We are talking about tactical ecstasies or practices and strategies for experiencing the divine.  Catholic monk Thomas Merton wrote a powerful poem about his experience in Chanting the Psalms.

When psalms surprise me with their music
And antiphons turn to rum
The Spirit sings: the bottom drops out of my soul
And from the center of my cellar
Love, louder than thunder
Opens a heave of naked air.

Sinking into the Divine: Alessandra Belloni chants hymns to the Black Madonna. Used with permission.

Thomas Merton’s poem about singing the psalms, which is a regular practice for the monks, tells us how exhilarating the experience can be.  The songs “turn to rum,” they intoxicate in delicious ways.  “The Spirit sings”–not just the monks sing–and the “bottom drops out of my soul.”  That is, deep journeys down into the soul take place.  

Notice the journey is down and not up—a sinking, not a climbing.  Recall the words of Eckhart: “we sink eternally from letting go to letting go into the One.”  This poem is very feminist—it celebrates our lower chakras as the place of the divine.  And it tells us the divine is already within us.

We arrive at our depths.  And what do we find there?  Love.  Love is working in the depths of ourselves.  

From our “cellar,” the cellar of love, there “opens a heave of naked air.”  Air is another word for spirit.  Spirit heaves forward from our depths when we sing the holy songs of the psalms.

This is a beautiful way of talking about what happens to us when we pray deeply. 

Sangham Group leads a kirtan meditation on September 27, at V Tempo de Floresce yoga studio. Photo by Tempo de Florescer, Flickr

Merton develops for us how chanting psalms affects us when he says that “The function of image, symbol, poetry, music, chant, and of ritual (remotely related to sacred dance) is to open up the inner self to the contemplative to incorporate the senses and the body in the totality of the self-orientation to God that is necessary for worship and for meditation.”

Merton celebrates the role of art and artist in the contemplative journey.  He proposes that art is not merely decorative or expressive but functional on this journey. 

All art, from image to music, from chant to ritual and dance, can play the role of opening up the inner self to both worship and meditation.  The senses and the body are part of that awakening and opening.  They are not hostile to deep prayer as the dualistic platonic tradition taught and still teaches.

From Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, pp. 311-313, 317
Banner image: Gethsemani Abbey Church in the 1950s. Photographer unknown.

Queries for Contemplation

Have you experienced such whole-body prayer, giving voice from the roots of your being?  How did it transform you and touch your life?

What were the circumstances in which the bottom dropped out of your soul? How did/does that affect your life and prayer?

Recommended Reading

The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.


Fox makes the point that religion has so often oversold the concept of “sin” that it has left us without language or power to combat evil. Through comparing the Eastern tradition of the 7 chakras to the Western tradition of the 7 capital sins, Fox allows us to think creatively about our capacity for personal and institutional evil and what we can do about them.

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5 thoughts on “Chanting the Psalms”

  1. Avatar

    Not being Catholic or a monk, I never thought of chanting the Psalms. Monks, be they Catholic or Buddhist, have practices that draw one closer to God. Practices, rituals, appear few for Protestants. So this idea appeals to me; and it, along with Meister Eckhart and the Hopi practice of welcoming the sun, inspired my poem this morning. I intentionally used only lower-case letters to reflect our oneness.


    facing the sun this morning
    i sing
    to the cosmic christ
    to the ancient of days
    to “the newest thing there is”

    standing in my golden circle
    i chant the psalms
    “oh give thanks to the lord
    his mercy endureth forever”

    i chant john’s vision
    “in the beginning was the word
    and the word was with god
    and the word was god
    the same was in the beginning with god”

    a kirtan facing east
    a curtain thrust aside

    1. Gail Ransom

      Thank you for sharing your light filled inter-spiritual poem. I love the image of singing in a golden circle. I hope you share this often and mention what inspired you. One place to start would be the Creation Spirituality Communities newsletter at newsletter@cscommunities.org. Its a bi-monthly newsletter that includes a lot of writings, art, and poetry about CS.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the DM Team

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