Alcuin on How to Use the Psalms
[From A Mind Intent on God by Douglas Dales]
1. The prophetic spirit was not at all times present to the minds of the prophets: aware that they did not always possess it, they acutely sensed it within themselves when they did have it. Thus was it that when the prophet Elijah wished the divine the future, and sensing the absence of the Spirit of prophecy from within him, it came upon him only as he sang praises with the psalms and so filled his spirit with insight into the future (2 Kings 3.15). For the voice of psalmody, when aroused by the pure intention of the heart, becomes the means whereby the heart is again prepared by Almighty God, and filled with either an intent mind, or prophetic mysteries, or the grace of compunction. Thus it is written: “Whoever offers the sacrifice of praise honours me, and prepares thereby a way that I may show him the salvation of God” (Ps 50.23).
2. By this sacrifice of praise comes the revealing of the way to Jesus: for when through psalmody compunction is poured into the heart, the way is open within us by which we may come to Him. For it is indeed fitting that as the mind grows strong in its awareness of all things, it should cleanse itself, and join itself to divine praises and spiritual realities, so that the things of heaven may be revealed to it. Nothing else in this mortal life can enable us to draw near to the presence of God than to abide in His praise. Nothing therefore, neither word nor intellect, can explain to us the power of the Psalms, except in so far as we avoid their superficial expression as we sing the praise of Almighty God with an intent mind.
3. In the Psalms, may be found, if approached with an intent mind and a spiritual understanding, the Incarnation of the Lord the Word, His Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. With an intent mind you may also discover a secret prayer that you could in no way devise for yourself. In the Psalms you will find an intimate way of confessing your sins, and a sincere mode of prayer for the divine mercy of the Lord. You may also perceive through them the hidden work of divine grace in everything that happens to you. In the Psalms you may confess your weakness and wretchedness, and thereby draw to yourself the mercy of God: for you will find all manner of virtues in the Psalms, if you merit from God the revelation of their secrets.
4. If you wish to praise Almighty God and His majesty, and all His kindness towards the human race since the beginning of the world: consider His manifestation in the Old Testament towards the patriarchs and prophets, and in the New Testament in the Incarnation of His eternal Son. For all of this we should be moved to give thanks; we should sing those Psalms that begin with the word “Alleluia!” You will by so doing offer a sweet tribute of praise to Almighty God, sweeter than any honey or honeycomb, if you continually praise and magnify Him with these Psalms.
5. If you wish to exercise your innermost heart in divine praises and precepts, the commandments of heaven, sing Psalm 119. You may contemplate and scrutinize the virtue of this Psalm until your dying day, but you will never, I think, be able to perfectly understand its meaning. Every verse in it speaks either concerning the way to God, or of His Law, with its divine commandments and precepts; or it speaks words of judgment, justification or admonition. All this is accomplished within you without you diffusing your soul through the reading of many books.
6. In the Psalms you have enough material until the end of your life for reading, reflection and teaching. In them you will find the spiritual meaning to some extent set forth and described of both the prophets, evangelists and apostles, and of all the divine books of Scripture. You may find within them prophecies concerning the first and second comings of the Lord. You may find also in the Psalms all the force of divine utterance concerning the Incarnation and the Passion, the Resurrection and the Ascension of the Lord Himself. If you examine them carefully in your innermost mind, then by the grace of God you may arrive in your heart at an intimate understanding of them.
7. He Who is the Truth has promised us, and in this He cannot deceive us: “Knock and it will be opened to you” (Mt 7.7). Let us therefore knock on the door of the Psalms: for He is both the door and the doorkeeper. Let us therefore pay careful heed to how we sing the Psalms, and we shall see how they can achieve more in prayer than human words can ever express. They contain the sweetest love for the divine law; they arm the soul with courage in spiritual warfare, and are also a formidable stronghold in times of tribulation. They expel the fear and sadness of this passing age, and gladden our minds with spiritual joy and happiness.