Praying the psalms

I spent some time, while we were on vacation in August, perusing the shelves of used-books stores up and down the Maine coast. (One of our favorite vacation pastimes.) At one tiny store in Camden, I found some real gems, including a hardback first edition of Truck, the first book I ever read by John Jerome, may his memory be a blessing. (I miss him still.) I also picked up, for two dollars and fifty cents, a slim paperback edition of Thomas Merton's Praying the Psalms.

Merton was a Trappist monk with a deep interest in ecumenism. (His commitment to interfaith dialogue was tremendous, as this tribute to Thomas Merton at Monastic Interreligious Dialogue explains.) He was also an ardent Catholic, and his Catholicism thoroughly informs how he reads the psalms.

This little text was published in 1956, pre-Vatican II, and feels in places somewhat dated as a result. It was clearly written for a Catholic audience. But much of what he says rings bells for me despite our differences. Like this passage:

To praise God!

Do we know what it means to praise? To adore? To give glory?

Praise is cheap today. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets which are supposed to make life more comfortable -- everything is constantly being 'praised.' Praise is now so overdone that everybody is sick of it, and since everything is 'praised' with the official hollow enthusiasm of the radio announcer, it turns out in the end that nothing is praised. Praise has become empty. No one really wants to use it...

So we go to Him to ask help and to get out of being punished, and to mumble that we need a better job, more money, more of the things that are praised by the advertisements. And we wonder why our prayer is so often dead[.]

To understand the psalms, we need to experience the sentiments they express. We need to cultivate supplication and gratitude. "We must sing them to God and make our own all the meaning they contain."

The psalms, Merton says, lead us naturally to contemplation. They are deep, but they don't require esoteric knowledge -- only a willingness to place ourselves in the shoes of the psalmist, to experience his supplication and praise as though it were our own. He suggests the practice of choosing one psalm, and making it the heart of one's morning meditation, or one's meditation before bed. It's gratifyingly simple, as religious practices go.

Merton finds in all the psalms -- however belligerent any individual line or set of lines may seem -- an emphasis on ultimately finding peace in God. "In the last analysis," he writes, "it is not so much what we get out of the Psalms that rewards us, as what we put into them." I would say the same about prayer in general, and I thoroughly agree.

His musings about the Messianic and eschatological threads he finds in some of the psalms will, naturally, be more resonant for Christian readers than they can be for me. But this is a beautiful little book, and I'm glad to have read it. It makes me want to be more diligent in my own practice of davening tehilim (praying the psalms).

The prayerbook I most often use, the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah, offers the standard psalm for every day of the week, and sometimes I spend time with those when my morning davening is leisurely enough to allow for it. And sometimes I segue from morning prayer into writing my own psalms -- not quite the same as inhabiting the received text of tehillim, but hopefully cut from similar cloth.

A couple of years ago I posted about a Zeek magazine review of two very different collections/renditions of the psalms. I still really want a copy of Opening to You, Norman Fischer's  Zen-inspired translations of the psalms. Maybe I'll pick up a copy in the new year, and make reading Fischer's variations a part of my ad-hoc psalm practice, too...


I'm blogging about a Thomas Merton book on Christmas Eve -- I hope that's a reasonable segue into wishing a Merry Christmas to my Christian readers! Whether Christmas is for you a celebration of incarnational theology, or simply a midwinter gift-giving extravaganza, I wish you a very merry one, and hope the day brings you blessing.

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