Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reflecting on the psalms

If I could only have one book of the Bible it would be the psalms. Brother Abraham at St. Gregory's Monastery reflects on praying the psalms on a regular rotation at the Abbey:
The main activity here at St. Gregory’s consists of public corporate prayer in the Abbey Church, and the main part of that prayer takes the form of recitation of the Psalms. Through the course of a week, the entire book of 150 Psalms is recited. That seems like a lot, and in most places it would be. In his Rule for Monasteries, St. Benedict laments the fact that although his monastic predecessors recited the entire Book of Psalms each day, “May we, lukewarm that we are, perform it at least in a whole week!” I do not share Benedict’s grief; once a week works well for us. Many monasteries use a monthly schedule for reciting all the psalms, and others use a two-week scheme. Those schedules are good too, because they work well for them. Besides monasteries using the Book of Psalms in prayer, many churches offer public morning and evening prayer throughout the week, and most of that prayer also involves psalmody.

However, most people do not live in monasteries, and most people do not live close to a church that offers daily public prayer, but many of those people still want to be involved in the psalmody going on in monasteries and churches around the world, so they adopt their own method of praying the Psalms. All in all, there are a lot of psalms read, prayed, sung, and chanted around the world every day.

Often, people who first encounter the Psalms, whether in public or private prayer or reading, find some of them surprisingly bloodthirsty. This category of psalms includes laments from the oppressed and cries for vengeance on the oppressors. Some individuals and groups simply omit these violent psalms from their prayers. Others find ways to soften these psalms by using them as analogies for inner struggles within themselves. Others deal with the brutality of the Psalms by acknowledging it for what it is; the Psalms come from a violent time (a good reminder of the violent brutality of our own society). The competing empires and kingdoms of the Iron Age from which the Psalms come were made up of real people who really prayed, and even if our understanding of God has changed and become less vengeful and ethnocentric, we can still use their prayers as bases for our own. We can also use them as prods to see if our understanding of God really is less vengeful and ethnocentric than Iron Age attitudes.

With experience, most people find ways to pray the psalms that express the laments of the oppressed, because even if they are not being oppressed at the time, they can pray with and for all those around the world who are suffering.

That is how I approach these psalms. I had a wonderful childhood surrounded by people who loved me, and as a middle class American I am one of the richest persons in the world with the best in medical care and educational opportunities at my fingertips. Even as a monk who has no personal possessions, my community provides me with all I could need, and more than I should want.

So I pray the psalms of lament for all those around the world whom I read about in the newspaper or see on news broadcasts that are suffering from natural or manmade disasters. Even when I am feeling slightly oppressed by others or by work waiting to be done, these psalms serve to remind me of how good my life really is and how I need to stop whining.

The discomfort occurs when the psalmists ask God to bring disaster on the oppressors. Such an attitude does not fit well with our call to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and charitably bless those who hate us. Perhaps the most famous examples of cursing in the Psalms occur in what are otherwise considered by some to be two of the most beautiful songs in the world: Psalm 137, in which homesick exiles explain how they have put away their musical instruments because they are too heartbroken to sing anymore; and Psalm 139, in which a poet expresses wonderment at his own being and amazement at God’s infinite nature. Yet near the end of both of these, bloody curses are added: the homesick exiles bless anyone who will dash their oppressors’ children on the rocks, and the poet declares his hatred for those who do not share his attitudes toward God. These examples are only two of many such curses interspersed throughout the Psalter. Some other psalms seem to be an almost unbroken stream of hateful desires and hopes for retribution upon enemies, and it is not surprising that many people find them difficult to pray.

I have found a way to use the cursing psalms as an aid to foster my own prayer. It might not be the most proper use of these psalms, but so far it has helped me, and maybe that in itself makes it a proper use. When one of these bloodthirsty verses comes up as we pray in the monastery church, I remind myself that I am not the innocent person cursing the sinner; I am the sinner making life miserable for the people around me. I need to change. I need to ask not only for forgiveness, but also for the strength to repent — to really change and make the love of God the center of my life rather than keeping myself in that position. The people I come in contact with everyday are the psalmists crying out for deliverance from the oppression I bring them because of my selfishness. I cause them to sin by driving them to curse me.

This realization of my own oppressive behavior does not derive from an overly scrupulous sense of unworthiness. I am a beautiful Child of God created to love and be loved, just like everyone else. But I have allowed my own pettiness to hurt myself and the people around me. I am not the only one who is guilty of this. The tiny, daily misdemeanors we all commit in order to get what we want when we want it are not fair to anyone, including ourselves.

Knowing this should not drive us to despair. Rather, it should prompt a firm resolve to change, knowing that even though only God can transform us, only we as individuals can allow God to do that, and only we can purposefully use the gifts that God has given us as tools to change. We are worth the effort it takes to grow into the mature individuals we are created to be.

Changing one’s perspective from oppressed to oppressor might not help everyone pray these psalms as it has helped me, but that’s OK. It is good to heed the advice to pray as we can, not as we can’t. Maybe the one thing to avoid is putting ourselves in the position of God and presuming that it is our right to carry out the curses.
~~Br. Abraham

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Kirkepiscatoid said...

As I have occasionally alluded to back over at my blog, I just finished a nearly ten month trip backwards through the Psalms from 150 to 1.

It was a project my priest and I worked out b/c the angst, anger, spark and fire in the Psalms seems to match my own when I get um..."wound up."

What I have almost immediately benefited from that trip was I now have a "sacred space in my mind" at both Morning Prayer on Wed. and at services on Sunday, simply because I've "been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt!"

Kathy said...

What a great article! First year EFM students often remark at the violence and bloodiness - and this is a perfect article to show them. Thanks for posting.

James said...

Great article. I'm not sure I could chose just one book, though. Perhaps Isaiah or the Gospel of John. Of course, it would have to be the KJV for the poetic beauty.

Country Parson said...

What a wonderful reminder as to how the psalms can be used, particularly the "difficult" psalms.

I have encouraged my parishioners to the Lenten exercise of reading the morning and evening psalms as prescribed in the Revised Common Lectionary. Soon, they will discover how often certain psalms are repeated. This may give them a taste of what this article's author speaks.

Thanks to these insights, I will now see myself in a different light as I read some of these "difficult" passages.

Ann said...

Thanks for the comments -- I love the psalms because they express the real life struggles of faith and feelings. Trust, revenge, love, fear. I agree this reflection opens some new ways of reading.

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