Prayers at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, 1981.
If I were to send into space one item that would explain the human experience to other civilizations, it would be the Psalms. They would serve as warning and explanation and exaltation of our capabilities.
Cross us, and we will dash your little ones against the rocks. Exile us, and we will nonetheless try to sing God’s song in foreign territory. Wow us, and our spirits and words will soar in thanksgiving and praise.
An agnostic boyfriend wanted to better understand my religious devotion, so I suggested that we read a psalm each day on our own, conferring occasionally. Soon into the exercise, he good-naturedly but definitively expressed dismay at the texts. He said something like, “I expected a more uplifting experience, but there’s a lot of vengeance and wrath.”
A retired church member whose lifelong partner died was about to go on his first trip without him. I suggested we pray the psalms together, one each day, as he travelled. Afterward, he said he felt less alone, knowing I was praying the psalms with him.
That’s a gift of the Psalms, that praying them, we feel less alone. Those who wrote the psalms were imperfect, much like us. They didn’t know everything, but they had feelings about everything. And, like us, they had multiple situations and events to have feelings about, some good, even great, some bad, even evil. They reflect the human range of experiences and emotions.
They are like us, but perhaps unlike us, they are willing to express even their uglier aspects. They are not pretending to “have it all together.” They are willing to offer their broken spirits to God, to one another, to us. They are the original 12 Step meeting, the first confessors, the first monastics using prayer as a place of transformation.
As much as they, like us, might pray that God will “fix” things, they understand repeatedly their need to hope in God, to trust in God, to witness the beauty and wonder of creation, from the heavens to the earth. And they give us wonderful images and metaphors for God: a good shepherd, a mother’s lap, the rising sun of justice.
For centuries, monastic communities have prayed the psalms during their daily multiple prayer services. My first real taste of that was visiting the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross at their Mt. Calvary Retreat House in the foothills above Santa Barbara, California. Over the years of my occasional retreats there, I found peace joining them in the reciting or chanting of the psalms. The brief silence between each line gave the words a chance to sink in, as one might pause after any line of poetry. And saying or chanting the words myself and with others gave the psalms an altogether different resonance than reading them silently on my own.
In praying the psalms, if we can’t identify with a particular mood or condition in the words, we might consider those in the world who are experiencing that mood or condition, praying with them or on their behalf. That makes the psalms at least one more way in which we realize we are not alone.
At the risk of offering a mere tautology: that the psalms are directed at the self and others and God makes them a resource of reflection and contemplation: an opportunity for dialogue with ourselves, with others, and with God.
The psalm that got me through my toughest times is the psalm divided between Psalm 42 and 43 that begins, “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.” The psalmist was prevented from going to God’s house, perhaps by illness, but the longing presented reminded many of us in the LGBT community of the church’s exclusion.
More than once I have prayed with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me” and “Restore to me the joy of thy salvation.”
And, during an extreme and extended period of multiple griefs, Psalm 73 spoke of my experience:
My heart grew embittered,my affections dried up,I was stupid and uncomprehending,a clumsy animal in your presence.Even so, I stayed in your presence,you grasped me by the right hand;you will guide me with advice,and will draw me in the wake of your glory.Psalm 73:21-24 (NJB)
“Even so, I stayed in your presence” became my mantra and my discipline that year, else I would have been lost.
My favorite psalm for contemplation when leading a retreat is 131, whose key mantra is, “I hold myself in quiet and silence, like a little child in its mother’s arms” (NJB).
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