What We Have in the Psalms
One of the best resources we have for praying is found in our Bibles, in the book of Psalms. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a little book on the Psalms he called it The Prayerbook of the Bible. Eugene Peterson suggested in his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, that the uniqueness of the Psalms is that we are reading the words people spoke to God rather than the words God speaks to people, as in other Biblical books. That means that in the Psalms we find words that we might also use to speak to God. A prayerbook.
How the Psalms Work
The Psalms aren’t easy, though. “Queer fish,” Peterson calls them. The Psalms express the whole range of human experience, from joy to frustration, contentment to despair. For this reason we need to be trained by the Psalms. Our prayers can tend to run in a deeply worn set of tracks, with even the words we use often being the same from one day to the next. To pray with the Psalms, we might find ourselves digging down into unexpressed emotions and sometimes feeling mighty awkward about it. But this can be a great gift.
I remember sitting once with a dying woman who had endured quite significant and prolonged suffering. Life sometimes took on a very dark tinge for this woman, whom I had come to know and enjoy. I sat by her hospital bed not knowing what to say. I asked her if I could read a Psalm as a prayer for her. She agreed, and I turned to Psalm 88—widely known to be in the top five most depressing Psalms. It begins with confidence in God, but ends with words of desolation: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour—darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18). As I read the Psalm I could feel the discomfort rising within me. What was I doing? Was I leading this woman deeper into a pit? But when I finished and with some trepidation looked up from the page of my Bible and into her eyes, something like peace had appeared on her face. “Can you read it again?” she asked.
The Psalm had expressed her heart’s cry, and because it came from the Bible, I suspect it also made her feel one thing she may not have felt before: that she was heard and understood by God.
The Psalms are powerful, and sometimes there is a Psalm for just this moment. Yet the way our ancestors have used the Psalms has not been to hunt for the right Psalm for each passing feeling, but in a more routine way. They read and prayed the Psalms through, whether they seemed to express their feelings or not. I like to imagine Jesus praying the Psalms, as the ultimate human being, who has understood our whole life and who is himself the perfect union of God and humanity. As I do this and pray the Psalms, I know that I am not just praying for myself, but for all of the world—those who are on top of the world, those in the pit of confusion and loss, and all those in between. Even if I’m not feeling the words I’m praying, somebody on earth is feeling those words. This person might even be someone nearby. As I pray the Psalms, I’m brought closer to my neighbours and closer to Jesus who loves and prays for all of us more than we could ever imagine.
Using the Psalms
The practice of using the Psalms for prayer has always been fairly simple, then: read and internalize and pray one Psalm, then move on to the next, and when you get to the end, start again. As the punk rockers used to say, “Second verse—same as the first!” It doesn’t really matter whether we pray one Psalm each day, or all of the Psalms every month (as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer arranges them), or the whole Psalter every week or two (like the Benedictine monks). What matters is that we introduce the Psalms into our devotional life (alongside other Bible reading, not in place of it), and keep at it even if you don’t know what it’s doing in you and for you. God by his providence has given these words for our use. We can trust that as we pray them, the Spirit is praying with us (Romans 8:26-27) and leading us closer to the heart of God.