This week we celebrate National Bible Week and invite all Catholics to deepen their faith, encountering Christ in Scripture and allowing His Word to shape their hearts and minds.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia
Most Catholics encounter the Psalms only at Sunday Mass. In that setting, unfortunately, most people take them for little more than an interlude between the first and second readings. They strike many as something between two other things – an interval between the important things, but not really important themselves. And this is a tragedy, since the Psalms have formed the heart of Jewish and Christian prayer for millenia.
The Psalms were the heart, first, of ancient Israel’s prayer. We credit King David with composing many of 150 Psalms. Others composed some specifically for the Temple service. The Church naturally continued the praying of the Psalms, which have shaped the Catholic Liturgy from the first days. God inspired their writing in the midst of David’s or Israel’s various trials and victories. Thus by divine inspiration the Psalms give expression to the full gamut of the human experience. To dip into the Psalms is to enter the deepest and widest tradition of prayer – which can be a little daunting. So herewith, are a few introductory comments, for a beginning.
We encounter God first of all in the created world that proclaims His glory and beauty as Creator. The nations surrounding Israel believed their gods to be part of creation. The Israelites proclaimed their God as the Lord of all creation, and that creation itself testified to His glory. So also the psalmist sings of the created world’s beauty and witness to the Creator. (Psalms 8, 19, 24, 29, 33, 65, 95, 104)
You probably do not sing praises about the tax code or write poetry about OSHA regulations. But the Psalms often praise God’s Law. Now, when most of us read the word “law,” we think of impositions and burdens – annoying requirements that restrict our freedom. The psalmist knows differently. He gives voice to Israel’s understanding of the Law as an expression of God’s love. The prophet Baruch exclaims, “Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us!” (Bar 32:4) When extolling the Law, the psalmist follows the same line of thought. Although insufficient, the Law lays out a path for righteous living, for life in union with the Lord. Thus the Psalter begins with praise for the man whose delight is the Law of the Lord and who meditates on it day and night (Ps 1:3). And so we find this theme throughout the Psalms. (Psalms 1, 19 & 119)
“I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yea, I will remember thy wonders of old” (Ps 77:11). Israel lived on memory. Her entire identity came from the Lord’s entrance into history on her behalf. So she was forever recalling the Lord’s mighty deeds for her. Forgetfulness meant lifelessness. The Psalms continually give voice to this memory, giving Israel gratitude for the past and confidence for the future. (Psalms 44, 78, 105, 106, 107, 114, 136)
The Psalms are divinely inspired – God’s own word no less than the Gospels. But they are at the same time human prayers, and as such they possess an extraordinary emotional candor. The psalmist was no phoney-faced, saccharine-tongued worshipper. He gives vent to the fullness of human passions: love, hate, despair, joy, desire, fear, etc. We find every human emotion in the Psalms. This means not only that we can find a Psalm for our situation, but also that God is to be praised in every situation and not only when we feel good. Thus the Psalms lead us to a greater authenticity in prayer.
Jesus Christ fulfills the Psalms. He does so first of all by His own praying of them. In God-made-man these divinely inspired human prayers find their perfect expression. He gives voice to every human joy, sorrow, and hope. To pray the Psalms, then, is not only to say the same prayers as He but, in a mystical sense, to pray with Him. Further, Jesus also fulfills the Psalms by realizing their prophecies. Thus, those Psalms that spoke of Him in a mysterious, hidden way to the Israelites now sing of Him openly to us. (Psalms 2, 16, 22, 23, 116)
Finally, some practical pointers on getting to know the Psalms better and delving into them more deeply:
Read the Catechism on the Psalms: CCC 2585-2589. There is no better crash course on them.
The native habitat for the Psalms is the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s ancient prayer drawn from Israel’s Temple worship. If you do not feel like investing in the books, then take advantage of the different websites and apps that make it much easier to begin (e.g. iBreviary, Breviarium).
Over the years the Psalms become part of you. The daily praying of them means that gradually, imperceptibly, you begin to memorize them. Thus the verses come to mind –right when they’re needed. But it does not hurt to memorize them deliberately either. So give it a try – select a poem (choose a short one…hint: Psalm 150) and recite it several times daily with a view to knowing it by heart. Then, choose another…
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