Praying the Psalms

What follows is a collection of posts that explain how we must learn to think as we pray the psalms. It includes discussions of some of the things we might not like about the psalms at first, for example, when they are violent, or express emotions that we are not feeling.  These posts will show you  how to learn from these obstacles and turn them into fruitful prayer. Another post discusses what the point is in praising God so much. Another talks about the poetic structure of the psalms. There's not particular order of importance here.  Just scroll down through the boldface topics and read the ones that pique your interest. 

But My Soul Isn't Filled With Evils!

Those of you who are beginning your adventure in liturgical prayer by  saying Night Prayer (compline)  are going to run into one of the most woeful psalms of all, Psalm 88.

If things are going really badly in your life right now  (divorce, chemotherapy, seriously delinquent children, a death in the family) then skip this post, because Psalm 88 will make perfect sense to you. This is the  psalm to pray when you have hit bottom. Unlike most complaining psalms (see my later post: How to Complain to God in 3 Easy Steps) Psalm 88 doesn't follow the typical formula of inserting little statements of hope and trust amidst the pain.  Instead the praying soul simply lays out its misery and only asks, Lord, Why?

But when  circumstances are not so bad, Psalm 88 is one of those that makes some beginners not so sure the Divine Office is for them. What does it mean to pray these words when life is pretty darn good? Right now, I am most decidedly not on the brink of the grave, at the end of my strength, or weighed down with God's anger. My friends have not abandoned me, my eyes are not sunken with grief,and I do have companions other than darkness. So what do I do with this psalm?

Here's two hints:  Communion of Saints. Mystical Body of Christ.

You know how this works, right? In Christ we are one. Members of one body. What comes to me is a line from a song we sang in high school choir: "each man's joy is joy to me, each man's grief is my own."
So when you not feeling miserable, you are praying this psalm for those who are. Perhaps while reading this psalm you will think of people you know who are in need. Or perhaps you may offer it for all brothers and sisters in Christ who are presently suffering the worst things that could happen. For those who are in the grips of grief, severe illness, or addiction. For the imprisoned, for those who are facing persecution or martyrdom for the faith.

And there's even a greater way to use this psalm: as a reflection on the Passion of Jesus. In fact, a reallly good pray-er will combine these two: mediating on the Passion of Christ with that of His Body on earth right now.

In conclusion: anytime a psalm does not reflect your personal mood--who cares?  It's not about you. It's about Christ and His church, and the privilege of uniting your own prayer to something far greater.

How to Complain to God in 3 Easy Steps

I used to think it was wrong to complain to God. I had overdosed on those stories where saints are portrayed as  positively craving new  opportunities to suffer for the love of God-- bursting into rhapsodies of delight at each new illness, inconvenience, and disappointment.  And so, when the thought would cross my mind in times of trouble—God, what on earth were you thinking to let this happen to me?—I thought I was being at least slightly sinful.

But King David and the other psalmists complained plenty. They go on in great detail about how bad life is at the moment, and ask God why he hasn't fixed it yet. They tell God they don't understand why he worked so many miracles in the past but doesn't seem to do so anymore.  They point out that non-believers are suggesting that maybe God is not so great if He allows  such  disasters to happen to His friends.  

We can't dismiss this by saying, "That was the Old Testament."  After all,  the psalms were the  of prayers that Jesus  used. As he was dying, he cried to his Father with the ultimate complaint from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

 Today's Morning Prayer from the Divine Office (Psalter, Monday Week II) starts with a wonderful example of the biblical way to complain--Psalm 42. It opens with sheer poetry, expressing our deepest longing:
Like a deer that years for running streams, so my soul is thirsting for you, my God...
but soon the psalmist makes it clear that he is  pretty miserable:
My tears have become my bread by night and by day, as I hear it said all the day long,"where is your God?"
Then he recalls past times when things were going much better:
I remember...howI would lead the rejoicing crowd into the house of God...the throng wild with joy.
Now, check this out:
Why are you cast down, my soul why groan within me? Hope in God I will praise Him still, my savior and my God.
 A complete acceptance of suffering? Not quite. After this expression of trust, he is immediately back to complaining.
Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning, oppressed by the foe? enemies revile me, saying to me all the day long, "Where is your God?"
Despite that, the psalm ends with the refrain,
Hope in God, I will praise him still, my saviour and my God.

