Yesterday I was asked by two very different people at two very different churches about the Psalms. One man wanted the words in the Psalms read more slowly, with a tone that brought out the meaning of the words. This man felt that the language of these ancient pieces of wisdom were being missed by a lack of vocal intention. The other man wondered why we read these writings since some of the triumphal wording seems to contradict the way most of us understand how God works in our world. Does God really punish our enemies, reward those of us who do and believe worthy things? Is that how it works? Sometimes reading this in such a public way it feels a tad phony as we wonder if others are looking at us and wondering, “Do you really believe that?”
I am not sure if it happened when I delved more deeply into the world of people living with depression or whether it was from my own very short bout with what Churchill called his “black dogs” but I learned that those who live in darkness and seek the light often turn to the Psalms for help. When I asked one man who I thought prayed so powerfully how I could pray like him he told me the most effective and meaningful prayer is one word, “help”. Help means an openness to something other, that there is a sense that things could be different. In an odd way saying help is a form of confidence in a new life, the possibility it could be a new day.
Most of the 150 Psalms have an arc, they begin with an assessment of how terrible things are, that all around us is pain, war, despair and loss. That bleakness in a way changes the mood inside us, there is something deeply cathartic about saying how miserable we feel. I mean that saying over and over again how miserable you are can make you perpetually unhappy but saying it to God in the hope that something will come to bring light and redemption seems to reinforce a sense that change is coming, that God hears us and God cares. Something will happen.
Do I believe that prayer is a straightforward process of ask and receive? No. Moreover, it is dangerous to assume this happens because of our virtue and righteousness. The world is filled with terrible stories of people who treated the other with contempt believing they were God’s instruments of justice, punishing the evildoers as the Psalms say God intends to do. Rather, in a less literal and mechanical way I think the arc of the Psalms, moving from despair to assurance that someone is listening, to belief there is a better way, to connecting to a path with hope, to the hope coming to life, help us move from that deep dark hole to a place of solid ground deep connections.
When faith communities stand together and say these words I feel the arc coming to life, the movement from being lost to being found, personally and collectively.
Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis yesterday. Perhaps no one personifies this arc of the Psalms better than this new Saint. In diaries recently published we learn that Mother Teresa was deeply troubled by doubt, depression, a feeling of abandonment from the God she longed to love and serve. Yet in these diaries we also hear how writing these thoughts on paper, offering them in prayer, moved her to a new place where the devotion and service became stronger. The Psalms do that for me, they are now my go-to source of spiritual writing. Saying the words with meaning, reading them less as reward and punishment and more as an arc of despair to hope grounded in the presence of a Creator God, is why we read the Psalms in church each Sunday.