By Lisa Rosenlund, Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). In this article, you’ll learn more about praying with the psalms.
The “Book of Praises,” as it is translated in Hebrew, has been prayed by Christians for well over two millennia and by Jews for hundreds of years before that. Our spiritual ancestors were bold in their prayer and placed every aspect of their lives before God. Their prayers are songs, as well as poems, that express the emotions of the psalmist and elicit from us our own feelings of yearning, hope, trust, anger, etc. The 150 prayers that make up the Psalter can be divided into four primary types: praise, lament, thanksgiving and trust.
The psalms praising God focus on God as creator of and sovereign over all the earth. Seemingly incongruous in a text entitled the “book of praises,” a third of the psalms are prayers of lament in which the psalmist pleads both individually and communally for God’s compassion and mercy. Prayers of thanksgiving express gratitude for the saving power of God who has delivered the psalmist from tragedy to the other side of pain. Finally, a small and easily overlooked group of prayers express the peace and contentment that result from placing one’s trust in God.
Churchgoers will recognize psalms that have been set to music for use as the responsorial psalm at Mass. In addition, many of their favorite songs are actually adaptations of psalms. Anyone who has prayed the Psalmody contained in the Liturgy of the Hours has prayed with the psalms.
When praying the psalms in private, bring more of yourself to prayer. Engage all your senses by lighting candles or using incense. Pray the psalms aloud or use a recording such as a Youtube video. The psalms are meant to be sung, so try chanting or singing them. No one other than God will hear you! Consider using gestures that help express the mood of the psalm, such as lifting up your hands or arms or bowing gently.
The practice of lectio divina, which was discussed in detail in the bulletin article on prayer in the Benedictine tradition, can be used in prayer with the psalms. The traditional approach is to use a single psalm at a time and move through the Psalter systematically, beginning with Psalm 1. You can also choose a psalm based on the type of prayer. Praise: 8, 15, 19, 29, 33, 46, 47, 76, 84, 87, 93, 95, 97-100, 103-104, 119, 122, 145-150. Lament: 3-5, 22, 27, 42-43, 51, 88, 130. Thanksgiving: 30, 34, 66-67, 92, 116, 138. Trust: 11, 16, 23, 62, 91, 121, 125, 131, 139.
It is helpful to make notes in a journal identifying lines that spoke to you and the type of response they evoked. By collecting verses under different categories, eventually you will have a wonderful resource for prayer. You can also compose your own psalms. An ideal time to do this would be on retreat, or even a weekend away. Whether expressed in the words of the Psalter or your own words, be bold and let your psalm be the words of your heart.
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