The pattern is easy to see. Complain while trusting. Trust while complaining.

This makes perfect sense. In fact, it is what good (albeit fallen) children will do. Think of that fussy toddler screaming his head off while clinging to Mom's leg.  The whiny six year old whose favorite phrase is “That's not fair.” Or the  teenager pouting in her room. Despite each age-appropriate version of “why have you rejected me?”  they know that you love them and have their best interests at heart. Not that they are likely to say,“That's okay mom. I trust you  even if you don't buy me an Ipad.” These are fallen children we're talking about. But their continued trust is, I think, implicit. Maybe this is part of what Our Lord meant when he said we should become like little children.

Of course, it would be better to follow up our complaints to God with explicitly stated trust in Him. And the psalms are excellent models of how to do this. Complain. Trust. Repeat.

Repenting Every Friday

Although ideally we should examine our conscience and make an act of contrition daily, the Church wants us to be especially repentent on Fridays. And the official prayer of the Church, the Divine Office, gives us such a lovely act of contrition to say that it's not so bad thinking about our sinfulness after all. I refer to Psalm 51.  You hear it at mass as the responsorial psalm now and then, and probably see it's poetic penitence quoted by lots of spiritual writers:

"Have mercy on me, God in your kindness, In your compassion blot our my offense,
O wash me more and more from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.
...O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner I was conceived
...a clean heart create for me O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me...
...a humble, contrite heart, O God, you will not  spurn."

When praying this psalm you are repenting both for yourself and in union with the whole Church, pack of sinners that we are. That's one of the beauties of the liturgy. Millions are praising, thanking, begging, or repenting as one.

One particular verse of this psalm is the opening verse of every hour of the Divine Office: "Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise." You say that while making the sign of the cross. See "Getting Started" page for instructions on opening verses.

Does God Really Need us to Praise Him?

On Saturday of week I  in the psalter, we find the shortest psalm, 117. A great scripture memory project for Catholics. Takes about 60 seconds to get it by heart.

Oh Praise the Lord, all you Nations,
Acclaim him all you peoples!
Strong is his love for us,
He is faithful forever.

 This psalm contains in a nutshell the essence of all the psalms and the highest purpose of prayer: to praise God for his infinite goodness and love.

As a kid I used to wonder why we were supposed to praise God so much.  Was the Lord eternally fishing for compliments? So egotistical that He needed us telling him how wonderful he was all the time? Would his feelings get hurt if we didn’t remember to commend him for goodness regularly? I knew God couldn't be like that, and figured it was just  one of those mysteries, like the Trinity, that we would only completely undesrstand  in heaven.

As the years went by, wise adults led me to wiser authors who had asked the same questions. I learned that God demands our praise not because He needs it, but because we need it. It’s similar to the question of why we should dress up for Mass. It’s true that “God doesn’t care how I’m dressed” insofar as it does nothing for Him. But it does a lot for us to worship God not just with our minds and lips, but with our bodies and yes, with our clothing. So to the extent that dressing up is good for us, He does indeed care.  As we say at Mass, “It is right and just [to give him thanks and praise].” When we recognize our place in the universe — as mere creatures, and fallen ones at that, who have been miraculously elevated to the status of sons and daughters — praise is the only proper and fitting response. In praising our creator and redeemer, we are conforming ourselves to Reality and taking our rightful places in the universe. To not do so is to live in unreality, to be less than fully human, or rather, to be spiritually disabled humans. So to praise God does far more for us — for our recovery from disability to health and eternal life — than it does for him.

But that's, like, sooooooooo Old Testament!

There are several reasons people who try the Divine Office have a hard time getting into it. (Even after they've figured out the ribbons and propers and such) They find the psalms and canticles of the Old Testament  too sad, or too violent, too vengeful, or sometimes, too Jewish. This blog will blow away all objections with the laser-blaster of my brilliant insights, which I have in turn more or less stolen from the saints and fathers of the Church. Today we will look at "too Jewish."

