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Why Pray the Psalms?

Editors Note: this post is part of a series if posts titled Praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

The central part of the Liturgy of the Hours is praying the psalms. To pray the psalms well requires us to relate our own journey of faith with the words of the psalmists.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine reflects back on his life. As he does so, he discovers and identifies the consistent presence of God in the various events and experiences of his life.  Throughout this reflection, he often quotes psalms to describe his journey. 

From the very beginning of his reflection Augustine acknowledges the important role of psalms in his prayer life:

“My God, how I cried to you when I read the Psalms of David, songs of faith, utterances of devotion which allow no pride of spirit to enter in … how I cried to you in those Psalms, and how they kindled my love for you.”

Saint Augustine (Confessions 1:4, 8)

To better understand the role of psalms in our own prayer life, we have to understand the role of the Holy Spirit. Think back to when you first learned to write.  We learned by copying the movements of the teacher.  In the same way, someone learns to dance by copying the movements of the instructor.  We learn to pray by copying the movements of the Spirit. The same Spirit that led the Psalmist as they wrote their prayer in the Psalms is the same Spirit that led Saint Augustine on his faith journey and is the same Spirit that leads us today.

How might the Spirit “move” within us when we are facing a time of need, fear or uncertainty? How might the Spirit lead us to pray when we have a need to present to God?

To explore this question, I want to invite us to take a look at Psalm 57 (which is prayed during Morning Prayer of Thursday of Week 1).  As we prepare to do so, first pause for a moment to name a situation or problem that troubles you.  Perhaps it is a difficult relationship, something you feel threatened by such as an illness, or an unanswered prayer.

As we begin a read of Psalm 57, the first stanza invites us to name with the Psalmist what specifically threatens us and to acknowledge our own need for God’s help:

Have mercy on me, God, have mercy 

for in you my soul has taken refuge.

In the shadow of your wings I take refuge

till the storms of destruction pass by.

With the second stanza, I can then acknowledge God’s providence over my life and the world as God is above anything that ever threatens me:

I call to God the Most High,

to God who has always been my help.

May he send from heaven and save me

and shame those who assail me.

From there, I acknowledge that I am powerless over that which threatens me:

May God send his truth and his love.

My soul lies down among lions,

who would devour the sons of men.

Their teeth are spears and arrows,

their tongue a sharpened sword.

Next, having acknowledged I need God’s help, I can begin to imaging with the Psalmists God’s immense power rising over my problems just as the sun rises over the dark land:

O God, arise above the heavens;

may your glory shine on earth!

With confidence in God’s power, I can now define more concretely precisely how I feel threatened, the ways in which my life is impacted by the threat:

They laid a snare for my steps,

my soul was bowed down.

They dug a pit in my path

but fell in it themselves.

The Psalmist then invites me once more to acknowledge the power of God and to turn my problem over to Him:

My heart is ready, O God,

my heart is ready.

Last, as I await God’s deliverance I commit to praise God for working in my life.

I will sing, I will sing your praise.

Awake, my soul,

awake, lyre and harp,

I will awake the dawn.

I will thank you, Lord, among the peoples,

among the nations I will praise you

for your love reaches to the heavens

and your truth to the skies.

As I prepare to end my prayer, I continue to call to God as I wait for deliverance.

O God, arise above the heavens;

may your glory shine on earth!

Having read Psalm 57 in this manner, we discover a pattern that can guide our future prayers to God. We will explore the pattern that emerges in other types of Psalms (and prayers) in a future post.

Next Post: Praying the Psalms with Intentionality

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