A Safer Space: Praying the Psalms (Part 1)

My day begins when my alarm goes off at 3:09 am.  I quickly throw on clothes, make the drive to Saint Benedicts Monastery and I am in my seat by 3:29am.  She writes, “The monks in white robes have gathered silently on benches in the very back of the church. As the hall clock sounds a single chime Brother Thomas intones the psalm verse, “O Lord, open my lips,” and the brothers respond, “and my mouth will declare your praise.” Then, they begin to chant “O come bless the Lord, all who fear the Lord,” from Psalm 134. This is a summary of Cynthia Bourgeault’s experience in learning to chant the Psalms.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest who writes extensively about spiritual practices, teaches at Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, and leads spiritual retreats. One of the books that I picked up recently is her book called Chanting the Psalms.  Cynthia has been chanting the Psalms for over 30 years and writes this book so that others might connect to this ancient practice that is a spiritual treasure in our faith tradition. Cynthia continues to describe what she experienced at Saint Benedicts Monastery in the Colorado mountains.

She describes the order of that early morning worship flowing from a psalm, another reading from scripture, silence, then another psalm, a reading from a commentary and another period of silence, then a chanted psalm, a spoken psalm, a reading of the Gospel and a blessing from the abbot. It is now 4:15 am and the hour of silent meditation begins at 4:30am so the monks disperse to prepare themselves by grabbing a cup of coffee or retreating for a practice of lectio divina.

All over the world, monks in the Benedictine tradition are rising at this early hour, moving through a similar pattern to worship, and doing what they call “night work” which finds its grounding in Psalm 130 which says, “My soul longs for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.”  The early morning gathering begins the day, but the day is fueled by other times of worship. During the day, the monks gather at sunrise, before lunch and after lunch and then again before bedtime.  They order their day so that at regular intervals they might refresh themselves through prayer and psalmody.

This brings us to our Psalm for today that is a reminder of our longing for God to refresh us throughout the day. The Psalm begins with the words, “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

You were each given a very salty snack when you arrived today.  What if you sat here the entire service eating that salty snack without knowing when your next sip of water might be?  How might this very human experience remind you of the longing of your soul for the living God? How might we order our days differently to be refreshed in body, mind and spirit?

These are the questions that we ask ourselves in the season of Lent. This year we are focusing on Lent as an ancient path where we find rest for our souls. The ancient path is not a path chosen by many because it invites us into deep reflection about the complex human experience. So, Lent is a perfect time to consider the many words found in the psalms that give voice to what it means to be in relationship with God, nature, and each other. We open the Psalms and find words about human struggle, despair, feelings of abandonment, remorse, cries for justice, hope, and finding refuge in God. The Psalms are like opening the private prayer journal of a people. It is very intimate, personal, but also very communal in that for thousands of years our people have sung these prayerful words giving expression to emotions that are both their own and larger than individual experience. There is a connection point across generations because if you are feeling something and wondering if others have felt the same way, when you read the psalms, you will find that you are not alone.

The Psalms were written down in the period that is called the Axial period.  During this time which is thought to be from 800-200 BCE, the world was taking a dramatic leap forward in spiritual consciousness.  During this time, Lao-tzu and Confucius gave birth to Chinese philosophy. In India, this period of time gave birth to the Upanishads and the teachings of the Buddha. Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato were laying the foundation for Western Philosophy in Greece and in Persia the Zoroaster teachings introduced the ideas of a battle between good and evil and that individuals have freedom of choice.  All of this new thought was shifting the collective consciousness from tribal membership to individual accountability.

The Psalms were written down during this time period. First, they hold the living memory of our ancestors of the faith. Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Here you’ll find recounted and reworked the essential drama of the story of Israel: the escape from captivity in Egypt and triumphant entry into the promised land; the glory days of King David and King Solomon; when Israel’s fortunes reached their pinnacle; the slow slide from glory amid gathering inner doubt and outer embattledness; the destruction of Jerusalem; the exile in Babylon; the miracle of restoration, and the slow maturation of this miracle into a firm messianic hope. All of this is the sacred ground trodden and retrodden in the psalms, as these unknown singers pondered the meaning and personal implication of those mighty events known collectively as salvation history…They are Israel’s love song, its collective memory, its hope, and its passion.” (11)

We have all of these stories told in narrative form in our sacred text, but the Psalms recount them differently. In the Psalms, we see something new emerge as we make this enormous shift from community to the individual…we see emotions become the language of personal religious experiences.  Our psalm for today was thought to have been written down after the Babylonian exile.  What happened was that the Babylonians came in and conquered the land that God had given them. The Babylonians scattered the people and so this people whose very identity was connected to their land and to the idea that God lived in the temple on their land began to rethink everything. Without the presence of the temple, the Psalmist struggles with the idea that God is no longer with the people; that God is absent. The Psalmist may have taken for granted God’s visible presence in the temple that he could see on a daily basis before the exile.  Without this visual reminder, there is a new emotion emerging, a longing to feel a sense of God’s presence.  A deep desire to be close to God again.

