While to-day (being the feast of St Andrew Corsini) didn't have the hymn Nocte surgentes at Matins, in the Dominican Breviary it is used on every Sunday after Epiphany, after Pentecost, and in Septuagesimatide, as also on all ferias in those seasons – unlike in the Roman Breviary, where each ferial weekday has its own proper hymn. (The same applies at Lauds and Vespers: there is only one hymn repeated daily on Sundays and ferias outside of seasons and feasts – Ecce jam noctis and Lucis Creator optime, respectively.)
As may be imagined, the words of Nocte surgentes become very familiar; and I like to reflect in particular on the words of its second line: Semper in psalmis meditemur... – "May we ever meditate on the psalms". Truly it is a blessing, in the words of the very first psalm, to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night; and when we pray the psalms, we are taught thereby to mull over and take into our hearts and make our own the attitudes and aspirations, the cries and plaints, the joyful exclamations and loving confessions, yes, and the angry shouts for justice against cruel foes, the sorrowful self-accusations and pleas for mercy upon our wickedness that are contained therein. It is not for nothing that the Holy Ghost inspired their words, nor for nought that He gave them us for our recitation, our chanting, our committing to memory, and our (please God) conforming our very thoughts and will to their supernatural sentiments.
As St Gregory long ago so rightly taught, we do not pray – insane pride! – as if to bend God to our will, as the pagans thought to do to their false gods by their impious offerings and conjurings, that Mars, or Venus, or Jupiter do their bidding; rather, as good Christians, we pray that we may bend our will to that of the blessed Lord, Who alone knows what is best for us, and Who wills our salvation, our eternal health and welfare, which can only be accomplished by our conformity to His Divine plan. It is thus most important to pray over the Scriptures – and tradition would add, the Psalms above all, as the God-given prayer book of the Christian – that we may imbibe the spirit appropriate to a believer.
St Josemaria, replying to the despairing question of a man downcast because he had attended daily Mass for so many years with so little seeming improvement in his Christian life, commented wryly "Imagine then what you would be like if you hadn't done so!" Similarly, Evelyn Waugh (not a man known for his charity in speech and writing – even to-day, some of his letters have not been published in his collected works, for fear they would inspire prosecutions for malicious libel) said, replying to the accusation that his being a Catholic seemed to have hardly improved him, that it was fearful to imagine what he would have been without the graces he had thus received. Similar thoughts come to mind regarding prayer, and meditating on the Psalms...
By these examples, and by the thousand others that come to mind, not least in our own lives, it must be confessed how hard it is to war against self, or again, against the unholy trinities of "me, myself and I", of the world, the flesh, and the devil! It is a lifetime's labour, amidst much backsliding and continual falls, to strive to become a Christian in fact not just in name. We must conform ourselves to holy models, as given us in the Psalms; a work made easy by grace, of course, but a work nonetheless; a work of ourselves simply beyond us, but by grace brought within the range of our supernaturalized powers, in Christ – yes, in the full meaning of those blessed words "in Christ". His yoke is easy, His burden light – but we must take His yoke upon us and learn from Him, thereby finding alone the true rest for our souls.
I would argue that praying the psalms, and, hopefully, learning and living their doctrine and sentiments, made familiar by perpetual repetition, and thus becoming over time settled ideas of how to live and behave, is an important part of the imitation of Christ to which we all are called. After all, are we not taught to frequent the Sacraments, and ever have recourse to prayer, that we may life sober, godly and religious lives in this world, awaiting the coming of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ? Sloughing off vices, the sin that clings so, and growing in virtue, a hard labour but one that grows easier as they develop – this is the work that, in Christ, by grace, we are enabled to do: let us work this work while it is day, for night cometh when none can work.
One of Newman's most terrible sayings is that there are many now growing in grace and holiness who will not be saved – there is always the awful prospect of falling away from God, and of hearing that final judgement, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire. As Christians, we waver between hope and fear, not falling into despair, nor into damnable presumption, but having a due "salvation anxiety" (as Fr Dominic put it). Are not such sentiments everywhere in the Psalms? And rightly so.
Pray the Psalms! As truly God's word, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them..." (Book of Divine Worship, Collect for Proper 28 = B.C.P., Collect for 2nd Sunday of Advent). Just as, at Mass, we come weekly or daily to partake of the Sacrament, that we may become what we receive, so in due measure we "search the Scriptures" to find eternal life in the following of Christ, that by prayer and above all the Sacraments we may be found "in Christ", that our life may be hidden with Him in God, that, when He shall appear, we shall appear with Him in glory.