“My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.” — Servant of God, Dorothy Day
Man, there it is summed up in a sentence, the whole spiritual life! Java and psalmody.
I have come to love praying the psalms over the years, especially through the recitation of the Breviary, the Liturgy of the Hours. The psalms contain an extraordinary variety of voices and emotions, drawn from various historical epochs and diverse life circumstances, all crying out in pain, rejoicing, remembering, hoping, lamenting, raging, repenting, longing, praising, adoring, cursing, thanking, glorifying, and interceding with the sleepless Angels before the thrice holy presence of the Eternal God. They capture the heart and the “guts” of Israel’s restless, yearning faith, and each was shaped by the various exigencies of particular historical moments. In other words, they are the words of real people in real life situations.
That said, the psalms are not merely individual human expressions of faith bound to a specific time and space, but they are simultaneously Spirit-breathed words that mysteriously bear within them something beyond them, something eternal. They not only echo the voice of Israel, but they contain the voice of Israel’s longed-for Bridegroom, and of His Bride, the Church. The psalms are the Word of God and the word of man, or, more boldly said, the prayer of God and the prayer of man (cf. Mark 15:34). They give us God’s own language for contending with Him, and give shape to an inner disposition ready to receive the covenant grace of the God-Man who wishes to forge a union of love with humanity.
Praying the Psalms
When we pray the psalms, we should first pray that the Spirit of Jesus opens us to allow the divine-human voice of the psalmist to become our own. St. John Cassian says it this way,
…receiving into himself all the inward states contained in the psalms, he will begin to sing them not as if composed by the prophets; but as if spoken by him as his own prayers, drawn forth from deepest compunction of heart: and he will certainly interpret them as directed at himself, understanding that their verses were not only formerly fulfilled by or in the prophet; but that they are fulfilled and acted out daily in him.
The desert fathers were unanimous in their opinion that, when temptation assails us and threatens to take captive our souls, pray the psalms. St. Athanasius succinctly sums up this point, “Singing psalms is a medicine for healing the soul.”
But for this to happen, one must pray them “without ceasing” — regularly, frequently, faithfully. Fact is, it takes much labora to come to a good ora. That’s the gift of the Breviary — it prescribes ceaseless psalmody in a wonderfully orderly way.
I have found such ceaseless psalmody, when I remain faithful to it, to be wonderfully healing.
A last thought.
I remember years ago when I worked at an Orthodox Jewish nursing home, I asked the Rabbi chaplain how he prayed. He replied very directly: “How? The psalms.”
As a devout Jew, Jesus frequently prayed the psalms that had been, undoubtedly, pressed deeply into his memory. If that’s the case, what other incentive could a lover of Christ possibly need to make the psalms his or her own?
A Trappist monk (who are my favorite order of monks, btw) once gave me this wonderful piece of advice for praying the psalms well:
As you pray each psalm, ask the Spirit to allow you to see, hear, say, groan, whisper, sing the words the way Jesus did. If you can capture that vantage point, the psalms will have accomplished their mission in you.
Among the many wonderful ways to access the Breviary online, this is my personal favorite: http://divineoffice.org
Lastly, let me leave you with the psalmody of Compline (night prayer) sung at an awesome Trappist monastery in Iowa that I miss terribly — New Melleray. Hearing it makes me well up with emotion: