Thursday, October 1, 2009
Why The Psalms?
With all the popularity of Benedictine spirituality these days one topic doesn’t seem to be mentioned very often. Lots of books put an emphasis on balance, humility, respect for the material world, silence and all sorts of other things but the Psalms are rarely mentioned. That’s odd because for Benedict the Psalms permeate the life of the monk, the air of the monastery is suffused with the words of the Psalter. Benedict has his monks repeat the cycle of 150 Psalms, in one week. The formation of new monks emphasized memorizing the Psalms. Benedict spends several important chapters of his short Rule setting forth which Psalms are to be said at which prayer times.
So why doesn’t contemporary Benedictine spirituality focus more on the Psalms? I suspect that we don’t really know what to make of the Psalms these days. Most people have a few Psalms that they especially like, usually the ones that seem comforting and hopeful. Some people have a few Psalms that they think really shouldn’t be part of Scripture at all since they are perceived as too violent and bloodthirsty. For the most part we tend to take the Psalms for granted and don’t make a connection between the Psalms and our desire for a deeper spirituality.
How the Early Church Read the Psalms
The understanding of the Psalm in the early Church was much different from our own. Modern people see the Psalms as 150 unrelated little poems that don’t have much in common. We read the Psalms as unrelated to the rest of Scripture or even to other Psalms. Scripture study today emphasizes discerning exactly when the Psalm was written and for what original purpose in the original context of Israel some 3000 years ago.
This way of reading Scripture would be completely and utterly foreign to the readers of Benedict’s time. They saw the whole Bible, all of Scripture, being a single, organic whole. The Bible wasn’t a collection of basically unrelated books composed over a period of a thousand years for a variety of different purposes and audiences, for them it was one book that was to be read as the whole, complete story of God’s plan of salvation. In other words Genesis and Revelation weren’t separate stories they were all part of one story. To these readers everything in the Old Testament, foreshadowed, was a hint of what was to come, in the New Testament. An image from the early church writer Iranaeus helps us understand this idea. He said that the entire Bible was like a mosaic, innumerable individual tiles make up the larger picture of salvation history. In other words each verse or story from Scripture wasn’t to be read as a single entity, each piece of Scripture was a small piece of the whole picture of God’s plan for salvation.
Against this idea the early Church considered the Psalms to represent an especially clear synopsis of the rest of the Bible. The book of Psalms was read to be a summary of all of salvation history. The early writers could see the Paschal Mystery, the saving event of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection contained in the Psalms.
By this point most people reading this are probably wondering whether the early Church writers were reading the same book of Psalms that we do! The reality is that we probably can’t really re-capture the way that our foremothers and forefathers read Scripture. They knew Scripture much better than we did and would form chains of association based on individual words or phrases that are extremely hard for us to even follow today. On word or phrase in a Psalm would remind them of something in Genesis which would in turn remind them of something in the Gospel of Matthew. As an example, try reading some of St. Augustine’s commentaries on the Psalms in which he seems to wander in a stream of consciousness from one apparently unrelated topic to another. Our modern mind set is just very different and we probably cannot delve into Scripture in the same way or to the same depth as these great early writers.
Psalms as “Mirror of the Soul”
However, there is a way the early writers read the Psalms that can be helpful to us. The Psalms were called the “mirror of the soul.” The Psalms reflect the depth and breadth of human experience and when we read the Psalms we see ourselves reflected in their words. You don’t have to know the Psalms very well to see that the Psalmist never holds back in his relationship with God! The Psalms are shouts of effusive praise, they are cries of deepest despair, they recall the wonders of history and call for vengeance against enemies. There is probably no aspect of human experience that is foreign to the Psalms. Early writers saw this and encouraged people to see their own experience in the Psalms and to use the Psalms for the healing and transformation of their soul. The Psalmist always comes back to God, whether is joy and praise or despair and hopelessness, God is the foundation of the Psalmist’s life.
So how can we modern people pray the Psalms? Perhaps the most important thing is to simply slow down and immerse ourselves in the Psalms. We pray with Scripture by not reading it quickly for information the way we would a newspaper, but to read it slowly and let it speak to us. We can allow the words of the Psalms to become our words, they can express our deepest feelings, feelings that we don’t want to express or have trouble articulating. We can let the Psalms speak to us, we can listen deeply as the Psalms speak to us about the action of God in our life and world.
In monastic prayer the Psalms are an ocean of God’s presence. Go ahead and dive into the ocean and see where the tide takes you.