Along with the Our Father, the psalms are the gold standard of Christian prayer. For by means of the powerful Word of God, they rehearse and celebrate the judgements of the Lord, which, as we pray in the 19th Psalm, are "more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold." Pope Benedict XVI is right when he says that the Psalter is "the prayer book par excellence;" in this he echoes the Christian wisdom of all ages. The Blessed Reformer writes:
The Psalter ought to be a dear and beloved book, if only because it promises Christ's death and resurrection so clearly, and so typifies His kingdom and the conditions and nature of all Christendom that it might well be called the little Bible. It puts everything that is in all the Bible most beautifully and briefly, and is made an Enchiridion, or handbook, so that I have a notion that the Holy Ghost wanted to take the trouble to compile a short Bible and example-book of all Christendom, or of all saints.
Unfortunately, however, the modern Church's knowledge of these truths about the Psalms is more theoretical than real. That is because the modern Church's knowledge of the Psalms is more theoretical than real. To really know a thing is to know it for oneself, to experience it, to come to relate to it personally, to appropriate it and be able to make it one's own confession. In a sense, we get a picture of this type of knowledge from what Moses teaches us about the world's proto-marriage. Adam and Eve shamelessly expose themselves to each other. The man cleaves to his Eve; they enter into an essentially one flesh union. In short, Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, and bare him offspring, for such knowledge is too wonderful not to have a fruitful result. Life itself is affirmed, and perpetuated. As with the first Adam, so with the Second, the New Man, Christ our Lord, Whose holy Bride, the Church, is made from the elements taken from His pierced side. He takes her to Himself, plants His seed, His Word, in her, as He does with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, and the result of this union is that new life is conceived. In fact, the New Man Himself comes forth and rises in the lives of each of her members. The Church in this way comes to recognize her true identity in light of being known by her Lord. She is blessed among women, for unlike others, He will not on the last day say to her, I know you not (Luke 13). Christ both knows her, and knows whence she is, for she is flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. And far from being an absentee husband, whom we hope to finally meet only in heaven, we might say that by means of His law He exercises Himself in the Church day and night. The result is that He is the tree of life, planted by the waters of Baptism, that will bring forth His fruit in due season (Psalm 1).
If we keep vigil in the Church, David comes first, last, and midst. If early in the morning we seek for the melody of hymns, first, last, and midst is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of the departed, if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last, and midst. O marvellous wonder! Many who have made but little progress in literature, nay, who have scarcely mastered its first principles, have the psalter by heart. Nor is it in cities and churches alone that at all times, through every age, David is illustrious; in the midst of the forum, in the wilderness, and uninhabitable land, he excites the praises of God. In monasteries, amongst those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, midst, and last. In the convents of virgins, where are the bands of them that imitate Mary; in the deserts, where are men crucified to this world, and having their conversation with God, first, midst, and last is he.
In the course of time the Psalms receded from common use. We can be grateful, however, that in the Medieval Period they were at least preserved in the choirs of the cathedrals and monasteries. And rigorous standards for Ordination included knowledge of the Psalms (though their enforcement was not always quite uniform). As one account tells us:
S. Gennadius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the fifth age, refused to ordain any clerk who could not repeat "David" by heart. S. Gregory the Great declined to consecrate a Bishop who had not learnt the Psalter, and his refusal was enjoined on others by the Second Council of Nicaea. The Eighth Council of Toledo (653) orders that "none henceforth shall be promoted to any ecclesiastical dignity who do not perfectly know the whole Psalter, and in addition to that the usual Canticles and Hymns, and the Formula of Baptism." In like manner the Council of Oviedo (1050) decrees that "the Archdeacon shall present such clerks for Ordination at the Ember seasons as know perfectly the whole Psalter, the Canticles, the Hymns, the Gospels, and the Collects." So thoroughly did they carry out S. Augustine's exhortation with respect to the Psalms.