“Jesus was a master of the Psalms. Whenever he heard them, in the synogogue and at the temple, he took them to heart, for the Psalms spilled constantly from his lips… His entire life was bathed with Psalms… Jesus prayed the Psalms and Christians have always followed his example.” (Scot McKnight, Praying With The Church, p. 53-55)
This summer ’09 we are teaching a 6 part series called Language of the Heart: Learning to Pray the Psalms. Each week, in addition to exploring one Psalm, we will be giving examples of what Christians throughout history have said about the importance and the practice of praying the Psalms. Here is an article I’ve put together of some of my favorites.
Kathleen Norris from Cloister Walk:
You come to the Bible’s great “book of praises” through all the moods and conditions of life, and while you may feel like the pits, you sing anyway. To your surprise, you find that the Psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect on them, right in front of God and everyone.
The world the Psalms depict is not that different from our own; the 4th century monk Athanasius wrote that the Psalms “become like a mirror to the person singing them,” and this is true now too.
They remind us that the mundane and the holy are linked.
The Psalms make us uncomfortable because they don’t let us deny – either the depth of our pain or the possibility of its transformation into praise.
We commit ourselves to being changed by the Psalms, allowing the words to work on us, and sometimes to work us over.
The Psalms are unrelenting in their realism. They ask us to consider our true situation and to pray over it. They ask us to be honest about ourselves. (p. 104)
From Norris’ Quotidian Mysteries:
(Early woman monastic Syncletica) “There is a grief that is useful, and there is a grief that is destructive. The first sort consists in weeping over one’s faults and weeping over the weakness of you neighbor…..but there is also a grief that comes from the enemy, full of mockery, which some call acedia (spiritual depression/ listlessness; not bearing the thought of going on). This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody (praying the Psalms as a spiritual exercise)
People who rub up against the Psalms every day come to see that, while children may praise spontaneously, it can take a lifetime for adults to recover this ability. One sister told me that when she first entered the convent as an idealistic young woman, she had tried to pretend that “praise was enough.” It did not last long. The earthy honesty of the Psalms had helped her, she says, to “get real, get past the holy talk and the romantic image of the nun.” In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the psalms act as good psychologists. They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first. Psalm 6 mirrors the way in which our grief and anger are inextricably mixed; the lament that “I am exhausted with my groaning; / every night I drench my pillow with tears” (v. 6) soon leads to rage: “I have grown old surrounded by my foes. / Leave me, you who do evil” (vv. 7-8). Psalm 38 stands on the precipice of depression, as wave after wave of bitter self-accusation crashes against the small voice of hope. The psalm is clinically accurate in its portrayal of extreme melancholia: “the very light has gone from my eyes” (v. 10), “my pain is always before me” (v. 17), and its praise is found only in the possibility of hope: “It is for you, O Lord, that I wait” (v. 15). Psalm 88 is one of the few that ends without even this much praise. It takes us to the heart of pain and leaves us there, saying, “My one companion is darkness” (v. 18). We can only hope that this darkness is a friend, one who provides a place in which our deepest wounds can heal.
The Psalms make us uncomfortable because they don’t allow us to deny either the depth of our pain or the possibility of its transformation into praise. As a Benedictine sister in her fifties, having recently come from both the loss of a job and the disintegration of a long-term friendship, put it to me, “I feel as if God is rebuilding me, ‘binding up my wounds’ ” [Ps. 147:3]. “But,” she adds, “I’m tired, and little pieces of the psalms are all I can handle. Once you’ve fallen apart, you take what nourishment you can. The psalms feel like a gentle spring rain: you hardly know that it’s sinking in, but something good happens.”
The Psalms reveal our most difficult conflicts and our deep desire to run from the shadow. In them, the shadow speaks to us directly, in words that are painful to hear. In recent years, some Benedictine houses, particularly women’s communities, have begun censoring the harshest of the Psalms, often called the “cursing psalms,” from their public worship. But one sister, a liturgist, said after visiting such a community, “I began to get antsy, feeling, something is not right. The human experience is of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”
The psalms are full of shadows–enemies, stark images of betrayal: “Even my friend, in whom I trusted, / who ate my bread, has turned against me” (Ps. 41:9). Psalm 10 contains an image of a lion who “lurks in hiding” (10:9) that calls to my mind the sort of manipulative people whose true colors come out only behind the doors of their “lairs.” Psalm 5 pictures flatterers, “their throat a wide-open grave, all honey their speech” (v. 9). As C. S. Lewis has noted in Reflections on the Psalms, when the Psalms speak to us of lying and deceit, “no historical readjustment is required. We are in the world we know.”
From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms, Prayer Book of the Bible
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who opposed the Nazis and the established German church that went along with Hitler. These excerpts are adapted from the introduction to the new edition of Bonhoeffer’s works.
The Nazi Board for the regulation of Literature fined and chastised Bonhoeffer for publishing this book as subversive. They removed the fine but banned all future publications. (he was imprisoned and executed before he could write more!) Anything lifting up the Old Testament or the Old Testament people of God – the Jews was opposed.
That Bonhoeffer desired to retrieve the Psalms as the prayer book of Jesus. Interpreted the Psalms as did Luther – seeing the Messiah in them and speaking in them as well as the source of Jesus’ own prayers.
He saw it as side by side with the Lord’s Prayer as the Lord’s answer to the plea of the Disciples, “Teach us to pray!” The Lord’s Prayer can be seen as the lens through which we read the Psalms.
Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that, says Bonhoeffer, one needs Jesus Christ.
We learn to pray like a child learns to speak – saying the parent’s words after them. So prayer is answering God.
Reading the Psalms in worship services; (learned in the Benedictine Monastery experience) and having systematic ways of reading the Psalms are a profound help in forming an independent relationship with God and with God’s Word.
The Psalms should be prayed in their entirety since they “mirror life with all its ups and downs, its passions, and discouragements.”
Luther: “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly, will soon take leave of those other , easy, little prayers of their own and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter.’”
Bonhoeffer loved to pray the Psalms because they offered him the sustaining and liberating power of God’s own words in coping with the vicissitudes of everyday living. The praying of the Psalms also teaches us to pray as a community.
Letter to parents when imprisoned: “I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.” Psa 31:15 My times are in your hands…rescue me
Psa 13, How long O Lord…The source of Bonhoeffer’s vitality and stamina in prison = “his constant , daily, childlike relationship to God.” (Burton Nelson) He would learn scripture during the day and review it before sleep…wake up at 6 and read Psalms and hymns.
The prison doc who attended his execution wrote, “I was most deeply moved by the way this extraordinary, lovable man prayed, so resigned and so certain that God heard his prayer.”
Adapted from Fortress Press ed. Of the complete works of Bonhoeffer