>Walking the way of the psalms

>Lately my kids discovered passwords. Not the type we use on computers, but rather the daily shibboleths we have. For example, my 3 year old is having to learn the “Please” password. Without the password he will not gain access to whatever goods or services he needs from mother or father. His older brother has taken the password game to a whole new level.

He will say: “What’s the magic word?”
The younger one will diligently say “Please.”
“Wrong,” the older one says. “the magic word is ‘magic word’.”

Round and round they go, trying to out trick each other, in the verbal equivalent of computer hacking.

The other night I was retelling the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves the other day to them. I think the question came up regarding “Open sesame” and what exactly is “sesame”. At any rate, it was important that Ali Baba use the correct password. To say “Open bananas” would not work no matter how heartfelt, how loudly it was shouted.

One, or perhaps “the”, most marked trait of monastics of any stripe are their focus on the psalms as a primary way of prayer. Be it Benedictines chanting in choir or Jesuits whispering psalms to themselves as they go about the world, psalms are part and parcel of a monastic’s toolbox.

I have been asked, by those who begin to be more concerted in their spiritual efforts how to pray the psalms. The difficulties seem to come from two places: one is the need to gather more and more information; two, the repetitive lamentations of the psalms. Anyone who has actually read through the psalms more than once will quickly realize that the psalmist, and frequently those attributed to David, was constantly claiming innocence. It seems everyone around him was to blame but himself. We sophisticated moderns tend to think that this is rather spiritually and emotionally immature of him.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

“David is whining again! I do not know how I can be uplifted by his psalms!”
“Why do you think he is whining?”
“Because he keeps blaming everyone else for his problems. Does he really think he is perfect?”
“And you think this is wrong?”
“Of course it is wrong! No one is blameless. He is falling into this victim-hood trap!”
“And the way to avoid it is?”
“To accept responsibility, of course! To rely on God!”
“So in your spiritual life you live with full realization that the things that happen to you are really your fault? Or God’s?”

Of course this leads to uncomfortable moments of silence. It is easy for us to blame David for blaming others. But the opposite view is equally unbalanced. We cannot blame ourselves for everything that happens either! If you do that you are going down the road of such New Age mumbo-jumbo as the Prosperity Gospel and the stuff preached on the book The Secret. And if you blame God for everything then you are falling into some sort of fatalism which denies the freedom which God has granted you.

So there has to be a balance, of course. But this work of balancing your life is not the purpose of the psalms. They are not there to balance you, but rather to expose your heart to its own imbalances.

Another very important part of the psalms is what it feeds us. We are what we eat, or to put it more generally, we will become like whatever we give our attention to. If you think and dream about money then everything you see and do is colored by money, value, profit and loss. The same thing goes to any of the eight wrong thoughts as outline by Evagrius. That is why they are “deadly”. They deaden your heart and spirit. Jesus asks us to find our hearts by looking at what we treasure. This is not as complicated as it seems. What do you treasure?

There is another level of reading the psalms which is important – and this is to just read the psalms. Let me tell you what I mean. Let us take a well-known psalm such as the 23rd psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…” What usually happens is more like this:

The Lord (oh Lord Jesus thank you) is my shepherd (of course this means he leads me and guides me) to the still waters (which are the good places in life and sheep Jesus always calls us sheep I wonder if he was thinking of this psalm and why sheep I don’t like sheep) he leads me on the paths of righteousness and my cup overflows (yes thank you God for all the blessings of this life especially for my job and my family but please do not let the boss find out about those emails I sent out)…

And on and on. This is how we usually read the psalms. And I am being generous here – usually our inner dialogue is not nearly as prayerful as that! If your mind is like mine the inner dialog tends to be absurd and profane.

To really make the psalms your way, or as the Camaldolese would say it “the way is in the psalms”, you need to resist the temptation to follow any association of ideas. You just take the one psalm in front of you and it alone. You can follow the various connections to specific Old Testament passages later when you do Bible study. There will be other times for that. You can also let the psalms inspire your thinking at other times of the day, and even to let your prayer life be circumscribed by the psalms, as in the example above. This is all very good and profitable, but it is not using the psalter as a tool.

