For much of the past 15 years, the Psalms have been a mainstay of my prayer life. This has mainly taken place through the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, an exercise which is intended to be liturgy more than it is to be personal prayer.
The word "recitation" is significant here. For there is a big difference between praying and saying prayers. One should not denigrate saying prayers. An hour of saying prayers reveals a markedly different orientation to one's life than spending that hour watching a hockey game on TV. But with ritualized forms of prayer, one must always struggle to have one's mind and heart engaged in the act at least as fully as one's lips. Reciting the prayer should inspire prayer from the heart.
The Psalms, a thoroughly Jewish form of prayer, have always been important prayers for the church. The church very early took to heart Jesus' words, "that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44). The church sees the words the psalmist sang about God fulfilled in Jesus. It also sees Jesus as "the stone that the builders rejected (which) has become the cornerstone" (Psalm 118:22) and the persecuted suffering servant of Psalm 22.
The early church's emphasis on the Psalms became even stronger with the fourth century desert fathers -- men who left the world to live lives of prayer and renunciation more fully in harmony with God's plan. For them, the Psalms were the lifeblood of prayer. Over the course of each week, they would recite all 150 psalms, interspersed with the Jesus Prayer -- "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
The desert fathers aimed not at a mechanical piling up of words, a type of prayer which Jesus deplored. Sister Benedicta Ward describes it this way: "the aim was hesychia, quiet, the calm through the whole man that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun" (The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, p. xvii). The Psalms were used to sanctify each part of the day. Praying the Psalms was part of a whole way of life which included simple living, mortification of worldly desires and sharing with others.
In the sixth century, St. Benedict sharply criticized monks who were "too lazy" to pray all 150 psalms in one week. He noted that some of the desert fathers prayed all 150 in one day.
Benedict set out a plan for which psalms would be prayed at which hours -- a further development toward the Liturgy of the Hours. Moreover, praying the Psalms was now a communal activity, rather the more individualistic approach of the desert fathers.
The Second Vatican Council brought about reform of the Liturgy of the Hours and an encouragement for it, especially Evening Prayer, to be prayed in parishes and by lay people. "The Liturgy of the Hours is intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1175).
The Psalms can also be prayed meditatively. One way is through the lectio divina (sacred reading). After quietening oneself by putting aside all distractions, one begins to slowly read a psalm until one encounters a word or phrase which touches something in your heart. At that point, the reading stops. One repeats this word or phrase, not reflecting on its meaning, but simply letting it penetrate one's heart.
After doing this for awhile, one can let prayer spontaneously rise out of oneself to God. This prayer may be praise or thanksgiving or repentance. The prayer should be brief, only a few seconds perhaps, especially for those just beginning with this method. Once the prayer is complete, one starts again, repeating the cycle of reading, meditation and prayer.
Meditating on the Psalms (or the teachings of Christ) in this way will change a person. The images of the Psalms will eventually take hold of one's life, make one a person of praise and help pinpoint the areas where one must alter one's actions and habits.
In praying with the Psalms, one will also be disturbed. The Psalms are earthy prayers, untouched by modern inhibitions of what one ought not say when talking to God. Several psalms call down a torrent of curses on those who have done injustice to the one who is praying. Even Psalm 137, one of the most poignant of psalms, asks God to bless anyone who murders the children of Babylon.
While Old Testament notion of justice is often much different than that of the New, we can draw inspiration from these cursings in the Psalms, if we see the "enemies," not as people who give us a hard time, but as the temptations and evils in one's own life. If one is beset by a vice such as impatience, for example, one would do well to "seize and dash (its) children on the rock" (Psalm 137:9).
Prayed regularly, the Psalms can be part of a lifestyle for drawing us away from the cares of this world and closer to God. We can, in our day, be like the desert fathers who used these ancient prayers to foster union with the Lord of all.
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