Psalms: Tools for prayer

Friday, April 4, 2008 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 1:15 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

LOS ANGELES — The Psalms, says theologian Eugene H. Petersen, are God’s gift to those who want to learn how to pray.

“If we wish to develop our entire heart, mind, soul and strength, the Psalms are necessary,” the author of the best-selling “Message Bible” writes in “Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.”

“We cannot bypass the Psalms,” he said.

Christine Hodge, a member of Ojai Valley Community Church in Ventura County, came to that realization last year when she joined 70 other women in a nine-week course on the Psalms.

Praying the Psalms has taught her that she can share everything with God, said Hodge, a freelance writer with children.

“It showed me that it’s OK to tell God anything — that you are mad, sad, angry,” she said. “Before I studied the Psalms, I’d tell God everything except I was mad at him.”

She now finds her relationship with the divine more intimate and complete.

“I think God wants us to be honest with him,” she said.

Why do some people find the Psalms such a powerful vehicle of prayer? Theologians say the answer lies in their variety, emotional honesty and occasional bluntness.

“What’s so wonderful about the Psalms is that they’re a keyboard that plays every song,” said the Rev. Ron Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and an expert on praying the Psalms.

“What makes the Psalms great for prayer is that they do not hide the truth from God,” said Rolheiser, president of Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. “They give honest voice to what is actually going on in our minds and hearts.”

Ancient Hebrew poetry, the terms “Psalms” and “Psalter” come from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

A “collection of collections,” believed to have been completed around the third century B.C., the 150 Psalms represent the final stage in a process that spanned centuries, according to a commentary in the New International Version, the bestselling English Bible translation today.

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, a professor of literature at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, says the Psalms “draw for their power and rhythm on the vocabulary and literary techniques” of ancient Hebrew poetry, which was influenced by the hymns and poetry of neighboring cultures.

“Every word of the Psalms, every image, every phrase can be translated in so many different ways,” she writes in her forthcoming book, “Psalms of the Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to their Beauty, Power and Meaning,” to be published by Aviv Press in the fall. “The Psalms offer such a vividly variegated range of qualities for God that our whole understanding of Godliness expands.”

For example, the God in the Psalms is simultaneously “royal, majestic, tender, compassionate, loving, healing, eternally just and capable of great rage,” she writes. “The same God who hurls hailstones across the sky and ‘hangs the heavens as if they were drapes’ also ‘protects the outsider,’ and ‘helps widows and orphans stand on their feet.’ The same God who makes sure the baby birds are fed also hitches a ride on the wings of the wind and frolics with Leviathan!”

The Rev. John Goldingay, a professor of the Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, says the Israelites preserved the Psalms because they resonated with them. The verses continue to resonate in the 21st century because they express the full range of a collective human experience, he said.

“Often people feel that before you approach God, you got to put your best suit on,” said Goldingay, an Episcopal priest. “The Psalms show when you come to God, you don’t have to put your best suit on.”

Consider, for example, the anguished prayer of Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

The 22nd Psalm is among Goldingay’s favorites, and teaching the Psalms has enriched his own relationship with God. His wife, Ann, a psychiatrist who has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than four decades, cannot speak or make any voluntary movements.

Yet Goldingay says that, as he pushes his wife’s wheelchair to take her to events, he feels gratitude to God for the gift of her life and her love. To many of his friends and students, their example is a powerful ministry.

For several years, she was in hospice care, but in November, Goldingay was told his wife could go home “because she is not deteriorating.”

His other favorite is the 23rd Psalm, ascribed to Israel’s King David and one of the best-known verses in Western literature, with its immortal opening, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The Psalm also contains these oft-quoted lines: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

In Goldingay’s interpretation, his enemy is Ann’s illness. Despite that, he says, God also anoints his head with oil, prepares a table before him and his cup runneth over when his wife is beside him in her wheelchair, in silent but complete understanding.

Glazer offers suggestions on how to use the Psalms in prayer. Pick a psalm, she suggests, then, “begin reading very slowly until you find a line that gets your attention, that puzzles you, or entrances you, or that seems to speak to you in a special way.”

Rest with that line, she suggests. Repeat, ponder and savor it — “roll it around” the mouth, heart, imagination. Memorize the line slowly. Glazer says the Psalm even might inspire someone to draw or dance. Or sit quietly, meditating, ruminating.

“And then, though perhaps you’ve never tried it before, speak, to the Holy One in your own words, sharing whatever you’ve discovered in the process of pondering the Psalm,” she writes.

In “Answering God,” Petersen tells readers that prayers are tools, “but not tools for getting, but being and becoming. ... At the center of the whole enterprise of being human, prayers are the primary technology. Prayers are tools that God uses to work his will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are tools that we use to collaborate in his work with us.”

And the Psalms, Rolheiser said, are “like microchips” that express what’s happening in the world.

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