there is high respect for prayer in solitude while the Moslems appreciate Christians who pray many times a day  - even more than the five times a day set by their tradition. We have learned that the Moslem practice of praying five times a day is most likely based on Mohammed's contact with Christian monastic life because when he was a trader who followed the caravans, the only available ‘hotels' were monasteries and he spent many a night in monastic guest areas. The Moslem call to prayer that sounds in the distance often blends into our singing or accompanies our silent prayer.

Although the local language is Javanese, we use the Indonesian national language for the office as well as for all our communication so that sisters and guests from all parts of the country have no difficulty participating in our prayer. It is a simple language that facilitates unity but it is not as complex and poetic as the ancient Javanese language, so that it is sometimes heavy and not very lyric. Problems of translation have also somewhat impoverished the original meaning of the psalms and we are constantly trying to improve that translation, even with long range plans to do a new edition of the Psalter with the help of a professor of Sacred Scripture who is an expert in the original languages. However, that will take us years to accomplish. In the meantime we make important and obvious corrections as we go along and try to divide the verses in the best possible way to facilitate the singing and to make sure that the meaning is as clear as possible.

Since the Arabs arrived in Indonesia back in the 12th and 13th centuries, many Arabic words have been integrated into the local language. So we pray using the same word for God as all our Moslem brothers and sisters in the world, "Allah". Many Indonesian words for religious terms are Arabic and Semitic in origin.  It might be interesting to list some of them: "roh" for spirit, "keselamatan" for salvation, "salam" for a greeting of peace, "syukur" for thanksgiving, "mukzijat' for miracle, "mazmur" for psalm, "korban" for sacrifice, "imam" for priest, "bait" for temple, "kerahiman" (derived from the word ‘rahim' for womb) for mercy. So we pray the psalms in words that are linguistically close to the Hebrew original and in a language that is similarly concrete rather than abstract and rational, which also helps us enter into the spirit of the psalms. The psalms are an Eastern prayer.

But our context also offers some difficulties. The psalms are all about "Israel" and are very harsh toward their enemies. That can be interpreted politically as if we were praying for the Jews against the Palestinians and the Moslem world.  In the delicate minority situation of the Church in Indonesia, it is unwise to include the psalms of deprecation in our office.

However, the Javanese traditional culture and the Moslem religion that surrounds us create a society that is deeply religious with spiritual and transcendental values expressed also in art and music.  We have tried to incorporate some of this in our liturgy through the use of traditional musical instruments from the Javanese gamelan brass orchestra. The Javanese musical scale and melodies are in minor keys which are very suitable for meditative, melancholic or penitential psalms. Since the beginning of the foundation of our community, we have sung Compline completely in Javanese musical style. This creates a quiet and contemplative atmosphere for the office which closes our day.  We sing Compline without lights in the church, entrusting ourselves to God's protection as we enter into the darkness of night where only he can save us from fear and danger. In an area which electricity only recently became available, the darkness is not only a symbol of danger but a real experience of helplessness in the face of the unseen and unexpected.  Our guests are often moved by our Javanese Compline, which ends with the "Salve Regina" Also in Javanese musical style while the statue of our "Mother of the One who makes us One" - a Javanese Madonna - is highlighted by a soft lamp. In the confidence that Mother Mary will lead us through this valley of tears to the full vision of the face of her Son, we and the guests can go out into the night "lie down in peace and sleep comes at once". 

On big solemnities we also use additional traditional musical instruments which add to the festive atmosphere and at the same time add to the sacredness of the celebration. We are extremely blessed to have what might be called almost perfect acoustics in our monastic church which greatly enhances the sound of the instruments that accompany our voices because we have no need of microphones. That gives us freedom and simplicity in creative arrangements of singers and players. 

Educating the People of God to Pray the Psalms

We found enormous help in the series of catechetical talks on the psalms given by the Servant of God John Paul II. One of our sisters led our monasticate through these commentaries and together they translated the first series on the psalms of Lauds. We then used these commentaries for the second reading of Vigils throughout Lent and Eastertide. Many in the community then used the commentary for personal meditation during the day. This experience reminded us of the late pope's words in Nuovo Millennium Innuente:

"Christians who have received the gift of a vocation to the specially consecrated life are of course called to prayer in a particular way: of its nature, their consecration makes them more open to the experience of contemplation, and it is important that they should cultivate it with special care. But it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today's world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but "Christians at risk". They would run the insidious risk of seeing their faith progressively undermined, and would perhaps end up succumbing to the allure of "substitutes", accepting alternative religious proposals and even indulging in far-fetched superstitions. It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning. I myself have decided to dedicate the forthcoming Wednesday catecheses to reflection upon the Psalms, beginning with the Psalms of Morning Prayer with which the public prayer of the Church invites us to consecrate and direct our day." (NMI 34)

Since we are very much aware that our mission as a monastic Church in Indonesia is to be a center of prayer where all Christians can deepen their faith, we feel his words are addressed to us.  We want very much to share the prayer of the psalms with our guests. Many of them are drawn to the psalms because they are struck by the words and attracted by the way we sing them. They want to continue praying the psalms at home or in their prayer group. We have our edition of the Psalter on sale as well as little booklet with our office of Compline and several CD's that they can use to sing along with. When we remember that we knew nothing about the psalms before we entered the monastery, we are happy and thankful that the psalms and the prayer of the Church begin to be known and used outside the monastery as well.


We deepen our prayer of the psalms as our love for them slowly grows. One by one we discover their secrets. The community also helps us in this. Sitting next to a sister in choir who loves the psalms and loves to sing them enkindles within us the same love. We can sense that others are drinking from the Source, absorbing the meaning, losing themselves in the words of the psalmist, one with Jesus who prays in them. Their prayer gives birth to prayer in us.

The more we pray the psalms, the more we are brought face to face with the reality of human life which is so marked by weakness and frailty. As we are stripped of our masks and illusions we realize that life only has meaning if lived in relationship with our Creator and Redeemer in adoration and thanksgiving, in contrition and humility. Life is a gift and our weakness is our strength because in it we discover the presence of the mercy of our God. There we find our true identity in Christ who gave his life to save us and bring us back to the embrace of the Father's love. There we find we were created to praise the God of our life and finally join the angels and saints who unceasingly celebrate the heavenly liturgy. It is not always easy to remember that we are "singing in the presence of the angels" but it is a comfort to know that when we are weak, they continue to sing for us.

"Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise. For he continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this, not only by celebrating the Eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the divine office." (Sacrosanctum Consilium 83)

We are blessed to be called to participate.

1 The blessing reads as follows:

May God, the Source of all grace,
bless you who will announce his Word during the coming week
so that you may be aware of the special grace that is given to you
in this opportunity to participate in the priesthood of Christ.
May you prepare the food of the Word that will be served to us
in the Spirit of Joy and Peace.
May the prayers that will be said in the name of the community and of the entire Church
express our offering with one heart and one soul
for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.