“In his Confessions Augustine tells how he used the psalms in a period of retreat between his conversion and baptism. ‘What utterances sent I unto Thee, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion…What utterances I used to send up unto Thee in those Psalms, and how was I inflamed toward Thee by them’ (Book 9.4). For Augustine it was a time of preparation for a different life, of initiation into a new existence, a period in which habits of thought, customs of practice, and feelings about self and others and the world had to be reconstituted. As part of the transformation, he was learning a new language. He spoke the psalms to and before the Christian God, who was now source and subject of his faith and life. He took their vocabulary and sentences as his own. He identified himself with the speaker of the psalms. He said the psalms as his words, let his feelings be evoked and led by their language, spoke the words that resonated in his own consciousness in concord with those of the psalms. He was acquiring a language world that went with his new identity as a Christian. It was the vocabulary of prayer and praise, the ‘first order’ language that expressed the sense of self and world that comes with faith in the God to whom, of whom, and for whom the psalms speak.
Augustine’s engagement with the psalms was not unique, but was typical of early Christianity. In his use of them, he was entering into a practice that went back to the first generations of the church. What was true for him held for the church at large. Of course, not with the same profundity and intensity. Augustine was Augustine. But his experience was representative…As Christianity spread in the early years, it seems always to have been accompanied by psalmody…Psalmody was virtually a mark of the church, one of the constants that constituted the distinctiveness of this new religion. We have to imagine what was happening to the mentality of Christians, living in the world of the Roman Empire and its culture, surrounded by philosophies and religions with their own views of self and world and the gods, day in and day out, week by week, year after year, letting the psalms put them in the presence of God and undertaking to be the ones who speak and think about self and world and God according to the psalms. The differentiating and distinguishing effect on the Christian consciousness must have been incalculable. What was true of the relation between Christians and psalmody in the earliest centuries continued to be the case during the centuries of Christian history. The relation has been maintained in different times and practices, at different levels of intensity and intentionality. But for Christianity as a whole, it has persisted as though something essential were at stake in the relation.” (James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook on the Psalms, pp. 3-4)