I first became an acolyte in 1967 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In those days the clergy, acolytes, lay readers and chalicists gathered in the sacristy prior to the service for prayers while the clergy vested and prepared for the service. Prior to the service the altar guild arranged the vestments on a vesting table in their traditional arrangement. As the clergy vested the people gathered prepared for service at the altar by confession and absolution and by the reciting of Psalm 43 in versicle and response format. Together we prayed: “O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me, and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling; And that I may go unto the altar of my God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness….” The order for this brief “service” of preparation was posted on the wall of the sacristy and on cards we held in our hands. As a result of this time of preparation, Psalm 43 was the first lengthy passage of scripture that I committed to memory.
The prayer book of the Episcopal Church in those days was the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. What many people do not know is that the Psalter in that prayer book was not taken from the King James Version of the Bible (1611 AD), but from the “Great Bible” (1539 AD) of Matthew Coverdale, commissioned in fact by Thomas Cramner, the author of the first English Prayer Book of 1549. The official English Prayer Book of 1662 and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer were almost everywhere influenced by the wording of the King James Bible except when it came to the psalms. Here tradition prevailed. When these two prayer books were issued, people were not willing to accept the newer wording of the King James Psalter but preferred in their place the familiar wording of the psalms from the Great Bible, already known and memorized by many of them. In an age when many could not read, the church could not afford to change the wording of the psalms in every generation, and so the tradition held. Even in 1928, Episcopalians were not willing to give up the familiar words of the psalms from the Great Bible for another translation, even one as venerable as the by-then tried and true King James Version. When it comes to our liturgical forms, we Anglicans can sure hold on to our tradition!
In his “Golden Epistle,” the 12thCentury Cistercian monk William of St. Thierry urged his fellow monks to memorize passages of Holy Scripture:
Some of your daily reading should also each day be committed to memory, taken as it were into the stomach, to be carefully digested and brought up again for frequent rumination…
William hoped that as his fellow monks ruminated on the words of scripture and committed them to memory that the desire for prayer would arise within them.
It is a great comfort in times of prosperity and adversity to be able to recall by memory the promises and assurances of Holy Scripture. I am still working to memorize the canticles and many of the psalms from the 1979 Prayer Book. I have learned to love their words and wonderful phrasing. At the same time, Psalm 43 from the Great Bible is still firmly committed to my memory; I can recite it today as easily as I can the Lord’s Prayer. In times of trouble, the words of this psalm comfort me and lead me to prayer.
5 Why art thou so heavy, O my soul? * and why art thou so disquieted within me?
6 O put thy trust in God; * for I will yet give him thanks, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.