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.