Praying Psalm 95 is like unexpectedly being hit upside the head with a 2x4. I think that is why Benedict wants monks to pray Psalm 95 every morning and why we don’t.
In his Rule St. Benedict provides extensive, specific provisions for how we are to pray the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours every day. The Office is primarily Psalms and while some are distributed randomly others are prayed everyday at the same time. Psalm 95 is to be prayed every morning.
Psalm 95 certainly starts innocently enough, the first several verses are a paean of praise to God the creator, a reminder to give thanks and praise for all we have been given:
1 O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
So far so good. We have an important call to celebrate our relationship with God, a humbling yet joyful reminder that all we have and all we are is from God. We are the sheep dependent on the shepherd and we acknowledge our humility. We would certainly all feel pretty good if the Psalm ended there. It would be a good and appropriate way to start each day.
But then comes the 2x4 upside the head:
7 O that today you would listen to his voice! 8 Do not harden your hearts,
as at Meribah as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work
10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not regard my ways.” 11 Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”
What on earth happened!? Our nice, safe, happy Psalm of praise got ugly didn’t it? We are brought up short by the admonition: “O that today you would listen to his voice.” The Psalm tells us, shouts at us, that the people of God tend to not listen to the voice of God. The Psalm is forcing us to see that the disobedience of the people during the Exodus wasn’t just a far off historical event. Every day we face a choice. Will we listen and respond to God’s voice or will we be like the people in the desert who didn’t trust God, who didn’t listen, who murmured and complained.
This is not an easy Psalm. It is not a safe or comfortable view of God. If we pay attention to this Psalm we will be left uncomfortable, uneasy, chastened and worried. Does this mean that we should fear a terrible God of anger? Should we simply reject the Psalm?
Perhaps Benedict mandated that this Psalm be used every morning simply because he was so deeply aware of human nature. Human nature is not inherently bad or evil, we are created in the image of God, but we easily slip into complacency. We begin to take things for granted. We begin to take God for granted like a building we pass by everyday without really seeing.
This is what Benedict wants us to avoid. He wants us to begin each day with this clashing, discordant Psalm, this beautiful call to praise and disturbing warning that we cannot fail to remember the God of our salvation. Benedict says listen! This Psalm says listen! Listen and pay attention. Listen today. Give praise to God today. God is always present, may we always be open, always thankful for the gifts of God.
Starting every morning being hit upside the head with a 2x4 isn’t easy, but perhaps this urgent wake-up call will allow us to start each day with a new depth of gratitude to the God who will lead us through the day with love.