Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Psalms - the scaffolding of prayer

"Be filled with the Spirit, 
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, 
singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 
always and for everything giving thanks 
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father." 
(Ephesians 5:18-20)

Following the example of the Jewish people and of Jesus himself, the early Christians kept using the Old Testament collection of Psalms, not just as a kind of hymn book, but even more importantly as their basic scaffolding of prayer. This has continued in the Church's life right down to our day. In fact, Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy are supposed to pray our way through the book of Psalms every month - and for some in religious orders - more often than that! In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Psalter is prayed through weekly.

Each of us has our favourite psalms. And, if the truth be known, there are the psalms most of us would avoid if left to our own devices. You now what I mean - the ones that seem full of depression, anxiety, despondency and anger, where the Psalmist even seems to be shaking his fist at God. Yet, if we are honest, we have to admit that sometimes those are the Psalms that reflect how we feel.

It is easy to have prayer lives that help us avoid coming to terms with what is going on inside us. We all fall into that trap, and it's not what God wants, because ultimately it will not help us. Using the psalms in the way we are supposed to is one means of bringing the whole of our lives with their uneven rhythms before God, including the upset, temperamental and sinful bits, so as to become increasingly open to his grace and the healing power of his love.

Over the last few years I have noticed that more and more lay people are seeing the benefit of this, and are using forms of Morning and/or Evening Prayer each day, with a systematic praying of the psalms.

There is a little book by that title. In my youth I feasted on Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton (1915-1968). It was given to me by the late Father Austin Day, who even preached a series of sermons based on Merton's reflections.

Merton is not all that fashionable these days (and, I must admit, some of my friends think he was not always as orthodox as he might have been!), but I am glad to see that Praying the Psalms is still available. I enthusiastically commend it to you, and guarantee that if you read it your appreciation of the psalms will grow. (You can find it at if your local Christian bookstore doesn't sell it.)

In one of his most memorable passages Merton says:

"When we bring our sorrows to the Psalter we find all our spiritual problems mirrored in the inspired words of the psalmist. But we do not necessarily find these problems analysed and solved.

"Few of the psalms offer us abstract principles capable of serving as a ready and sensible palliative for interior suffering. On the contrary, what we generally find is a suffering just as concrete as our own, and more profound.

"We encounter this suffering at one of its most intense and articulate moments. How many of the psalms are simply cries of desperate anguish: 'Save me, O God, for the waters have come up even to my throat. I sink in the deep mire where no footing is : I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with crying out, my throat is parched: my eyes fail with watching so long for my God.' (Psalm 69:1-3)

"What were the dispositions of the saints and the fathers in chanting such a psalm? They did not simply 'consider' the psalm as they passed over it, drawing from it some pious reflection, some nosegay. They entered into the 'action' of the psalm. They allowed themselves to be absorbed in the spiritual agony of the psalmist and of the one he represented. They allowed their sorrows to be swallowed up in the sorrows of this mysterious Personage, and then they found themselves swept away, on the strong tide of his hope, into the very depth of God. ''But to you, Lord, I make my prayer: at an acceptable time, answer me, O God, in your abundant goodness: and with your sure deliverance.' (vv13,14)

"So, in the end, all sorrow turns to triumph and to praise: 'And I will praise the name of God in a song: and glorify him with thanksgiving . . . for God will save Zion : he will rebuild the cities of Judah' (vv32-37)."


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