Psalms are one of our oldest forms of prayer. They are the way Jesus prayed. Psalms express the range of human emotions. Maybe the reason we don't entirely appreciate them is that we don't really know how to use them. When we pray a psalm, we express many of the same sentiments that centuries of people who have gone before us have also expressed. There is a great comfort in knowing that so many before us have had the same longings, fears, hopes, and joys. It can strengthen faith.
Walter Brueggemann in his book entitled, Praying the Psalms, suggests that we move with God in our life journey in three ways:
1) being securely oriented;
2) being painfully disoriented;
3) being surprisingly reoriented.
He contends that the driving power of the psalms comes from points 2 and 3. The reason for this is that the psalms are passionate expressions from people who are crying out "from the edge." In his words, they are "eloquence born of passion which is turned to the Holy One."
Brueggeman suggests that disorientation (his point 2) is best expressed in the lament Psalms (cf. Psalm 22). They are the voice "of those who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore." The psalmist in this type of Psalm talks about being forgotten, silent, dead, depressed, cut off, etc. Any reference to being "in the pit" contains these feelings (see Psalms 13, 88). And not only do we want to be saved from the "pit," but we want others to be sent there... a seemingly strange thought for a good Catholic!
Then, at some point in our lives, we may find ourselves surprisingly reoriented with God (Brueggemann's point 3). The surprise reorientation is a great change from the status quo. It might be finding a new friend in our life, or a reconciliation in a lost relationship. In these situations we connect with Israel's psalms of thanksgiving and praise.
A prominent image of this reorientation in the Psalms of thanksgiving and praise is that of being "under safe wings." Those wings convey safety, tenderness, refuge, nurturing, and well-being. Images such as the fortress, the tower, the rock, and the shelter also help trigger our imaginations in this direction. Psalm 17, David's song of victory, is a good example of this type of Psalm.
Some of these Psalms of thanksgiving and praise are not necessarily hymns of reality, but are evocative of a reality. Brueggemann calls the celebrative Psalm "acts of radical hope." So, in Psalm 8, for example, we sing, "How great is your name O Lord our God, through all the earth." But that text is not a reality. Not everyone praises God's name. But it is evocative of a reality. We believe in a future where everyone will sing "how great is your name..."
Want to try an exercise for praying the Psalms? Imagine that someone has hurt you badly and you are very angry (not unlike the psalmist in Psalm 109, vese 1-20). Now read Psalm 109 from verse 21 to the end. It's OK to be angry in front of God. The good news is that when you voice your angry words and hand them to God, God will transform your anger.
Obviously, not all of us are "at the edge" on Sunday mornings. But some folks are. If the responsorial Psalm for that day is a lament, those who are "in the pit" or "filled with tears" will relate well to the Psalm. If the Psalm is a Psalm of praise, those who are experiencing new life will sing out. But even those who are not "at the edge" still need to be prepared for the edge. As Brueggeman says, "our lives always more from "pit" to "wing."
[Source: Sunday Bulletin, St. Paul Roman Catholic Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK, Canada; May 4, 2008]