A pathway of tulips A pathway of tulips

Praying the psalms in times of solitary prayer and meditation

Margaret Eaton

Key text Psalm 27: 4: ‘One thing have I desired of the Lord’. At the outset, Margaret made the assumption that the Psalms are the prayer book of the church, not just of the Jews. And throughout her talk she acknowledged that, although the text can be read at various levels, her focus would be the spiritual meaning.

She began by sharing a little about her own journey with the Psalms. As a teenager, she fell in love with God and entered a religious community which is where she had her first real encounter with the Psalms.

It wasn’t long before the psalms began to took root in her at a much deeper level and invaded the rest of my life.

She became grateful for the way lines floated up when she needed them, either in gratitude, praise, or longing for God (‘Like as the hart desires the water brook so longs my soul for thee’) or in difficulties: (‘Out of the deep have I cried unto thee O Lord”.) It was all there, contained in that envelope of the Psalms.

Later, working in two cathedrals and attending Choral evensong most afternoons the sense of being carried by the psalms and being caught up musically in that incredible flow of human emotions directed to God in joy and praise, or pain and despair, became a huge support. After leaving the community the psalms proved to be the scaffolding which supported her in her journey forward, still trying to live a life of prayer, and even more so as she began to study them academically. Later again; while married for 25 years to a Hebraist and Old Testament Lecturer who lived and breathed the psalms, she was nurtured by his great love and knowledge of them. This means that, now, trying to live a solitary life of prayer as a consecrated widow, they have become even more an integral part of her life.

Even for those who have active ministries, this element of solitary communion with God is central to our consecrated lives, the centre of our covenant relationship with God.

‘One thing have I desired of the Lord which I will require even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ i.e.-to be close to him in a deep and loving relationship; to seek his face in that temple at the depth of our own souls where he lives and meets with us in the stillness.

Sr Maureen McCabe OCSO writes of these lines in Psalm 27There are moments as rare as they are brief, that evoke divine nostalgia in us, moments when God draws back the veil, so to speak, for a fraction of a second and in that second we’re done for! The yearning to see his face is unleashed: these psalm verses which capture this yearning, have a deep drawing power for aspirants.

As Margaret went on to consider what other solitaries, ancient and modern, had said about the place in their lives of the psalms, she became quite excited. The well-known text from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God” does not come in the description of some idyllic setting, such as a peaceful landscape of lakes and mountains: the still point in the psalm is in the midst of a setting of war and violence and environmental chaos and it’s here that we have to find, and come to that place of stillness in God.

Tielhard de Chardin refers to a story of Robert Hugh Benson’s ‘The Light Invisible.’ Here an old priest visits a convent of enclosed nuns. As he sits at the back of chapel where one of the nuns was praying he begins to fulminate to himself about the waste of the contemplative life: “It is essentially selfish, a sin against society…how can anyone serve God by leaving the world which he made and loves?’ 

Suddenly, however, he became aware that a vital connection appeared to run from the tabernacle to the woman.

You might think of it as an electric current connecting an instrument to the source of electricity. He writes, ‘I had fancied myself apart from all movement and activity in this quiet convent; but now I seemed to have stepped into a centre of whirling life… I was aware that the atmosphere was charged with energy: great powers were astir and I was close to the centre of it all…I perceived that this kneeling figure knelt at the centre of reality and power…There ran out from this peaceful chapel lines of spiritual force that lost themselves in the distance, …terrible in the intensity of their hidden fire. And this power changed and moved lives towards God and wholeness and unity.’

To quote Margaret: “The Psalms can be a means to lead us toward this still point within which God draws unity and love out of violence and chaos.

Attending to the struggles of those in the psalms who have gone before us in bring their lives into accordance with his, we too are brought into this fiery furnace of love and power, but it begins for all of us, whether we are working in inner city parishes, busy chaplaincies, or in more definitely contemplative environments, by becoming, for a time, still, and silent before God.

We all need that time of communion, of aligning ourselves with the mind of Christ.” And Thomas Merton writes: ‘The Psalter only truly begins to speak and sing within us when we have been led by God…into his silence. When this is done the psalms themselves become the tabernacle of God in which we are protected from the wild carnival we carry in our hearts.” 

