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Prayer Shock Therapy: Praying the Psalms – Br. Robert L'Esperance

Psalms are very much at the center of a monk’s daily prayer. Not including the offering of daily Eucharist, SSJE Brothers pray corporately five times each day. In four out of five of those occasions, singing psalms is at the core of our communal prayer.

Biblical scholars tell us that most, if not all of the psalms were originally meant to be sung, which seems to account for their rhythmic style. The name “psalms” comes from the Greek psalmoi, to sing to the accompaniment of a harp or lyre.

Here at the Monastery we sing psalms using traditional Gregorian chant. Chanting, I’ve been told, is one of very few human activities that engage both left and right brain hemispheres simultaneously. Something happens in the body through the rise and fall of the chant pattern. What happens when we chant the psalms I cannot really explain in words. But whatever happens seems to both lull the body into a more relaxed state and heighten its attention at the same time. 

Chanting psalms and reading them in the manner of lectio divina (a monastic practice of very slow, deliberate, reflective reading) are two very different propositions. Chanting evokes word patterns, repeated notes, and the rise and fall of the musical line. The words themselves, and their explicit meaning, seem to matter less than the body’s experience of being caught up in the various patterns of the musical line’s repetitions and cadences. As I reflect on this I realize how little attention I actually focus on the meaning of the words themselves. This type of prayer’s quality is truly visceral  – what we call incarnational.

Recently in my spiritual reading, I’ve been struck again and again at how little, if anything, Jesus taught concerning public prayer. This isn’t to say that corporate prayer isn’t important. It is. It just doesn’t seem to be at the center of Jesus’ teachings concerning prayer. All the synoptic gospels record Jesus’ cautions to his followers neither to “pray in the synagogues and on street corners” nor “to heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.”

Most of our prayer work (and prayer is work!), according to Jesus, takes place in the “inner room” where the “Father sees…in secret.” Praying with psalms in that setting constitutes quite a different experience from the one I described happening in a monastic chapel in the course of a day’s prayer cycle.

A recurring theme when I talk with people in spiritual direction is their difficulty with prayer and their reluctance to openly share their darker secrets and even “sinful” desires with God. People speak of their strong desire to express a range of experiences and feelings in their prayer. But they often struggle against inner voices that would tell them the limits of what divine ears can tolerate. As though we need to protect God from being too shocked at who we really are.

Anyone who prays struggles with self-censorship. The dualistic thinking pattern that our minds develop allows us to compartmentalize our existence into neat areas, lest the good be contaminated by less acceptable thoughts and desires. One of the best pieces of spiritual advice I ever received from a spiritual director was to pray for anything that I desired, even if that desire seemed sinful. A kind of “prayer shock therapy” designed to break through dualistic thinking patterns and begin integrating prayer with life as we actually experience it, rather than as we might wish it to be.

If you need some prayer shock therapy, the psalms are a good place to begin. We don’t always have to be nice in our prayers. Psalms use words that express feelings less than congruent with our ideas about a loving, merciful, and benevolent God. Words like “O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O Lord” (Ps. 58:8) or even more chilling, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:9).

While we can’t view these psalms as instructive, their strong words can help us become more aware of our own emotions – emotions lurking just out of conscious sight that might seem too dangerous for us to acknowledge in prayer. The psalms can encourage us to name those strong, less savory human emotions that should not be suppressed if our prayer is to become a conduit for God’s healing restorative touch. Prayer like this reminds us that God loves us not because we are good, but because God is good.

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12 Comments

  1. David Cranmer on January 16, 2016 at 10:12

    Br Robert, your homily has helped me to see that it is important to have some prayer where we integrate both the right and left sides of the brain. Thank you.

  2. Carole Trickett on December 29, 2015 at 14:14

    Claiming our shadow side is really hard work. Visually I see the looming shadow and find it hard to identify. I think identifying characteristics I do not like or identilfy with might be a start.

  3. Ruth West on December 22, 2015 at 23:02

    Thanks for this insight, Br. Robert. I had a very disturbing dream last night. It has bothered me today. I think God would understand my telling Him about it, even though He knows all things, and, perhaps, gaining some insight into its meaning. He has many ways of speaking to us. Maybe this was a message. I agree in that we should pray with total openness. The Psalms are the ultimate songs and prayers. I can think of so many beautiful choir pieces that were Psalms set to music we used to sing when I was young.

  4. Joe Stroud on December 22, 2015 at 10:41

    Br. Robert: I have read this sermon before, but “read it again for the first time” today. The insightful thoughts you articulated so well in your last paragraph are, to say the least, extremely helpful to me, and I suspect a lot of others! Thank you.

  5. Tudy Hill on December 22, 2015 at 09:13

    Powerful, clear summary in your last sentence!

  6. Deb on December 22, 2015 at 08:36

    Be. Robert, thanks so much for the reminder not to stifle the less than pretty expressions of prayer; the important thing is to stay in communication with God, as he does with us.

  7. Susan on October 2, 2015 at 14:07

    I truly appreciate your insight but have for sometime been unable to locate a resource which will teach me how to properly chant. I have for decades loved hearing the beautiful Gregorian Chants.

  8. Linda on July 1, 2015 at 12:03

    Thank you for sharing this spiritual advice as it seems to be a missing piece for me during my continued journey through grief. What is desired by the heart is not out of anger but out of love and needs somewhere to go. It will with time and God’s Will.

  9. Christina on July 1, 2015 at 10:23

    As Michael writes, and also Margo, I know that God knows more about me than I know about myself. While I know this, I also know that there are shadows in my life that I do not divulge to other people. Christina
    In the night, when I cannot sleep, I read Praying the Psalms by Nan Merrill. She is not advocating that the traditional Psalms should be put to one side, but I find a few verses of Nan’s Psalms that I have memorized very calming and my mind settles down from whirling around on this and that. C

  10. Michael on July 1, 2015 at 09:30

    One of the most helpful aspect of pray involves not having to censor myself. There is nothing God does not already know about me and he knows that I know that.

  11. Stephanie Werner on July 1, 2015 at 07:59

    This reflection opened my eyes in at least two fresh areas: how music, specifically chanting, works in prayer and the use of the Psalms as a means to pry open our shadow selves to God. I’m so grateful for this creative and rich instruction today, thank you!

  12. Margo on July 1, 2015 at 07:56

    Thank you Br. Robert but I am not sure about your comments on people being afraid to express their deepest darkest ‘sinfulness’ in prayer. Perhaps it is to you they are afraid to articulate it. In my prayer which I want to say is spurred by the Spirit all that stuff just comes and I offer it punctuating it with ‘Lord have mercy’, ‘Lord have mercy’ At the time I often just feel nothing but spent but later renewed energy flows. Many years ago Fr. Bob Greenfield told me to
    : “Pray as you can not as you can’t.”.

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