I am not addressing antisemitic, RadTrad conspiracy theorists, by the way.  I'm speaking to normal people who don't see the point in praying about the temple, burnt offerings, etc.  Today's morning prayer, for example, has us praying a Canticle from the book of Daniel. Azariah (one of the kids thrown in the fiery furnace by wicked King whatshisname but miraculously preserved--Im sure you've seen the Veggie Tales version which I believes takes place in a chocolate bunny factory.) is making one of those beautiful prayers that both complains and mourns while at the same time praises and trusts God. Azariah bewails the fact that,

we have in our day no prince, prophet,or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. ( Daniel 3: 38  inChristian Prayer, Tuesday, Week IV)

Why does the Church want us to pray these lines? After, the One perfect sacrifice has been made. And we can tap into it every day of the week at the nearest Catholic church. Even that one with the gurgling Home Depot garden pond on the side altar.  So what has Azariah's lament got to do with me?

This can be answered on many levels, because we are supposed to read and pray scripture on many levels. But the overarching principle, as I've mentioned in in other posts is, It's not about YouBecause:

It's about Jesus. Never forget when praying psalms or scripture that these were the prayers He grew up with and prayed, both in the synagogue and at home. Picture Jesus praying these lines about having no holocaust or place to offer it. What was He thinking as He prayed that? Was He reflecting that He would be the holocaust and Calvary would ber the place of offering? Whenever you stop and picture Our Lord praying the verses that He would fulfill, it can't result in anything but a really profound, stopped-in-your-tracks insight into the greatness and wonder of our God. (at which point it is probably better to just go with the meditation rather than plow on ahead with the rest of the Office, if time constraints are forcing a choice between the two.)

It's about God's People (Us and Them)  These Old Testament folks  are our Fathers in Faith. So this is our history. Knowing that we have the One Sacrifice should make us appreciate all the more what Azariah was mourning about, all the more glad that the terrible lack he spoke of has been supplied with overabundance, and all the more longing  for our Jewish siblings to recognize their Savior. Also, since Azariah follows up with a statement of substituting a spirit of contrition and humility for the burnt offereing, we are seeing a kind of prophecy of our own participation in Christ's sacrifice. So this Jewish stuff in the end really is about You. And Me. And all of us.

God as Rock--wonderful symbol
The psalms refer to God as a Rock a lot. My Google search of "rock, psalm" turned up a list of 24 different  uses of this image. The Divine Office gives us this image at least daily, since the Invitatory Psalm (95) tells us to "shout with joy to the rock who saves us."

Let's look at what these images are telling us.

When the psalmist describes God as a rock,  he must have a really big rock in mind. He usually couples the word "rock" with "fortress" , "stronghold", or "refuge".  A high rocky fortress would be nearly impregnable to enemies.  So God's protection gives us both a place of safety where we can hide ourselves when weary, and a vantage point from which we may confidently attack the enemy.

That much is obvious.

Then there's the other Hebrew image of God as Rock-the rock that gave them water in the dessert. Psalms 78, 105, and 114 all reference this miracle. And St. Paul references the tradition, not explicitly stated in Exodus, that the miraculous, water-giving rock followed the chosen people in the dessert.  He goes a step further, by saying "the rock who followed them was Christ." (1st Corinthians 10:4)

So our own meditations when reading about water from the rock will include Christ as the source of living water (salvation, grace, baptism).

Then there's Psalm 81, where the voice of God longs to feed his people with finest wheat and "honey from the rock".  Convert from Judaism Roy Schoemann says that this verse describes God's wish to give his people the fullness of grace that comes with accepting Christ and His Church. And, obviously, it is an image of the Eucharist.

So much to think about when your daily prayer turns up a psalm that mentions a Rock. And here's one more, just to add a dash of typology to tickle your Catholic sensibilities: St. Peter, the rock on which Jesus built His church.

Stuff like this can make it hard to finish Morning or Evening Prayer. You just want to stay with one insight and leave the rest for another time. Which is okay, actually. If the Holy Spirit is giving you a gift, just take the time to play with it. We laity are not obliged to finish each day's morning of evening prayer. If we allow a crying baby or a phone call to prevent us from finishing, why not allow the prayer itself to do the same thing?

