Praying with the Psalms

The Book of Psalms is a collection of one hundred and fifty ancient prayers considered scripture in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.  They are written from the human perspective, yet as Jewish and Christian scripture they can also be regarded as the word of God, language given by God for the purpose of prayer.  Jesus, as a faithful Jewish man, prayed using the psalms, and some of his most famous words, for example “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” are quotations from the psalms. 

The psalms express the full range of human emotion, including joy, despair, rage, vengefulness, fear, loneliness, gratitude, alienation, peacefulness, intimacy, weariness.  They challenge us to pray honestly, exposing all of our thoughts and emotions to the gaze of God.  In our more comfortable moments the desperate feelings that some of the psalms describe may seem remote, but when injustice, misfortune, mental illness, addiction or even just the everyday pain of being a human being arouse these emotions, then the psalms are ready to help us acknowledge them.

Many people dislike the psalms and are uncomfortable with the way God is depicted within them.  Yet at the same time they may be drawn to their poetry.  The psalms provide a path by which you might reapproach the religion of your youth.  If you have rejected Christianity as too judgmental and intolerant, some of the images of God you see in the psalms may reinforce this impression. Yet there may be something about Christianity that continues to draw you, embodied in the beauty, awe, and mercy expressed by the psalms. The psalms are a rich terrain where these attractions and discomforts can be explored. By eliciting conflicting and paradoxical feelings that can continue to exist in tension as part of the complex landscape of your life of prayer and belief, the psalms provide a kind of laboratory of the soul.  You don’t always have to solve the problem of the conflicting things that the psalms evoke in you as you hold them in your prayer.   

There are many different translations of the psalms available which address potential discomforts with the language of the psalms in a variety of ways. The free adaptations by Stephen Mitchell, a well known translator and poet, capture their beauty and power while omitting the most problematic of the psalms.  Nan Merrill’s version substitutes language that emphasizes the loving nature of God.  The sisters of the Order of St. Helena use fully inclusive language while remaining close to the traditional language of The Book of Common Prayer

Here are a few points to remember as you work with the psalms in your prayer:

• The psalms depict violence, anger, and our feelings about our enemies not because God encourages these things but because these are part of our experience that we need to bring to God in prayer to be transformed.

• The painful and desperate feelings that the psalms describe are things we sometimes feel.  When we allow ourselves to acknowledge these feelings, then it easier to move on, and we may be transformed.

• We may not actually believe in a God who is exactly like the God depicted in the psalms, but there might be a way in which these images of God touch us emotionally and are important to our prayer life.  We can bring things into the emotional world of our prayer life which don’t necessarily make sense in terms of our intellectual beliefs.

• The psalms elicit conflicting and paradoxical feelings, which can continue to exist in tension as part of the complex landscape of our lives of prayer and belief.  We don’t always have to solve the “problem” of the conflicting emotions that the psalms evoke.

• The psalms don’t always reflect what we actually believe, but struggling with the psalms can help us to articulate what we do believe.

• We may not think of ourselves as having enemies, but as we read the psalms, the parts about enemies often remind us of something we are struggling with in our lives, whether it’s something inner or outer.  They help us to remember struggles that we might prefer to forget and remind us to bring them into our prayer.