Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

27 Replies to “Abbreviated Breviary? Pondering Omissions from the Current Breviary”

  1. This is like the imprecatory readings left out of the lectionary. I heard a priest list them all. They weren’t pleasant to listen to but I definitely needed to hear them. Thanks for this blog today, I needed to hear it for my prayer life. I don’t always talk to God about my bad feelings and problems.

  2. IMHO/IMAO, well and courageously said.

    We can’t change the Book of Revelation.

    In Revelation 15, seven plaques are staged to be revealed and accomplished. Verse 3 gives the response in prayer and praise: Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations.

  3. “Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic”

    If Pope Paul wanted them out , I’m good, if another Peter wants them in I’m good, no one will loose their soul from his power to bind and loose, my concern would be with virtue in regards to Pope Paul and his Office and his power to bind and loose, unfortunately, we do know souls will be lost from pride and rising up, a drop of posion here and there have caused some to think very badly of Pope Paul, they just couldn’t accept heaven’s will in his binding and loosening an became something the psalms would say to always heed,..the annointed of the Lord and how does God treat those who oppose his Annointed, virtue is now and how we all feed each other to grow in that is of upmost concern for pride is one of the ways the kingdom we can and others lose the Kingdom, we see many examples in the bible with those who opposed the rule of God’s annointed, God never abandon an appointed one who ruled with the authority God himself gave him (who did not turn away from God) lest God himself stoke the flames against the One he called to lead the people, we don’t want to stoke any against an annointed unless its against the command of God that the annointed has made a rule/challenge against. Let another annointed change it back if that’s God ‘s will otherwise we know this is God’s will for he honor’s his servant by accepting his authority to make decision such as this and lets hope no one feels called to challenge that lest God has a real problem with this casting down spirit that is doing more harm then good, we need to be very careful especially when it involves the annointed of the Lord. If an Annointed One speaks non binding statements that contradict past teaching and thought, they do not have to be listen too and can be given ones understanding of our belief, no one can bind to falsehood, but if a binding takes place then God honors it and so do I, no virtue can be lost in that, and we don’t want to feed any that might really have pride issues or start to have them, start to go down a dangerous road of seeing everything with dark glasses, their spirit going further in the negative, everything starts to get question and the Spirit is not able to soar when tied down to the rope of critism in some who can never be at peace until their will be done, its very sad with some today, their whole energy is focus on looking back instead of forward, they miss living with God in the Church now with always turning back and sending him their moans and groans when can we praise and thank him enough, I’m not saying your one who is like that msgr. but there are some who live in a very dark world and church, everything is a bitch, that’s just how they live it and doesn’t everybody else know it, nothing can be satisfying now because the past is the answer and they will let you know how crappy the now is, their sunshine is making the past great again and no today will get in there way with every possible way to make sure it is the darkness they say it is except the Spirit is today and the moment is now to live to the full in the many ways he sees all the graces and gifts and virtues to engage in now, never looking back to missing the now of Union with all the blessings of God ,amen.

  4. Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter….

    it may very well be a good thing, but we can hardly get the mitres & the ‘icicles’ (icel) to get a supplemental brievary together…
    they’re too busy ‘dealing with other things’..
    like the after effects of not advancing prayer, the office, so that clergy would be men of prayer, not abusers

  5. Not only that, dear Monsignor, but since I learned that traditionally, the Church (Fathers) saw the imprecatory Psalms as mainly directed against evil spiritual agents (Principalities and Powers and Rulers of this dark age…) and against temptations and evil thoughts, those imprecatory parts are those that most uplift and encourage me, because I know that the Lord is fighting beside me, literally leading the spiritual combat, and ruthlessly destroying the enemies of my soul. Now I gladly ask the Lord to do JUST that, and praying (every word in) the Psalms has become a delight! 🙏🏼😊
    God bless and Happy New Year!

  6. Thank you yet again, Monsignor. I’m not alone in missing those psalms and verses! I would really love to be able to say that I’ve prayed all 150 psalms in their entirety every 4-week period.

    So, for me this begs the question which is probably posing the obvious, is there an English version of the Liturgy of the Hours through which we can accomplish this? Label me hopeful.

    1. Fr. Michael B.
      A minor point, but I’m going to indulge a pet peeve: please don’t misuse the philosophical term-of-art “begs the question.”

      Not so helpful for you, perhaps, but as a layman I am not bound to pray the Liturgy of Hours daily anyway, so for the Office of Readings for Monday of the third week, I pray those three imprecatory psalms instead of Psalm 50. Psalm 50 is also prayed in the Office of Readings for Saturday of week four, so I’m not losing it. I also pray the psalms for all the hours from my RSV CE because I can’t stand the Revised NAB, so I pray right through the otherwise omitted verses.

      The good Monsignor makes mention of some of the omitted verses in Psalm 69. One thing that particularly annoys me about that particular omission is that St. Peter in the book of Acts appeals to one of those omitted verses in establishing the doctrine of the apostolic succession. And yet a successor of the apostles saw fit to remove it from our consideration in prayer.

