+The Psalms as our Daily Prayer: Chapter 10 Sep. 2017
After Fr Thomas Gricoski’s talks to us last July, I have felt it may be good to speak some more about the Psalms. It has struck me many times that of all the books of Scripture, this one predominates our life since we read, recite or sing all the psalms at least every two weeks of the year. Some of them we do so four to six times each week. With all the time we put into the Psalms we do well to reflect deeply on their meaning for our lives, let the psalms continually speak to us interiorly, let them give expression to all that is going on in our hearts.
As I say this I am reminded of how often a verse of the Psalms does pop into our minds throughout the day, addressing a particular situation we have to deal with at a given moment. How true this is to the spirit of St Benedict who asks us in his Rule: “What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?” So much of our life, the whole of our life really, depends on our openness to the Word of God to which we are exposed all day long, especially in the Psalms. As followers of Christ, we are listeners to the Word, persons being continually formed by the inner voice of God as it is being spoken from deep within us all day long.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury has done some excellent work on Augustine and the Psalms and I would like to use this as a basis for sharing my own reflections with you. He brings to our attention that:
“The very first sentence of Augustine’s Confessions is a quotation from the Psalms, and for the rest of the work hardly a page goes by without at least one such reference. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the narrative autobiographical voice of the Confessions is systematically blended with the voice of the psalmist.”
From the earliest days of his conversion, the psalms had an enormous influence on how Augustine experienced what was going on within him. During the very last days of Augustine’s life, he had the penitential psalms posted in large script on the walls of his room so that he might pray them during his last hours. Rowan Williams describes this as follows:
“More than once, he [Augustine] uses the language of being ‘set on fire’ by their words, and he describes how they [the psalms] prompted the expression of his ‘most intimate sensations’ ..[Conf. 9.4.8]. “
“The reader of the Confessions will be aware that, for Augustine, the reading of the Psalms was more than simply a ‘devotional’ reading of a holy text, let alone reading to inform or instruct. The psalmist’s voice is what releases two fundamentally significant things… It unseals deep places, emotions otherwise buried, and it provides an analogy for the unity or intelligibility of a human life lived in faith. Here is a conversation with God that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in the course of the conversation, the human speaker is radically changed and enabled to express what is otherwise hidden from him or her. Augustine speaks of what the psalm he is discussing ‘makes of him’: the act or recitation becomes an opening to the transforming action of grace (Conf. 9.4.8.)
How often, in each of our own lives, we find the psalms we are praying, give expression to the deep movements within our own hearts and for Augustine this is exactly what they are intended to do. They are the expression of the divine and human exchange that is constantly taking place as we live our lives. They may not always set us on fire but simply allow us to give expression to deep movements of wonder, doubt or pain taking place within the depths of our daily experience. When these movements remain unconscious, they cause harmful effects within us and in community life unless they are given expression. By giving expression to them, they help us not only to discover these deep feelings but to fully own them so as to allow them become Christ’s own, praying within us.
The psalms serve as a doorway into the fullness of our human experience. I remember some years ago, when there was talk of dropping the so called “cursing psalms” from our own recitation or singing of the psalms as was done in the Roman Breviary, our Fr Matthew Kelty immediately objected. He was strongly opposed to such a withdrawal of these psalms, insisting that they give expression to feelings and movements in our hearts that we have to own if we are going to be fully human beings and in touch with what our hearts are capable of. To move into denial of them, he thought to be a failure to fully own our own humanity and therefore incapable to redirecting these feelings in positive ways.
There are forces within our own hearts and within our society that must be stood up to, confronted and disowned as forces for evil. Against such we must be firm and unrelenting or they will either compromise and do great harm to our human integrity. This is the great responsibility we all have as Christians in today’s world, to discern these negative and destructive forces so that the light of Christ’s truth may be affirmed and continue to do its redeeming work. The psalms help us do this all day long as we enter into their inspired meaning, bring ever clearer light to our own experience and what is taking place in the lives of our brothers and the world around us. As never before, it seems to me, this discernment and manner of prayer have become so valuable in our world today.