The end is in sight. Psalm 144 and counting. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading the Book of Psalms sequentially, reading around two pages worth each night. Strange to say, it is the first time I have ever done it. Here’s what I have learned from this interesting spiritual exercise…
Going in I knew that the Psalms are the prayer book of Israel, and they are also the prayer book of the Church. Anyone who prays the full Liturgy of the Hours (Morning prayer, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, the three sets of Prayer during the day, and the Office of Readings) will pray through most of every Psalm during a 4-week liturgical cycle. I say ‘most of’ because the blood-thirsty bits are routinely left out.
The first overriding impression is that the majority of the Psalms contain pleas for God’s help against foes and enemies. Quite striking, it is. Logically, if the vast majority of Psalms contain cries for help, then at any one time the vast majority of Jews and Christians are going through difficulties; and not just ordinary difficulties but ‘people hate my guts and want to kill me’ type of difficulties. This should be profoundly disturbing, but it is actually rather consoling, because it indicates that going through a rough patch with work, relationships, health and other things is quite normal.
Somewhere in the book of ‘The Life and Revelations of St Gertrude the Great’ it talks about praying all the psalms once through, together with some small additional prayers, as a penitential practice that is beneficial towards the holy souls in purgatory.
At regular intervals, and in surprising places in the Psalms, there are lines that remind us of what Jesus suffered in His Passion. All of these lines were prophetic in the years that Israel waited for Jesus, and now they help us to enter into the inner life of Jesus during His Passion eg ‘In return for my friendship, they denounce me, though all I had done was pray for them ; they pay me back evil for kindness and hatred for friendship. ‘Give him a venal judge, find someone to frame the charge ; let him be tried and found guilty, let his prayer be construed as a crime!’ Psalm 108 (109) 4-7. These bits are the gold nugget rewards sprinkled among the Psalms, just waiting to be found and appreciated.
In the works of private revelation about the public ministry of Jesus, we read quite frequently that Jesus and the Apostles prayed and sang the Psalms as they journeyed from place to place preaching. Also in the Gospels we read that Jesus left for the Mount of Olives ‘after Psalms had been sung’. (Matt 26:30) I’ve always wondered which Psalms they sang, and which ones were their favourites.
Perhaps it was like those of us who grew up using the ‘Living Parish Hymn Book’, some of the hymns were so familiar that we knew which one it was as soon as we saw the number on the hymn board, others were reserved for special seasons of the liturgical year and feast days, and there were always a few that we’d never heard sung and were unlikely to. Did they always go for the easy Psalms that could be sung in rounds, or were memory games because they were based on the alphabet? Did they ever do the long and complicated ones, like the lengthy Psalm 118 (119) ? or was that one reserved for Temple use when books could be used?
While I’ve been going through all the Psalms and getting acquainted with the ones we rarely use liturgically, I couldn’t help comparing the content of the Psalms to the hymns we sing regularly at Sunday Mass. The Psalms are always addressed to God, some of our hymns are more about us that about God. On reflection it seems to me that the better hymns have a high Psalm content or a good part of the content taken from other places in Scripture.
As for the blood thirsty bits, they make sense if you substitute evil spirits as the entities that that you’d like to have smashed against a rock, Psalm 136(137) or see red hot embers poured upon. Psalm 139 (140)
The Church values the Psalms highly because they were the prayer book of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and all of the holy people of the old Testament. That is why holy Mother Church gives us copious helpings every day: The Liturgy of the Word at Mass always contains segments from the Psalms, and the Liturgy of the Hours is the Church’s own prayer book containing Psalms at every Hour.
We need to value them more highly in our own prayer lives, because the Psalms truly are the prayer book of the Saints ; old testament, new testament and all the centuries between then and now. The Psalms, because they are inspired by God, teach us how to pray the way that God wants us to pray. We ignore them at our peril.
If you would like to learn more about the Liturgy of the Hours, http://www.liturgy.co.nz/ofthehours/introduction.html gives a good simple introduction and http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdwgilh.htm gives a much more involved one. Chapter I in the latter is profound and something every follower of Jesus should read and seek understanding about in prayer.
May all of the Saints who delighted in praying the Psalms, pray for us that we may discover the spiritual treasures they did.