Praying the Psalms


The psalms are what make the breviary so beautiful and at the same time so difficult.  Knowing how to pray them properly is essential for benefitting fully from the Divine Office.  First of all, they are prayers, songs from ancient times, compositions based on Jewish patterns of thought.  Moreover, we have to read them in translation.  Granted that the psalms are inspired poetry, how are we to make them the expression of our own prayer life?  A food that cannot be assimilated will never be a source of nourishment.  How can we learn to assimilate the nourishment provided by the psalms?

There is no point in denying that the question is a hard one to answer.  Nor is it possible to deny the fact that many a person who is obliged to pray the breviary has long since found that the unaccustomed fare of the psalms has (excuse the expression) quite turned his stomach, that he is unable to derive any spiritual nourishment from them.  Still I maintain that it is possible to overcome these difficulties.  It is obvious enough that some of the psalms are easy to assimilate into our spiritual life, while others are much more difficult.  None of them, however, are impossible with proper effort.  The psalter is and will remain the many-stringed harp upon which we can sound all the chords of our prayer life and from which we can draw out all the deep notes of our heart.  But first we must learn how to play the harp; that requires time and attention.

It is hardly necessary to speak at any great length about the aesthetic value of the psalms.  The psalter contains songs that deserve a place of special honour in the literature of the world.  Nor need it be pointed out that the psalms ought to be especially dear to a Christian for having been prayed by our Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles, for being the first prayers used in Christian liturgy.

But how are the psalms to be prayed?  It will be interesting to examine the history of psalmody, and see how the psalms were prayed and understood from the beginning.  In the first centuries of the Church the psalms were actually the only expression of the Christian’s prayer life; from these times stems the practice of praying the whole psalter every week.  It seems incredible to us today when we hear that at the time of St. Jerome (†420) farmers used to pray the psalms while they ploughed their fields and workmen sang them in their shops.  The psalms had passed over into the flesh and blood of every member of the Church, and were not just an obligation for priests.

Nor did the people of those ages merely pray the psalms in a mechanical way.  They lived their psalms.  This we know from the many homilies on the psalms that were the Sunday sermons of Christian antiquity: Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine.

After the passing of the great Church fathers (fifth century), the praying and understanding of the psalms fell sharply.  But the Church continued to maintain that her official prayer life must be made up principally of the psalms.

Another question is whether the breviary reciters of all times have actually made the psalms the expression of their own interior sentiments of prayer.  It would be rash to answer this in the affirmative without any reservations.  They naturally placed great value on the Office as the official prayer of the Church, but not infrequently they allowed their private prayer life to develop along quite other lines.

And yet priest, religious, or lay person could well find more than enough prayer formulas in the breviary that would serve admirably to clothe the spirit of his prayer; he could find satisfaction for all his prayer needs in their most ideal form, if only he would learn to pray the Office at the proper time and with the proper understanding.  There would be no need for him to say even a single Our Father in addition to the Divine Office.  The Office contains prayers aplenty, and as for content, which is the only really important thing, he can pour as much devotion and meaning into the prayers of the breviary as he is capable of expressing.  If one feels the urge to spend more time at prayer, he can double the time of the Office with a slower, more meditative recitation.  In our century we will have to relearn how to focus our prayer life on the breviary and on the psalms.

But how are we to take a prayer-form that stems from an entirely different frame of thought, the Old Testament, and make it into the expression of our own interior life?  The psalms, as already remarked, contain the whole range of prayer sentiments, and we can use them for our own prayers if we observe two simple conditions: 1. we must lift them above the concrete historical situation of their composition and see in them a universally valid message, and one which is of importance to us personally.  That means lifting them above their reference to Israelite history or some particular crisis of olden times and applying them to the story of our own life, the many crises in our relations with God and fellowmen.  2.  We must christianize their content and objectives (that is, read them in the context of the Christian faith).  This is not difficult, generally speaking; for the Old Testament never contradicts New Testament truths, and the selfsame Holy Ghost who once inspired them is speaking in these songs and praying in our hearts today.