The Psalms as Poetry

Most of us are not huge fans of poetry. Even if you enjoyed studying it during high school and college, chances are you don't keep  Keats or Byron or Frost  on your nightstand along with the latest spy thrillers and those well-worn Jane Austens. Chalk it up to the decline in the culture, or the impatient modern personality that doesn't have time to ponder meter and metaphor. But unless poetry is in the kids'  homeschooling queue this year,   iambs and trochees are probably not  a huge portion of your literary diet.

On the other hand, we all like songs. Hymns, pop tunes, Broadway stuff. We turn up the radio and sing along when a favorite comes on. We post lines of song lyrics that strike us as funny, nostalgic, or in any way meaningful on our Facebook status. Showing that we do have some patience yet for verbal furbelows after all.

Those lyrics are poetry. I'm not here to argue the merits of Bono over Gerard Manley Hopkins. My point is that we do like poetry that has been taught to us painlessly through aural repetition and the addition of music which helps us feel the rhythm that is inherent in the words.

You know what I'm going to say next.

The psalms are poetry. A particular type of poetry that remains poetry no matter what language it is translated into, and even remains poetry despite he worst  modern translations. Here's why:

1. The Psalms speak to every condition of the human heart: joy , anger, despair, mourning, exaltation, confusion, hope, love. And all these in relation to God and to ourselves.
2. The Psalms rely on a poetic device that works no matter what the translation. It's called parallelism. That means (in extremely non-scholarly terms) that the poem says something, and then says it again in a different way for emphasis. Here's a few random examples from the psalter, with letters a.&b. added to make the parallelism clear.

Psalm 144
Blessed by the Lord my rock,
a. who trains my arms for battle,
b. who prepares my hands for war.

a.He is my love, my fortress;
b. He is my shield, my place of refuge.

Psalm 88
a. For my soul is filled with evils;my life is on the brink of the grave.
b. I am reckoned as one in the tomb:I have reached the end of my strength

a. Lord why do you reject me?
b. why do you hide your face?

Psalm 101
a. I will walk with blameless heart within my house;
b. I will not set before my eyes whatever is base.
a. I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me.
b. He who walks in the way of perfection shall be my friend.

Next time you read a psalm, look for the parallelism. I guarantee, it will heighten your enjoyment of the psalms. And help you to feel the poetry that is there.

Psalms of Violence- How can peaceful little Me pray with these?

"I don't like the parts of the psalms that talk about war and vengeance and squashing my enemies like bugs. I mean, some psalms are really beautiful,  but these  other ones...aren't we supposed to love our enemies, to be peaceful and forgiving?"

Today's Office of Readings  put me in mind of this complaint. Apparently King David is celebrating and thanking God for some victory. Mixed in with the praise and thanksgiving is a lot of gloating:

I pursued and overtook my foes, never turning back till they were slain.  I smote them so they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet.. I crushed them fine as dust before the wind; trod them down like dirt in the streets...foreign nations came to me cringing....( from Ps 18)

Kinda harsh, don't ya think? You can almost hear the "BWAH-HA-HA-HA!"

Luckily, we don't have to make any judgments about Kind David or the righteousness of whatever battle he is celebrating in this psalm. We do have to decide what to do with such language in our prayers. Here's some ideas.

1. Suppose you have just made some huge strides towards overcoming the worst of your faults. You know--the one you have to confess every single time you go to confession. The one that never seems to improve. Suddenly, through a combination of grace and grit, it's no longer a problem. And you are now making strides in the opposing virtue. Wouldn't the victory boast of psalm 18 express perfectly your feelings towards the evil inclinations you have crushed, and  towards the evil spirits that had tempted you to this sin?

2. Imagine that you have read in the news of some impressive pro-life victory in the courts or in an election. Or you've just read some impressive statistics of the growth of the Church in, say, Africa? Again, these words would be just the thing to celebrate success against the forces of error and death, would they not?

3. Imagine Jesus praying this psalm and anticipating his own victory over sin, Satan, and death. Fr. John Brook, in his commentary The School of Prayer, says "It was on the cross, not the battlefield, that the great victory over our enemies was won. As we pray the psalm we rejoice in the triumph of the cross."

So you see, there are enemies one should be happy to crush, smite, and squash like bugs.