Symbols and Conventions Used in the Prayers

Written by Phyllis Tickle

Except where otherwise indicated, the texts for the sacred readings in this manual are taken from The New Jerusalem Bible. Thus, the conventions of that translation pertain here as well. For example, the italicizing of a segment within a reading indicates that those words or phrases have occurred previously elsewhere in scripture and probably constitute a direct quotation or incorporation by the current speaker.

On those few occasions when a sacred reading is from the King James Version rather than The New Jerusalem Bible, that change is noted at the reading’s conclusion by the notation, “KJV.” The texts for all save a handful of the Psalms and Psalm hymns employed here are from the Psalter of The Book of Common Prayer. These departures are marked with the appropriate citing words with one exception where, because of frequency and for aesthetic reasons, a symbol is used. ❖ indicates a medley or hymning of the canonical Psalms as assembled by Dr. Fred Bassett (c.f., Acknowledgments).

Unless otherwise indicated, the appointed prayers are taken from the BCP. Many of them have been adapted, however, for use here. Such texts are indicated by the symbol, †. Principally, the user already familiar with the BCP will note that many of the first person plural pronouns of “us, we, our” have been changed to the singular ones of “me, I, my.” The sensibility informing these adaptations has been the desire to make each more immediately personal. Whether the offices as they are produced here are said in private (as will be by far the greater use) or in public, each observant prays both as an individual and as a participant in a praying community. Where the pronominal singulars of “me, I, my” are employed, the attention should be directed toward the individual. Where the plurals are employed, attention and intention are toward the larger community of the Church.

The Psalms are poetry, albeit a poetry that does not work on a poetics familiar to most English speakers. Few translations of that great body of devotion have come so close, however, as has the Psalter of the BCP to exposing and celebrating the rhythms, images, and aesthetic force of the originals; and it is for that reason that they have been used here. The BCP Psalter, like every other, has its own conventions, and they are followed here. This is particularly obvious in the presentations of the name of God. Long a problem for translators as well as readers, the presence in the Psalms of three different terms for the divine name requires carefully chosen English wording as well as a clearly defined rationale for the application of each term chosen. This rationale, while too lengthy for inclusion here, may be found in the prefatory material to the BCP Psalter.

The Psalms as reproduced here retain as well the *, or asterisks, that indicate the poetic breaks in the original Hebrew poem. Whether one is reading or chanting the Psalm, there should be a pause at this point in order for the rhythm of the poetry to be realized fully. Many Christians will want to chant the Psalms, since that most ancient of practices still extends to the observant the greatest and purest spiritual benefit personally. For the more chary, reading aloud will offer a similar benefit, since it too involves the body as well as the intellect in the keeping of the office.

Most contemporary observants, be they lay or ordained, keep the hours during the workday, a circumstance that means that the noon office in particular is observed within a space that is not only secular, but frequently populated. While one may withdraw to some removed space like an unoccupied room or a car, one still is rarely sufficiently secluded to be comfortable chanting or reading aloud. By contrast, for weekend days and for the offices of morning and evening, chanting or oral reading may be both possible and desirable.

Chanting an office is a complex exercise with an equally complex and intricate history. Those who are already informed in the art will find that the asterisks here furnish the necessary pointing. For those who have not previously chanted the offices but wish to add that exercise to their spiritual discipline and for those who are new observants, a few simple principles may be sufficient for basic proficiency.

In general, Psalms are sung or chanted along one single note or tone, one that is chosen by the observant as pleasing and comfortable to maintain over the course of the text. The pacing is natural, neither hurried nor pretentiously extended. By chanting, the observant is weaving in yet another part of the bouquet of prayer that is being offered to God, and a constant remembrance of this purpose will do much to make the discipline acceptable and pleasing. Each verse of the Psalm, by and large, constitutes a poetic unit and is interrupted or pointed by an asterisk. The asterisk signals not only the poetic break in the verse but also the point at which the chanter is to raise his or her tone one note.

That raising occurs on the last accented syllable nearest to the asterisk. At the end of the second half of the verse—i.e., the sequence of words after the asterisk—the chanter lowers by one note the final, accented syllable. Pronouns like “me, he, thee,” etc., are never elevated or lowered. The ear and the throat will soon show the new chanter as well that many English words are trisyllabic, having their accent on the first syllable. When such a word is the last one before an asterisk or a verse end, the first unaccented syllable goes up or down a note or half note as the case may be, and the second unaccented syllable goes up or down another similar gradation.

From such basic premises, the intrigued or impassioned chanter will discover rather quickly ways to elaborate the office to a rendering pleasing to him or her.
Such elaborations, the chanter should be assured, have probably already been tried through the centuries by other Christians and may well be in full, current use by many of them. So also is there a range of options for rendering the prose or unpointed portions of each office. Readings or appointed prayers, for example, if chanted, are normally offered in a monotone with a lengthening of the final syllable of each breath-pause or sentence unit. The Our Father is frequently the exception to this principle, being offered silently by many worshipers.

The only necessary principle, in fact, is really to remember the words of St. Augustine, “Whoever sings, prays twice.” In so saying, Augustine spoke to the attitude as well as the benefit of chanting the Psalms: That which deepens the observant’s contemplation and that which increases the beauty of our devotion are, by definition, appropriate and good.

Copyright ©2000 Phyllis Tickle. From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle. Reprinted with permission of Doubleday Books.

The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle

Help support explorefaith. Purchase a copy of any of The Divine Hours books by following this link to