This is a basic rule: analyze the literal historical message as accurately as possible and where feasible or necessary sense the Christian parallel—and dwell meditatively upon the rich discovery (eg. words such as life, victory, grace, love, trust, judgment, reward lend themselves easily to a Christian frame of reference).

Many people are scandalized at the proportionately large number of petition, lamentation, suffering, and curse psalms.  At first glance it appears that there is little affinity here for us to build on; as a general rule we have not been exposed to such great persecutions or bitter attacks as were the first singers of the psalms.

But it is always possible, and correct, to go beyond the immediate historical and personal limits of these psalms and see in them images of the mighty struggle between hell and God’s kingdom, between Satan and the Church at large or in an individual soul.  The battle involving hell and God or God’s kingdom continues through time, and in every age the Church in her breviary has prayed the three final petitions of the Our Father: forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.  It is of primary importance not to forget that we are praying in the name of the Church.

Still, the so-called “curse psalms” do present special difficulties for the Christian.  Now in the psalm literature, petitions and lamentations are quite often clad in the natural and somewhat primitive form of a curse.  Natural man, after all, is quite accustomed to expressing his displeasure at evil in precisely this form.  But as Christians we may never wish evil upon a sinner directly, personally.

The psalms, however, have nothing to do with personal enmities; the theme of all our praying is God’s kingdom and sin, and the curse passages in the psalms are only the primitive expression of absolute protest against evil, sin and hell.  Try changing the optative of the curses into the indicative of fact; this turns the curses into an expression of divine justice and you pronounce them no longer with your own mouth, but with the mouth of Christ and the Church.  The curse thus resembles the woes that our Lord addressed against the Pharisees.  There is something really quite stirring, grand about these curses.  The all-just God steps before us as we pray and warns us of the punishments of hell.

One or two observations now on how to apply the meaning of the psalms.  Most of the psalms are what we might call “prayer figures.”  The key to understanding any figure comes from having grasped the point of comparison employed; that point must be isolated and concretely formulated.  When we have found it, we will know at once what is to be carried over into our application of the prayer and what is only incidental development of the figure used.  Just as in a parable not every feature of the story or detail is capable of application to the point made by the narrative, even so, not every verse or statement in a psalm can be applied to its basic message.  The psalms, after all, are poetry.

Violation of this fundamental and common-sense rule leads to those forced and unnatural interpretations of the psalms that can only serve to make them ridiculous.  A good grasp of the point of comparison insures against such errors.  A second advantage of this method is that it keeps both feet solidly on the ground, in the literal message of the psalm.  For only an adequate grasp of the original situation aids us in understanding the comparison, the New Testament truth to which the psalm was but an introduction.

Occasionally, the point of comparison is merely a strong sentiment, a deep feeling that the psalm expresses; for example, Psalm 136, (“By the waters of Babylon,” a magnificent elegy from the Exile.  The medium of comparison here is deep and faithful love.  In the psalm it is love for Jerusalem; as we say the psalm it is love for the Church, for the Eucharist, for our Saviour.  If this is understood, then the curses in the last two verses will not bother us; they are only incidental elaboration to the historical picture.

And finally, a word of caution.  We dare not be untruthful in praying the psalms.  If we plead, then we must have something adequate to plead for.  When we beg for protection in persecution, but in reality are safe and secure, our pleading is hardly genuine.  What we say in a psalm must represent a real, experienced need on our part, either in our own soul or in the Church at large; otherwise the words are like “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”  This need is always present, provided we make an effort to bring it to mind; it is present, if not in our own soul, then surely in the Church at large.

It is our task, and a richly rewarding one, to restore the psalter to its place of honour in Christian prayer.  The psalter is a sacred heritage, the treasury of the Church’s finest prayers, and it is lying open for us if we but take it and make it our own.

—Fr. Pius Parsch
(from Der Wochenpsalter des Römischen Breviers)