So what place in our prayer lives do the psalms have apart from the office? Cassian: “When the psalms are finished, no one should loiter or gossip… but return to their work, then by repeating by heart some psalm….both mind and heart are taken up with spiritual meditation”. So the psalms should fill much more than the formal times of praise and worship.

Thomas Merton again writes: “The desert fathers are haunted by the living reality of the redeemer revealed to them in the Psalter. He is the word of God hidden in these words of God. The One man who suffers in the psalms and cries out to God in them, this one man is the whole Christ…it is a relatively small thing to awaken in a psalm to my own personal Sonship of God. Far more marvellousis the greater consolation of the mystery of my oneness with all other children of God. Peter Damianwrites: ‘One should not be afraid to utter the words of the church when one is alone….If he professes to be her spiritual member, if he is truly one with the church of Christ he should confidently fulfil the function of her universality.’ And so we come to the Psalms: in our own quiet time, not isolated, but united to Christ, the church and to all creation. Maggie Ross affirms this: “There is a reality to the communion of saints that becomes a reality in the Psalms, a reality that has force and power and there-ness that seems more fully manifest here than in any other”. Such is the mystery and the fullness embedded in the psalms for us to enter at will.

So how do we begin to silence our inner noise which irrupts with such vengeance as soon as we turn to silence? St Romauld warns us: ‘Watch your thoughts like good fishermen. The path you must follow is in the Psalms. Never leave it …take every opportunity to recall them in your heart and to understand them with your mind. If your mind wanders, hurry back.

Sometimes, however, we can’t even settle to read or meditate on even one line of a psalm. Cassian faces this problem head on. He suggests we take the line from Psalm Ps 70 v1: ‘O God make speed to save me: O Lord make haste to help me,’. He says of this, ‘Not unreasonably has this verse been chosen from all scripture, for it admits of all the feelings which can arise from human nature… This brief verse is an impregnable wall and impenetrable defence and a most strong shield …This is the formula which the mind should hold to incessantly, until fortified by constantly using it, it casts off and rejects the rich and full resources of all our thoughts and so having restricted itself to the poverty of this one verse comes through …. to that beatitude of the gospel.. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

So, Cassian suggested using one particular verse to quieten our racing minds but it may be that in saying the office, another verse has struck us with deep meaning and special relevance for us.

Perhaps then, all we have to do in the silence is hold this verse repeating it gentlymuch as one might pray the Jesus prayer, allowing it to nourish us, reassure us, redirect us, or simply hold us in God’s presence and love. That can be enough.

Again a psalm may form the subject of our Lectio Divina. Here we read a psalm not to study it, but to look for communion at a deeper level with God in his word for us at that moment. It may simply be, that we become aware of how much we’re loved, or it may be more deeply searching, leading us to realisation of our own failings and sin and so to confession. Usually a verse or verses stands out which we focus on and are led to meditation, to prayer, and finally to contemplation. Richard Rollewrites: “Those who persevere in praying the psalms are raised to the life of meditation …and so to contemplation. When you feel compelled to pray the psalms, which previously you recited, then you have to spend a long time on just a few verses. “

And C Cummings OCSO writes: “Lectio should be a process of assimilating the word of God and letting its meaning spread through the blood into every part of our being, a process of impregnation, interiorization of the word of God….the encounter takes place without drama as you quietly savourand relish the mystery of God’s presence.” From this sacred reading can arise also the use of the imagination as in Ignatian spirituality.

Br Ramon SSF recounts how one workaholic priest, out walking in the meadows by the river Severn felt welling up within himself the words of the Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, he leads me by still waters. But we have to give God the chance. We have to find, and take time to be with him, with his word, and let it penetrate us deeply.

For some, music is a way into the text. There are many CD s of the psalms including, Cathedral Choirs, Monastic choirs using plainsong as well as modern more folky settings. And there is no reason why we shouldn’t pray along with such a recording as a way in. Especially if we are particularly scattered by life. Maggie Ross writes that it’s still true that ‘who sings, prays twice.’ and relates how the musical wellspring she contains within carries words of help or comfort which surge up from the psalms when needed.

Night prayer: The psalms are full of references to praying at night and this is something many feel called to as part of the spiritual conflict an in intercession or just out of love. In the psalms there is ample support for this.

