Posts Tagged ‘psalms’

7732With Lent quickly approaching, and many people anticipating a season of deepened prayer, a book of fresh reflections on the Psalms is welcome. nourishment. Author Martin Shannon CJ, an Episcopal priest who lives with the Community of Jesus, offers brief reflections to accompany prayers in his Lenten guide According to Your Mercy: Praying with the Psalms from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

Jews and Christians have long used the Psalter as their daily prayer book. Fr. Shannon notes in his introduction that Athanasius of Alexandria has written of the Psalms, “I believe that the whole of human existence, both the dispositions of the soul and the movements of thought, have been measured out and encompassed in those very words of the Psalter.” These prayers are rich and invite personal encounter with the ancient words. Each reflection includes wisdom from church fathers, and at the end of the book there are ten helpful pages that answer the question, “Who are the church fathers quoted in this book?”

Paraclete Press posted an interesting author talk with Fr. Shannon on their facebook page (2/24/17). The video is about 15 minutes long and shares some of Fr. Shannon’s insights on the book of Psalms. You can view a sample from According to Your Mercy (as a pdf file) on the Paraclete Press website. The book also is available as a daily e-book subscription, which can be an excellent reminder to take time daily, even amidst the busyness of life.

It is an undeniable truth that I am drawn to books about the Psalms. Since I often turn to the Psalms for inspiration, I greatly enjoy seeing what other writers have to say about this inexhaustibly rich collection of prayers. Readers will return to this book for spiritual encouragement year after year.


Disclaimer: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review purposes and for giveaway. No fee was received.


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the Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. —Ps 23:1

If you prompt me with the first verse, I can readily recite the remainder of the psalm (in the King James translation, poetic and familiar). These words which I had heard and spoken so many times, feel even richer after steeping myself in them for an evening. I had a wonderful opportunity to meet with a small group of people and discuss this psalm, using a method of lectio divina, and sharing with one another the responses we had to the reading. Listening to the psalm several times in a row, read slowly, allowing the words to rest on me in the silence, felt wonderful.  Words that had seemed so familiar began to take on greater depth.

The first word the jumped out at me was “restores.” Earlier in the day I had been having a challenging time, and when I centered and found my quiet, that is how I had felt. Restored, as if a house inside of me had lost a piece of roofing in a storm and it had been put back in place securely.

In listening to the psalm, the image of shepherd stood out strongly.  I have heard this word applied to God and to Jesus so many times, and always had the sense that this referred to the role of looking after human beings, protecting us from the wolves at our doors, as well as the role of guide. I had not reflected on the absolute dependence the sheep have on the shepherd, nor had I fully realized the connection to the idea of following God’s path. What would it mean to be shepherded?

One participant mentioned that her attention was resting on the phrase “he makes me lie down,” and I considered the idea of being required to rest, as on the sabbath. As I re-read that verse, this portion of the gospel of Matthew floated into my mind :

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. —Matt.11:28-30

When I was a girl and I heard the concluding phrase “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps 23:6, KJV), I associated this “house” with heaven. Was that because my first exposure to the psalm was at funerals? Or because I perceived that God’s house was either a church building or a place only for the afterlife?  I am grateful that I now hear this verse as “I will dwell in God’s house every day of my life.” Every place we are, that place belongs to God. This is true even when many places are full of ungodly activities—hate, warmongering, violence, hunger, greed, and I dare not go on, because the list is a lengthy one, and sorrowful. By the end of the evening I was grasping onto this image to carry with me: that when I feel I am walking in darkness, surrounded by darkness, I will try my best to remember that I am in God’s house, and God is in God’s house, even when it is hard to believe.

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Psalms of Ascent

In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and the Lord heard me.  —Ps. 120:1

I am about to embark on a study of Psalms 120-134.  Together these psalms are known as the Psalms of Ascent (or Song of Ascents), due the Hebrew ascription at the beginning of each: Shir Hama’aloth, “song of ascent.”  (In the King James Version, this phrase is translated “a Song of degrees.”) I look forward to reading, reflecting, and exploring this group of psalms. A discipline of lectio divina, allowing myself to be immersed in the words, will be both inviting and challenging.

For background, I will revisit some of my favorite books about the Psalms:

Uncommon Prayer by Daniel Berrigan (beautiful, heartfelt reflections)

The Message of the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann (highly readable scholar of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament)

The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (theologian who drew sustenance from his powerful practice of daily psalm reading)

I would not mind reading The Psalms in Israel’s Worship by Sigmund Mowinckel, but my library doesn’t have it. It looks like excellent historical background. Also, there are competing impulses: filling myself with knowledge to enhance the reading experience, and stripping my mind of assumptions so I can see what the text has to offer my heart.

To lighten things up (while keeping it real), musician Bono has written an introduction to a pocket psalms volume that touches on a lot of the power held by these poems.

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“And she shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth her fruit in her season; her leaf shall not wither; and whatsoever she doeth shall prosper.” —Psalm 1:3, King James Version, with liberties taken on the pronouns

Frequently I have turned my seeking heart to the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, and even more often they have arisen unbidden into my mind. In my first silent meeting for worship among Friends, the first line from Psalm 42 came to me: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Since that first meeting for worship, the line often has come to me as I settle into the silence.  (Usually, except for gender exclusion, I like the KJV.  I find some of the modern translations such the poetic energy out of the Psalms.  However, to say my soul “panteth,” as the KJV would, doesn’t work for me.  Thirsts, definitely; panteth, no.)

After reading Kathleen Norris’s wonderful book The Cloister Walk, I became convinced that at some point each of the Psalms might have something to offer me. Her book explores her time as an oblate (lay practitioner) with a Benedictine order that follows the practice of daily psalm singing. On any given day, who knows which psalm will be chosen. Maybe you are feeling spiritually dry, and the psalmist’s praise makes no sense; maybe you are feeling joyful, and the psalmist’s anger rubs you the wrong way. In the analysis of Kathleen Norris, and in my own subsequent reading, the range of human emotion in the psalms becomes startling.

I have favorite psalms that I turn to over and over, but I hold out hope that others might speak to me one day. My initial challenge with the language of the psalms was the many references to battles and destroying enemies.

Truly I want to love my enemies, and to transform the “enemies” within that are my obstacles to living up to my faith. For me, these enemies are my anger that gets in the way of gentle speech, my impatience that gets in the way of waiting and discerning.  There are other places in the Hebrew Bible where battles are against injustice. But in the Psalms, the battles seem to be about those things that keep one at a distance from God.

The very first psalm, after lifting up hope that those who delight in God will prosper (as cited at the opening of this post), goes on to say that “the way of the ungodly shall perish.”  Could this be suggesting that by delighting in God, delighting in following the requirements of my faith to the best of my ability, those inner obstacles will in fact be transformed?

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