Thursday, January 24, 2008

Praying the Psalter

In his lectures on Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope recommended previously, Gideon Strauss observes that the chief reason he was able to avoid complete emotional and spiritual disintegration during his participation in South Africa's Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was that he had begun to pray the Psalter in the years immediately preceeding. He therefore already possessed a language for expressing to himself and to God the deep pain, personal brokenness, and agonizing thirst for justice that the endless accounts of violence and loss effected in him. Dr. Strauss is a learned man, and at the time already had his PhD in philosophy and had been many years a Christian. Nevertheless, it was these poems and songs, these works of literary art that preserved his soul and sanity, rather than the didactic, factual portions of scripture.

There is a sense in which we live in our songs and poetry more deeply than in our intellectual knowledge. This is most obvious in our youth, during which time we seek refuge in our music, even identify ourselves by our music. But I think it is true throughout life. Our hearts resonate with poetry and song more deeply than with other forms of expression.

Praying the Psalter gives language to our hearts, a vocabulary for every occasion in life from the most sublime joy to the deepest personal agony. The Psalms are especially human, and sometimes raw; they express even those feelings that we might otherwise feel are forbidden. They sing of feeling abandoned by God, of feeling jealous of the good fortune of people who seem not to deserve it, of hatred for enemies, of confusion, of sickness and fear of death, of the desire to be avenged. They are songs of human beings sitting honestly before a patient and understanding God, who is Himself a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief and betrayal. They lay it all out, even the twisted bits, and ask God to see and to respond, or even just to sigh with us. Praying these songs, seeking to identify with and understand the Psalmist, prepares us to meet these emotions and to see them as common to man if and when they come upon us.

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