Psalm Cycles

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to talk about psalm cycles, much like Sheldon Cooper’s “Fun with Flags.” One of the puzzlements you will notice after you start to say the Daily Office on a regular basis is that there are two psalm cycles. One is set forth in the Daily Office Lectionary (DOL) which begins on page 934 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). In this cycle a psalm or psalms or psalm verses are designated to be read at morning and evening prayer for each day of the year, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent. For the most part, the selections follow a seven week cycle, but there are some deviations in order to match psalms to special days, such as Psalm 22 on Good Friday and Psalm 88 on Holy Saturday. The running footers make it easy to find the designated psalm in the Psalter (the name of the book of Psalms) in the BCP on pages 585-808. This cycle is often referred to as the cathedral cycle, and its characteristic feature is an attempt to match specific psalms with specific days.

There is another cycle though. It is designated within the Psalter itself, beginning on page 585, with “First Day: Morning Prayer” just before “1 Beatus vir qui non abiit” This is the heading for a group of psalms, 1 through 5, to be read on the first day of the month at morning prayer. This cycle ends with psalms 148 through 150, designated for “Thirtieth Day: Evening Prayer.” Thus, the Psalter is marked off into 60 segments of roughly equal length, to be read straight through in a month, without regard to matching the themes of the psalms to particular days. This cycle is often referred to as the monastic cycle, a reference to the way the psalms have often been read in a monastic environment. It is also sometimes referred to as the Cranmerian cycle after Archbishop Cranmer, who in the first prayer book of 1549, marked off the Psalter in this manner as part of the simplification of the eight monastic offices into Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

How do these two cycles relate to each other? Not at all; they are separate and independent cycles. Does one somehow use them together? Again, not at all, except to the extent that one following the monastic cycle might consciously deviate from it occasionally, such as on Easter Sunday so as to avoid using psalm 88 should Easter fall on the 17th day of the month.

The advantage of the monastic cycle is that one experiences the entirety of the Psalter each month, without exception, whereas the cathedral cycle omits or makes optional some verses and some entire psalms.

How are they used then? I dare say that use of the cathedral cycle is practically universal in the Episcopal Church today. The running footers of psalm numbers in the Psalter in the 1979 BCP are especially conducive to its use. All previous editions made use of either cycle equally easy with running headers for not only the psalm numbers but also the days of the month.

One would suspect that the monastic cycle would be used in monasteries. It may be, but the only one of which I have any knowledge is the Order of the Holy Cross which has it’s own breviary in which the psalms are read in their entirety in two weeks, at four offices a day, rather than in a month at two offices a day, and with some deference to special designations for special days. Clearly we have deviated from the Cranmerian ideal of common prayer, that is, that all of Anglican Christendom be reading and hearing the same psalms and the same scripture lessons on the same day.

How then might one experience the monastic cycle? One could adopt that in one’s own individual use of the Office. This would be most satisfactory if adopted for consistent use over two or three years. Another way would be in a small group that meets daily for morning and evening prayer, much like a monastic community. Choice of the cathedral or monastic cycle would ideally be a group decision that held for a year or more, certainly not something that fluctuated from day to day or even month to month. If you ever do decide to use the monastic cycle, you will find it pays off in the long run to write in running headers for the days of the month in the BCP that you regularly use.

I close with the Collect for the feast day of The First Book of Common Prayer. “Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for even and ever. Amen.”

Oh, by the way, that phrase above, “Beatus vir qui non abiit,” is the first half verse of psalm 1 in Latin. Many of the psalms are familiarly known by their Latin first lines, such as Psalm 100, the “Jubilate.”

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 12-August-2014.

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One Response to Psalm Cycles

  1. says:

    Thanks, Ron! I’m going to share this with my parish! You explain it much more clearly than I did. Tim

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