At the monastery when we pray every day we make sure that our infirm sisters are included. Even the ones who are quite elderly who have dementia or other disabilities participate with us in prayer. From my place in chapel I always look at one particular sister across from me. She is well into her 90’s and doesn’t track very well. Nonetheless she always has her Office (prayer) book and the sister assigned to sit next to her keeps turning the pages so she can keep up.
Is she consciously aware of what we are praying at any given moment? I doubt it. But after 60-70 years of praying the Psalms every day, multiple times a day, I think she is praying on a different level.
The Psalms shape and mold us. We probably aren’t aware of it, but day after day, year after year, we pray these ancient prayers, these cries to God, and we are changed. The prayers of the Psalmist become our prayers. Deep cries of anguish, shouts of joy, marvelous recitations of God’s works and the history of God’s people, echo through centuries, through countless monasteries and countless lives.
The Psalms are real, uncensored prayer. Nothing is left out or hidden. These aren’t the prayers of “nice” people or even a “nice” God. They are raw, blunt, angry and earthy. They are good prayers for nuns. They remind us that we are more than our public persona, more than the image of docile, sweet, uncomplaining women praying quietly with beatific smiles on our faces.
The Psalms call us to a prayer of deep honesty and radical awareness. They help us to name the pain when God seems to be lost. They give us words of the indescribable joy of the awareness of God’s love and faithfulness. The Psalms express our primal anger at the injustice that corrodes our society and kills the vulnerable.
Are we aware of the power of the Psalms as we pray them day after day, when we are distracted or sick or tired? No, not really. Often they are no more than the air we breathe, words we mouth while our minds are elsewhere, thinking about the days tasks, worrying about the coughing sister next to us or wondering who the guests are across the aisle. Eventually we will be unaware of the power of the Psalms as we are also one of the sisters physically present but no longer able to consciously follow along.
But somehow in these words is the Word. Together we pray the Psalms that Jesus prayed, the words that he heard in the synagogue, the words of his anguish on the cross. The Psalms are words that reflect the lived experience of God, they aren’t theology, they aren’t doctrine, they are prayers of faith in the midst of the daily struggle of existence. They are prayers on an incarnational faith, of faith become flesh and living among us. The Psalms are the prayers of the God who lives among us, they shaped the bones of Jesus, they shape our bones. The words, the Word, sinks deep into our being until even at the end of our life, when someone has to turn the pages of Office book for us, they are still re-making and molding us in faith.