II. Psalms Fix Your Humanity
+ The Divine Office: Sacrament of Time +
“Learn to sing psalms, and thou shalt see the delightfulness of the employment. For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit” ~ St. John Chrysostom
1. Attaining a Mind Like Christ’s Mind
If you want to think like Christ, you have to think the psalms. The psalter is the voice of the Church, and has always been so. The psalms were prayed by Christ and His apostles. They were the primary prayers in the Early Church. In fact, it was not uncommon for farmers to recite psalms while ploughing their fields, and workmen sang them in their shops. Throughout the history of Christianity, it has been a common practice for the saints, clergy, and laity to pray the psalter on a weekly basis, front to back, and in many cases to memorize it verbatum. If the psalter is not the backbone of our spiritual life, indeed, of our human experience, then we are starving ourselves.
While reflecting on the Divine Office this week, I have been stewing over the importance and challenge of the psalms. Have you ever wondered what you need to do to become holy? Sometimes, holiness seems so lofty and mysterious. In reality, there is really nothing mysterious at all about holiness. Most of it involves simply deciding to be deliberate to pray (yep, we all have all the time needed), and for most of the saints, that meant praying the psalms. The saints breathed the psalms. They thought the psalms. The lived them. So, should not I as well? 2. The Church Fathers on the Psalms The psalms are a critical part of the complete Christian life. According to St. John Cassian, to be Christian is to be like a hedgehog who grazes all through the day in meadows of the Psams. St. John Chrysostom adviced that the psalms be heard and prayed continuously. Indeed, the psalms should play in our hears as often as…well, televisions play in most of our homes. Here it is in his words: “The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it, that the Psalms of David should be recited and sung night and day. In the Church’s vigils—in the morning—at funeral solemnities—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In private houses, where virgins spin—in the monasteries—in the deserts, where men converse with God—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In the night, when men sleep, he wakes them up to sing; and collecting the servants of God into angelic troops, turns earth into heaven, and of men makes angels, chanting David’s Psalms.” We should find ways to saturate in the psalms, day and night. A man becomes more a man, a woman more a woman, when we let the prayers of the Psalter soak into our bones. What does this mean? It means we all need to change our lifestyles a little, and make new habits — introduce the psalms into your ordinary routine. The psalms take everything that you are, all your basic human emotions and affections, and convert them into prayer. A psychoanalyst once taught about the psychological benefit of the psalms. They take all our psychological energy, our joy, anger, hope, and despair, and channel it up to heaven. St. Augustine says the same thing: “If the psalm prays, you pray; if it laments, you lament; if it exults, you rejoice; if it hopes, you hope; if it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.” Everything you are going through is in the psalms, and is healed in the psalms. St. Athansius says this in a most powerful way: “Each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.” When we pray the psalms, we enter into something eternal and universal. We enter into that one universal prayer of all the saints throughout history. We pray alongside St. Patrick, St. Catherine, St. Macrina, and St. Seraphim of Sarov. Moreso, we enter into the single and ceaseless prayer of Jesus Christ. “For the voice is that sweet voice, so well known to the ears of the Church, the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ, the voice of the church toiling, sojourning upon earth” (St. Augustine). What enterprise is more profound than to join into the prayer of Christ and His Church? What habit is more urgent that to start meditating in and through the psalms? 3. Yet, Aren’t They Boring? When you are not used to praying the psalms, they can feel terribly dry. Most of us have, at some point or another, sat through long services of the psalms thinking we would rather be anywhere else. Sometimes they wash over us like white noise, or they bore us like lectures in our least favorite classrooms. I have been there too! When I first started praying the psalms, they seemed totally unrelatable. With the risk of sounding uncaring, this is a problem. In fact, I was the problem, and a big one. The Psalter was not boring. I was boring. Call it spiritual immaturity. Call it lifelessness. Something was dormant in my soul, and as my soul has opened up to the psalms, it has become more alive. We have to learn how to pray. That is the same thing as saying, we have to learn how to be alive. The psalms can feel unrelatable at first, but that is temporary. Gradually, they become our own words. As St. John Cassian put it, a Christian can learn to pray the psalms “…in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances and his very own prayer.” One day, after having prayed the psalms regularly for several months, I looked up into the trees and felt overwhelmed with a revelation. I could not help see the branches bend and leafs blow, without hearing, “Praise him, sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars and light. Praise the Lord upon earth…moutnains and all hills…worms and feathered fowls” (Psalm 148). For a moment, I looked, and saw that all of creation was praying the psalms, and I was part of that prayer. The psalms wash over us and change us. They train our souls to orient towards God. If we want to be free, if we want to enjoy life, if we want to see God who is all in all, then we probably need to pray the psalms more often. It takes work, but gradually, something transforms in the heart. Little by little, the psalms will become the personal, intimate prayer of our own heart. With a little effort, the psalms take root and we discover Christ praying with us and within us. May God bless you in this rich journey! Fr. Peter