All the writings of solitaries and their guides are spattered with quotations, imagery and allusions drawn from the Psalms. They had become part of the fabric of their being, as much part of them as their own breath.

Paul Guistiniani writes of how they penetrate as well as illustrate every level of life as he meditates. How good it is to read the psalms!.. In the psalms I praise I glorify my creator, I appeal, …..I confess my sins implore mercy…. I see myself mirrored and I understand the frailty of life….and how the senses distance us from God if the soul lets itself be governed by them And finally in the psalms I contemplate as far as the spots in my eyes permit the infinite power wisdom and goodness of God. 

But what about all these cursing psalms? Some office books conveniently bracket them saying they may be omitted in the Office. But can we omit to meditate on and pray with them? There are many ways in which those curses have been rationalised and legitimatized and these still have value for us today, though many would not find these satisfactory as their primary approach.

Sr Theresa Jackson OSB reminds us of Brueggemann’s thesis: That Israel through her praying of the psalms engages in a process of ‘world making.’ The cultic act of praise in the psalms is a way of helping to bring about a world where Yahweh reigns and brings about a new reality. She suggests that we consider what world we might be making when we pray the cursing psalms, using what she admittedly calls an vastly simplified version of Brueggemann’s thesis. These psalms require us to look at the experience of the most broken and wounded in our world today, and our culpability as individuals and nations;. the depths of anger and pain and sorrow are not denied but articulated. The psalms articulate a world in which enemies are real and the pain they cause not denied or explained away. The psalmist though is not just stating a general principle that the wicked should be destroyed but is imploring Yahweh to create a new world in which the Lords Justice will prevail.

For the victims of atrocity in our world, anger can be a healthy response. Perhaps too, we need to learn from the psalms the anger which sin causes God and the seriousness with which he takes it, and that it is only the utter miracle of his love and mercy which makes possible forgiveness and new life.

Sister continues: By praying rather than denying our feelings we begin to create a world in which our feelings can be transformed. Our anger and pain are brought before God. We share our experience with God with the psalmist , with thousands of years of people who have prayed the same psalms…..In the psalms we can claim the depths of our own darkness and that of others knowing that in our prayer we are bringing about a world of justice where evil will not have the last word.

Maria Boulding writesWe can be sure of two things about these psalms: first that the sweet singers of Israel were ruthlessly honest before God, and never thought that anything that was important to them was unsuitable to mention in his presence. Secondly that there are pre-Christian and non-Christian elements in ourselves which may benefit from exposure to God in prayer.

Words from Margaret’s husband John: These psalms of terrible outpourings in the presence of God should not be ignored in modern devotion and worship, but their vehement meaning will best be transformed in the spirit of Christ’s example Out of the unutterable depth of divine love he prays Father forgive them. Once the link has been made with Jesus it points beyond misery and death allowing the vision of the green tree and innocence restored.

Then there are the times when we feel shrouded in darkness and unable to pierce through it to God. Sometimes for long periods of time. This is not an experience just peculiar to us today. Aelred of Rivaulx was aware of such a trial and writes: It will seem sometimes that he averts his gaze, closes his ears. None the less be insistent and cry out: How long will you turn your face away from me Ps12:1. How long shall I cry out without your listening to me Ps 21:3. Give Back to me Good Jesus the joy of your salvation Ps 50:14. For my heart has said of you: I have sought your face, your face Lord will I seek. Ps 27.

And Merton echoes this centuries later: Yet at such a moment and in such a psalm the soul catching and comprehending in its own dark mirror the fearful darkness of revelation, is confronted in its own depths with the countenance of the murdered Christ. This is more than a meeting it is an identification. We have to enter into a baptism of darkness in which we are one with death but to die with Christ is to rise with him…. This night of mystery in which we rise from death with the hidden Christ is the spiritual red sea of which the psalms have sung to us all along. Now we have entered it in truth and have passed through it to be nourished by God with his body in the wilderness. This is the creative healing work, accomplished in silence and nakedness of spirit in emptiness and humility. It is the participation in the saving death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore every Christian may if he desires enter into this silence with the psalmist of the praying meditating church.

O God you are my God eagerly I seek you: my soul is athirst for you. I will bless you as long as I live: and lift up my hands in your name. Amen.