At every Mass we pray or sing a psalm after the first reading. A psalm is a prayer-song taken from the Old Testament and attributed to King David, who, as you know, played the harp. I thought of blogging about psalms today because we are in the month of the Holy Rosary, a devotion that is rooted in the Psalms. Originally people prayed the 150 psalms. Having them memorized was even the requirement for joining some communities. The many illiterate people were at a disadvantage. But then some creative person started praying 150 Our Fathers as a substitute for the psalms and thus began the paternoster beads, the forerunner to our rosaries. The psalms were an integral part of Hebrew worship and the prayers of Jesus and Mary. They are also appropriate for our worship and our personal prayer life. Because they express our every emotion, we can find a psalm to pray when we are glad, sad, mad, or have been bad. Being in Scripture, the ultimate source of the Psalms is God. They are his love songs to us and the songs he wishes us to sing to him. They contain such tender verses as these: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:9–10).
Basically, the psalms are all prayers of praise. When we pray them, we do what we were created to do: glorify God. Many psalms are laments, that is, they look to God for help in a trying situation. They are timeless as they complain about sickness, old age, and a friend’s betrayal. In Psalm 13, we bewail, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” and repeat “How long, O Lord?” three times. This reminds me of Pope Francis’s advice that in prayer we should talk to God as our friend and boldly demand, “Do something!” What if we personally are not in trouble? Why pray a lament? Because when we pray, we pray with and in the name of the universal Church, we can pray on behalf of someone who is in trouble or a dire world situation.
Some psalms might feel uncomfortable praying certain “cursing” psalms. The psalms grew out of a violent, warring culture, and so some call down God’s wrath on enemies. This kind of language repels us peace-loving Christians. But we can take “enemies” to be our sins and evil tendencies, evil in the world, Satan, or a dread disease. And then, as the Jewish people did, we look trustingly to God to conquer those enemies.
The psalms are Hebrew poetry, an aspect I appreciate as a former English teacher. They are filled with exquisite figures of speech: God lovingly gather and saves our tears in a bottle, he knit me together in my mother’s womb, and as a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for God. Even the curses are creative: “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime” (Psalm 58:8). The psalms are full of repetition, which make them singable. Many of our hymns are psalms set to music. Often Hebrew poetry repeats lines using synonyms or repeats ideas in different words.
Dorothy Day once said, “My strength returns to me with my morning cup of coffee and reading the psalms.” May you too find strength in claiming the psalms as your own!
If you would like more information on the psalms, I recommend my book The Catholic Companion to the Psalms.
What is your favorite psalm or psalm verse? Why? When do you like to pray it?