The Psalms are a school of prayer for us

Published: October 26, 2014

This is the 13th column in a 14-part series

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

"Most of the Bible speaks to us but the Psalms speak for us." These words from Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, offer us an insight that might be helpful as we draw near to the close of the Church's Year of Faith.

Part of our faith life is the content of our beliefs and doctrines, the celebration of sacraments and the teachings of our biblical tradition. We need God's word to speak to us, to inform and shape us. However, the foundation of all expressions of faith is the relationship God shares with us, the relationship that invites us to speak to God as both an intimate friend and the divine master of the universe. There is no better place to be shaped in the art of prayerful conversation than the school of prayer we find in the Psalms.

Lesson one: The Psalms were the prayer book of ancient Israel and of Jesus and his earliest followers. They remain a prayer book for the Church throughout the centuries and across the cultures of the globe. There is something that rings true about the human condition and the nature of God that makes them timeless and relevant.

Lesson two: The Psalms remind us of the necessity of praise and worship, just for the sheer joy of being in the presence of God who creates and sustains the universe, and at the same time bothers to care for each of us. We need not ask for anything, or explain ourselves or our concerns, but simply marvel at God's goodness and that is prayer.

Lesson three: Prayer requires honesty and vulnerability. For any of us fearful of revealing our darker emotions, from anxiety to vengefulness, rest assured that there is nothing new under the sun. If the Psalms are any indicator, God has heard the very worst humans have to offer. Some scholars estimate that at least 40 percent of psalms are complaint, with additional percentages given to cursing and lament. While some of the language can be shockingly raw, there is no doubt that God welcomes our true self to the conversation. And only God can work the transformation from complaint to thanksgiving, from confession to forgiveness.

Lesson four: The Psalms teach us not only how to talk with God but how to listen. On the surface, we hear the voices of generations of people of prayer who help us to ponder God's very nature. God is depicted as a generous creator (as in Psalm 8), a responsible care giver (as in Psalm 23), a victorious conqueror (as in Psalm 68), a forgiver (as in Psalm 106), a compassionate creator (as in Psalm 40), as well as an aloof ruler (as in Psalms 10 and 88) to name a few.

More importantly, when we listen deeply, stilling ourselves enough to truly enjoy God's presence, we begin to hear the voice of God, responding to our need or setting us straight or giving us a mission. As part of the inspired word of God, we can rely on God's very presence in the time we take to sit with the Psalms and ask God to speak to us through them.

Lesson five: Just as there are all manner of ways to speak of our experience of God, there are a wide variety of expressions of the spiritual journey each of us travels. Some of the psalms are obviously anchored in the events of liberation at the time of Exodus, while others are more centered around the wonders of creation or the experience of forgiveness. Still others are dominated by themes of good versus evil. God's people are shaped in every generation by the real events of their lives and their experience of God in these events. These values and experiences shape the prayer of the Psalms and our own prayer.

Lesson six: If the "mood" of a given psalm does not suit your own frame of mind and heart, pray that psalm in the place of those whose life circumstances are different from your own. Take on the voice of the oppressed who may feel their lives threatened by violence or hunger. Take on the voice of the hopeless who are in need of affirmation. This reminder of our commitment to the human family will draw us out of ourselves and connect us with the desires of God.

Study Questions
  • Which of the Psalms tend to be your favorites? Do you regularly try to pray the Psalms that are less familiar or comfortable to you?
  • When has a feeling of lament, revenge or cursing led you to God only to find that experience slowly transformed in God's presence?
  • Prayerfully read several psalms (for example 7, 16, 27, 130) and describe the following: the tone of the psalm, the feeling that you experienced in praying it, the image of God that emerged from it.
  • Why do you suppose the Church has continued to employ the Psalms in our celebrations of the Eucharist and in the Liturgy of the Hours?


This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Oct. 12, 2013. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.