      One thing to note about those curses is that they do not pray that God grant me opportunity to visit those curses upon my enemy, but that God Himself bring it about. They do exhort me to leave justice in God’s hands.

      1. “One thing to note about those curses is that they do not pray that God grant me opportunity to visit those curses upon my enemy, but that God Himself bring it about. They do exhort me to leave justice in God’s hands.”

        Richard, until I read this thread I thought everyone knew that! 🙂
        The Bible contains many examples of men who presumed to act against other men without Yahweh’s authority.

  7. I don’t remember where I heard it, but this is what I was told about the “dark” passages in the psalms and how we can relate to them. Even if we aren’t in the situations we are reading, others are, and it helps us to relate to the anger and pain they are suffering.

    It is all part of the human experience.

  8. I’m an atheist, but I never, in a million years would think there is nothing of value in the tenets I was taught through religion. Having come from a Holy Roller, Scary Christian background, I struggled for many years with the discrepancies and inconsistencies in the faith. The problem was that I was trained from childhood to repress any questions that I had; that it was sinful not to blindly follow. Well, at 12, I was done with that. I spent my early adult years trying to find my niche, find a faith that I could understand, follow, and trust. Even in the Bible, people would question and argue with god. They just skated right over that in church. I find that, without being able to question, be angry, struggle against the faith, you are just a blind follower. I still don’t follow any faith, but my head is on way straighter than it ever has been, because I’m not trying to sledgehammer my belief system into something ridiculous.

  9. This is one of the problems I have with books like the Divine Office or the Lectionary. They slice and dice the Bible for more easily palatable digestion. Unfortunately, they also leave important parts out. I think it’s far better to just read the Bible instead. Just read it from cover to cover and, when you finish, start over. I have been doing this for the past ten years and have been amazed at how much I have learned and how my perspective has changed.

    I always viewed the Psalms as perfect just the way they are. They show David (and others) expressing the full range of human emotion to God. They’re a model for honest prayer.

    I think we try to sugar-coat the scriptures too much. Jesus is not just our savior. He’s also our judge. The descriptions of Judgement Day should strike fear into our hearts. Jesus makes it clear that lots of people who think they are going to heaven aren’t. It’s an unpleasant thought but I guess that’s why Paul cautioned us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

  10. Most troubling to me over the removal is that it is the word of God, or it is not, and the Liturgy Of The Hours censoring via expurgation and horrid translation essentially were doing a PC rewrite showing not much faith by the assemblers in this being God’s word at all. Their efforts more as those of Luther in wanting to rid scripture of all which disagreed (such as the “straw Gospel” of James, as he termed it) with own pet thesis.
    As much as the new version enriched with more readings from Fathers and saints, (the new Missal, as well, with more scripture covered) many of those also suffer from suspect and plain clutzy translation, and so I generally stick with the old Office and Missal and its magnificent translations which are far more faithful, even if at times dated. Being a lay person, I can do that, and in English, too.

  11. More on the softer side of Scripture

    Dear Msgr. Pope,

    The following is a note I intend to share with my pastor:

    I wanted to share some thoughts with you about the Gospel of last Sunday’s OF Mass. In particular, my reflections on verse 49 in chapter two of Luke. (From my Douay Rheims, 1914 edition)
    “And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father’s business?”
    In my experience, these words of Christ have been largely presented to the faithful over the decades as a mild rebuke to Mary and Joseph, but I wonder if Our Savior actually intended such?
    Perhaps Luke’s impeccable Greek does, in fact, justify this traditional interpretation, but—if so—the Evangelist makes nothing out of it; Jesus’ tone of voice doesn’t seem important to St. Luke’s message here. Rather, in the following verse, he brings our attention to the result of The Finding in the Temple:
    50 “And they understood not the word that he spoke to them.”
    Luke doesn’t say, “And they didn’t understand why he spoke to them in a confrontational manner.” It seems to be clear that he’s telling us Mary and Joseph were confused; confused about a lot of things.
    For one thing, they were shaken that their young son had stayed in Jerusalem and not told them he was doing so.
    48 “And seeing him, they wondered, and his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.”
    (And, again, was this a chastisement, or was it a pure expression that they were taken off guard, and His actions had caused grief?)
    Moreover, the future had not been revealed to Mary and Joseph.
    In keeping with Jesus’s adult character of meekness and humility, the twelve-year old may have realized that He had inadvertently, and embarrassingly, placed Himself on the wrong side of family rules by presuming that His parents already knew how the future was to unfold. It may have been that, as far as He was concerned, the epiphany moment He experienced in the family’s annual trip to Jerusalem for the pasch was the cue to take His first steps toward His mission.
    Such is a twelve-year old.
    Considering the above, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Christ’s response could have been a quizzical, astonished, “Wow! I didn’t know you guys didn’t know what the Father has in store for me. I’m sorry I scared you!”
    I’m sure a discussion commenced about family rules and striking out on one’s own too early, for afterward Luke writes:
    51 “And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart.”
    52 “And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men.”
    It appears that this was a learning experience for the God-Lad.
    In her wisdom, the Church has taken St. Luke’s account of the event (the other three gospel writers have not included it) and crowned it as the Feast of The Holy Family, quite possibly to give us the model.
    Quickly in the liturgical calendar comes St. John the Baptist’s testimony of Our Lord’s identity, followed immediately in St. John the Evangelist’s gospel of the miracle at the wedding feast at Cana. (Which the other writers skip.)
    These days, it’s quite common to hear pastors tell us that Jesus wasn’t actually being rude to Mary when she alerts Him that the wine was failing. In John 2:4, He asks:
    “Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come.”
    Rather, the common notion now is that Mary finally gave Jesus the nod to launch His public life by telling the waiters to “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.”

