Psalmody, part 7 – The Psalms: good psychologists!

October 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

I’m defining Psalmody as  “the continuous and systematic praying or singing of the Psalms.” (see all the Psalmody posts)

Kathleen Norris on the mental health of praying the Psalms:

In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the Psalms act as good psychologists. (Another writer said that the Psalms touch such a range of human experience that you’ll think they have been written by your therapist!) They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first!

Here are some examples:

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. (Psalm 23, “Though I walk through the dark valley of death.”)

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.”

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