It is with this history in mind that we hear the words fresh and new, “As the deer longs for running water, so my soul longs for you, my God! My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

The reciting of the Psalms was a very important part of worship in early Christianity because these were the words that Jesus would have recited and the people of the first church wanted to feel connected to him after his death and resurrection.  We see evidence of Jesus reciting the words of the Psalms in the 3 gospels Mathew, Mark and Luke where Jesus recites Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” or in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” from Psalm 31:5.  Jesus had the words of the Psalms printed on his heart so that in his moments of deepest suffering these were the words that bubbled up as a way to express his own emotions in the moment while transcending the moment to remain connected to the communal experience of his people.

Jesus might have even used the words of our Psalm today, “Why are you cast down O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? I will put my hope in God; for I shall again praise God.”

This refrain is used throughout Psalm 42 and Psalm 43. Orienting the Psalm during the time of exile, we can hear both the despair of God’s apparent absence, but the memory of God’s previous acts in history bringing the psalmist back from the abyss and into desiring God again…even hopeful that he will praise God in community once again. 

There is tension in this verse and maybe you have experienced this in your own life.  The emotions of living in a time of experiencing God’s absence in the horizontal world is held in tension with recognition that as God’s people we also live in the vertical space of the Kingdom of God that gives us solid ground on which to hope that this feeling of God’s absence is not our full experience.

While this Psalmist soul is downcast, he is also experiencing the taunts of his enemy.  He writes that his enemy asks him, “Where is his God?” One commentator writes that his enemy is himself. It is his own internal struggle with faith and his external struggle with faithlessness that is his enemy.  I think this brings the Psalm to a new level of appreciation because I think it is a part of human nature to have this internal battle going on when life has not gone as planned. 

So, how does this Psalmist shift from despair to hope?  Let’s hear verse 8, “By day the Lord commands steadfast love, and at night God’s song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”  Sounds like a verse that the Benedictine Monks might use during their nightwatch! I love the idea that God’s song is with me in the night.  Gives me images of going to sleep reciting or chanting the psalms or that the psalmist wakes up in the night chanting the psalms.

What this verse is reminding us is that God’s love is steadfast.  In the Hebrew, this word is Hesed which does not have an equivalent in English.  Hesed is used 250x’s in the Hebrew Bible and ½ of those times, you find it in the Psalms. The root of Hesed means to bow ones head towards another in covenantal relationship. Sometimes in the Hebrew bible, Hesed is translated as faithfulness, but it is a faithfulness out of generosity and not out of obligation.  Hesed is translated as loyalty which embodies mercy. You can think about it like this…in covenantal relationship there are rights and responsibilities for both parties.  But in the case of a covenantal relationship between humans and God, God is hesed. God’s character is a generous faithfulness and God’s loyalty is full of mercy.  So, we as the other party in the covenantal relationship can find a sense of safety and rest in the relationship because God does not just offer or promise Hesed; God is hesed. No matter what happens God faithfulness is generous towards us.  No matter where we find ourselves God remains mercifully loyal.

So, when the part of us who doubts cries out, “Where is your God?” The other part of us can respond, “By day the Lord is faithfully present and at night God’s song is with me.”

These words can ring true in our own hearts but they also connect us across time and space to words memorized, prayed, spoken, sung and chanted. Cynthia Bourgeault writes that the words of the Psalm “became the chief building blocks through which anamnesis, living memory, was attained and maintained.” 

In the rule of St. Benedict, their days are structured around work and prayer.  It is here nestled within the regular times of prayer that the Divine Office makes its debut.  The Divine Office is the call to prayer and psalmody at regular intervals around the clock.  In strict Benedictine monasteries the full 150 psalms are heard over the course of each week.  All of these times of prayer and psalmody do not make for an efficient workday by today’s standards, but what it calls them to do is to live along a horizontal timeline which is our human understanding of time during our 24 hour day and to live along a vertical timeline which is that anamnesis or connection to living memory of the eternal now. These regular times of prayer are a way of waking up when we have fallen asleep consumed by horizontal living.  It reminds us of Ephesians 5:14 where Paul writes, “Wake up, you who are sleeping. Rise from the dead and Christ will give you light!”

My good friend decided that she drifted away from vertical awareness during the day because she was so consumed with caring for her ministry and her family, so what she did was set a timer on her phone that chimed every few hours throughout daylight hours.  When the chime went off, her spirit awakened to God’s presence; That God is a very present help in times of trouble and this is her way of thirsting for the living God of refreshing herself throughout the day.

Maybe, every time you eat a chip you will pause to remember the presence of God.  This would be a really good signal for my son who loves salty snacks.  As a child, he called chips CHOOCHES and we giggled every time.

Today, I want to invite you to consider how you might live both horizontally in today’s world on a very human timeline AND live vertically connected to the Kingdom of God that is present now and has a living history that flows across space and time. Another way to ask this question is to chant the words of the Psalm until you feel its meaning for your life, “As the deer pants for the water so my soul longs for you, God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?”

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