    Most respectfully submitted,
    KLB

  12. One of the many unfortunate consequences of Vatican II was to effectively consign the great work of the Angelic Doctor (and others) to the scrap heap of history. Once that was out of the way, anything became possible.

  13. Not only that, dear Msgr, but since I learned that traditionally, the Church (Fathers) saw the imprecatory Psalms as mainly directed against evil spiritual agents (Principalities and Powers and Rulers of this dark age…) and against temptations and evil thoughts, those imprecatory parts are those that most uplift and encourage me, because I know that the Lord is fighting beside me, literally leading the spiritual combat, and ruthlessly destroying the enemies of my soul. Now I gladly ask the Lord to do JUST that, and praying (every word in) the Psalms has become a delight! 🙏🏼😊
    God bless and Happy New Year!

  14. To match the “spirit” of the Times, scripture was consciously whitewashed in the vain (and unrealized) hope that suppressing hard sayings could get more fans into the bleachers. Even going so far as to edit the most sacred words of Consecration (“…for you and for many…” into “…for you and for ALL…”) If Jesus most consequential words can be twisted, everything else is negotiable.

  15. The Prayer to St. Michael is clearly an imprecatory prayer or canticle. I’ve never heard of anyone’s needing therapy or hospitalization as a result of praying it.

  16. When the new Missal, Lectionary and Breviary were introduced in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the omission of “negative” theology and large bits of other “old Church” doctrines was simply not mentioned. The concepts simply disappeared, and even liturgy geeks like myself wrote it off to “bad translations” foisted on up by the rascally “U.S. bishops.” It was only much later, after a tedious process of comparing the old and new Latin versions, that we discovered that the official Latin texts as promulgated were the problem.

  17. Are we so much “Wiser” than GOD? As you say QUOTE: Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

    1 Corinthians 3:18 Let no one deceive himself. If any of you thinks he is wise in this age, he should become a fool, so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” 20 And again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

  18. Popes are not anointed, they are installed. They are subject to Divine law, not masters of it. Their job is to confirm the brethren, teach the faith (the treasury of the faith is complete with the death of the last apostle, so there are no new truths to be discovered.) And to govern. That’s it.

    1. Msgr. Pope Paul will be able to present his case before all in Heaven who has put him down before the Church here on earth, it is only right he have a chance to defend himself before the Throne and the One Body and Heaven against all who question his judgement on his binding that was not undone by another Annointed, yes, Lord let all who challenged his Authority on binding and loosening come before the Throne and
      present their case as they did on earth for all of Heaven to hear and let us hear from Pope Paul, let right judgement be made for all to hear thus will justice be in the One Body, amen. Some will settle with Paul before hand but those who
      are so sure of their case and wisdom against him say it before God and the Angels with Paul being able to answer you in person and defend himself against you if you do not persuade him of your case against his binding, amen. Let the Lord rule for the good of the One Body, he knows what justice should look like for all, amen. He says in scripture settle against another or let the case be presented to his Throne and this is very serious for it involves binding and loosening with God’s Annointed, where is the justice for Pope Paul against his power given to him by you O’ Lord or should his name be as mud in the One Body, you decide O Lord in Pope Paul’s regard and all those who have a problem with him, amen. Let us be one in wisdom when dealing with the fairness and justice of God in the One Body especially when One speaks in his name, rule for or against Pope Paul as those who already have judge him here on earth, let us hear your words for or against this Shepherd, then we continue on in peace in the Kingdom, amen.

  19. No need for a sledgehammer! The point is you can bring all of that to God, the darkness and the doubts and despair have always been part of the prayer of the Church, and the repression of those emotions is indeed bad news. I wonder if that discovery will heal some of the holy roller scariness and bring a desire to cast all of your cares on Him who loves you.

  20. Greetings, Msgr.!……..as you know much better than we, one of His constant teachings from the very beginning has been that He remains “hidden” (in-plain-sight). Might it be that He permits these “dark passages” as part of that strategy? Might it be that by removing them, we are actually interfering with His plan?

  21. You write “unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. ”
    I’m not Catholic, but isn’t a teaching by the Pope considered part of your Magisterium?

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