Breath of the Psalter

One of the specific steps in the distilled prayer project on Bede’s Abbreviated Psalter is to reformat Browne’s text in a single paragraph without all the spaces between the abbreviated psalms and remove verse numbers, and make observations. Medieval manuscripts shown in Browne’s book show the text this way, with no separation or marks to indicate individual psalms. The only format that I left was a superscript to indicate which psalm the verse or phrase came from. In Browne’s translation the abbreviated psalter runs 4632 words.

I really didn’t expect that this reformatting would do much for me, but I was wrong. I decided to do this little experiment because I noticed that some of the smaller abbreviations made sense when read with the proceeding or succeeding abbreviation. At most I expected that there would be a few obvious paragraphs composed of several abbreviations. I had barely read through a third of it for the first time reformatted when I realized that I had underestimated how important the format was to at least my perception of the text.

There is a Jewish belief that the Torah is one long breath of God, one long utterance. What Bede has done is to discern, or indeed distill, the breath of the Jewish people in an unending cycle of praise and pleading within the psalter. Isn’t that the basis of human interaction with the divine? Praise/love and pleading. Generally, much heavier on the pleading – hear me, forgive me, help me, defend me, save me.

It is a collective stream of consciousness. As such it does flit about from topic to topic somewhat and becomes repetitive, just as real streams of consciousnesses do. Our praise never lasts for very long without thinking of something we need or want.

At the same time, the Abbreviated Psalter is also the breath of Bede, his own stream of consciousness because he chose these verses. He has systematically removed the Anointed One/Messiah and made this his own song. He chose direct statements between himself and God making his psalter clear and present. Ps 2.10-12 is one of the few verses that he addresses someone other than God – instructing secular kings– and yet, he still retains his voice.

“Now therefore, you kings, understand; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and exult him with trembling. Worship him in purity, lest perchance he become angry, and you perish from the way.”

In fact this address to secular kings reminds me of the dedication to the Ecclesiastical History. Bede had two very pious kings, Aldfrith and Ceolwulf, during his adulthood. He might expect that a work like the abbreviated psalter might to fall into one of their hands. Yet, this is the only direct statement to or about secular kings.

Bede has carefully edited these psalms so that they do flow into a stream of consciousness, one long breath of the people, a chorus he joins. The psalm and verse numbers have been stripped out of the following extract. Can you tell where each psalm starts or ends, or even which psalms they are from?

“From my secret faults cleanse me; from the presumptuous sins too deliver your servant. Let the words of my mouth be pleasing, Lord my strength and redeemer. But we will remember the name of the Lord our God. Be exulted, Lord, in your strength; we will sing and praise your strengths. But you Lord, do not be far; my strength, hasten to my help. Rescue my soul from the sword; save me from the mouth of the lion. And goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will receive blessing from the Lord. To you, Lord, I will lift up my soul. Show me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are God my savior. Do not remember the sins of my youth, and my crimes. In accordance with your mercy remember me. On account of your name, pardon my iniquity, for it is great. Look upon me and have mercy on me; for my distresses bring me forth. Behold my humility and my toil, and bear all my sins. Guard my soul and deliver me.” (Browne trans, p. 28-30)

Did you recognize our beloved psalm 23 [Vulgate 22]? He only took one line from it…”and goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”. This is the entirety of abbreviated psalms 18-24 [modern 19-25].

I am convinced that the abbreviated psalter is intended to be read/prayed straight through. It is not Bede’s intention for it to be used piecemeal, or the individual abbreviations studied or meditated on isolation. We do not have to necessarily follow Bede’s intentions; some chunks of the text can be usefully excised for a variety of purposes. Critically for modern use, we don’t have to confine our snippets to a single psalm.


Browne, Gerald M. trans. (2002) The Abbreviated Psalter of the Venerable Bede. Wm B Eerdmans.

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