So when you read the psalms, just read the psalms. Just read the specific words before you. Of course our “monkey mind” will jump all over the place and refuse to be confined to such small cage! But do not worry about that. Ignore it. The mind will not “die” if it cannot think of 1000 different things at the same time.

Read the psalm very slowly. At first read it as if there was a comma between each word: “The, Lord, is, my, shepherd.” Then do it as if there was a stop: “The. Lord. Is. My. Shepherd.” But do not put any special emphasis in any of the words. Just each word at a time. With plenty of silence around them.

Of course, at this rate it will take you about 10 minutes to recite the 23rd psalm. Clearly you cannot go through the psalter with a lot of speed! You may end up spending a week or more on the longer psalms, like 119. But so what? What’s the hurry? You can read through and study and cross reference the psalms during your Bible study time. But when you are using them to pray just say the psalms.

A couple of last pointers.

1) Speaking. Most of us tend to have an affected “reader’s voice” when we approach the Bible. People who have really lovely voices make all these contortions when reading the Bible. Why? Somewhere they’ve learnt that a “Bible voice” is important to convey the seriousness of this situation. You know what I mean. The reading becomes so dramatic! While this may have some value, when you are reading the psalms for yourself try to avoid the drama. Just search for and speak with yor normal voice. Or better with the kind of voice you would use when having a quiet conversation. No special intonation. Just one word at a time in your normal voice and cadence.

2) Chanting. I love chanting the psalms. I love chanting the psalms by myself. I have a terrible singing voice, but even I can chant. Part of what makes chanting good is that it forces you to drop the drama out of reading. You have to accentuate different places in the psalms and this forces you out of your emotional readings. Another thing that chanting will give you is pace. The regular, non-hurried and non-slack pace of chanting forces you to keep moving. This prevents some of the monkey mind tricks because if you follow the word associations you will lose your place in the chant.

Penalizing yourself: one way to try to tame the monkey mind is to state (to yourself) quite clearly that if you get distracted in saying a psalm you will go back to the beginning and say it over until you can say it without interruptions. In a monastic setting monks in the choir are required to make some sort of public confession of error when reciting the psalms. Some version of bowing to the choir in apology is the most frequent form. This public humiliation is quite appropriate. But when you are doing it by yourself it is harder to enforce. So I recommend a rule of going back to the beginning.

Now it is possible that some days you will just not be able to bring your “A game” to the recitation. That is ok as well. If you take the psalms as a vital part of your spiritual life, in the course of decades, days where things did not go so well will not matter. The sheer volume of the work will carry you through. So you set yourself a target of say 15 or 20 minutes to recite. You pick one or two psalms. And you stick with it. When the time is up the time is up. You may have barely finished one psalm! But that is ok. Later today or tomorrow you can do it again. Take it up from where you left off. As St. Francis de Sales says, “Even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your mind back and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Here we come to the culmination of monastic spiritual wisdom. The words of the psalms themselves are the way to God. As you read the psalm once or twice. try to memorize it – the smaller ones are easier. Be very careful with the words. Do not paraphrase, because that’s another mind-trick. Just the plain words. Just the psalm. Do not try to “improve” upon the psalms or change them in any way. I know many monastic communities, and indeed our weekly lectionary, which skips over the more deprecatory stanzas of the psalter – perhaps in fear of offending the hearers. This is a great tragedy. I wish people would be more offended on Sundays! Spiritual offense (as opposed to being bullied from the pulpit) is very healthy for our souls, as it tends to deflate the ego. But the psalms, just as they stand, with their smashing babies and prayers for the suffering of enemies, embody about 3,000 years of spiritual wisdom. You cannot access this treasure trove of wisdom if you do not have the right password. Meditate on the psalms as they are, and you will find that your very life will begin to resonate with the spirit of humility and love that empower the words.

Be changed by walking the way of the psalms.


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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