In our first apartment as a married couple, one of the things I set out on the living room coffee table was a book on the psalms. It was stylized as a kind of first-aid collection for the soul: “If you are feeling troubled, read Psalm 3. If you need forgiveness, read Psalm 51 . . .”
I was interested, at the time, not in actually learning from the psalms as much as convincing my guests of my religious acumen. Besides, the colors on the book’s front cover fit right in with the rest of the apartment’s décor.
Turns out, however, that my little flirtation with the psalms was not wasted. I did reach into the medicine chest from time to time, pulling out balm to sooth life’s wounds or applying a little peppermint for rejuvenation. At the same time, the contours of my spiritual life were being formed by the weekly Sunday recitation of the psalms in church, whether or not I comprehended their full intent or knew from whence they came.
We frequently imitate that with which we become most familiar. That is why the ancient church prayed the psalms again and again, points out Renovare’s Chris Hall in The Psalms: Our Prayer Mentor. “As we pray the psalms, the dispositions of the psalmist become our own,” he says. Repetition of the psalms is a gift of the monastic community – where the entire Psalter is sometimes prayed every day – to the larger church.
The words of the psalmist, says Hall, slowly seep into the consciousness of those who pray them. “As David confesses his sins, those who pray with him confess their own.”
Thus, the particular-ness of the psalms’ universality doesn’t just teach us; it shapes us.
The Psalter becomes the prayer of the individual who reads it, said Athanasius in his Letter to Marcellinus. “In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves.”
With the psalms, however, “It is as though it were one’s own words that one reads; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.”
Furthermore, the Psalter can be likened to a garden with a panoply of specimens. The collection of psalms, says Athanasius, “Is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of all the rest.”
Let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.
This week concludes our study of the psalms. However, the study will remain on this site for the foreseeable future. On the main page of the study you will find links to each week’s session as well as daily reflections for Holy Week and a bibliography. Find it here.
As always, we invite your comments and suggestions for future studies. Email to Marjorie George at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a reply below.