The Psalms at the heart of prayer and worship

Praying the offices daily, whether it’s BCP or BAS or Common Worship or Celebrating Daily Prayer or the Roman Breviary or the Benedictine office or the offices of the eastern churches, you will find yourself praying through the book of Psalms in a regular cycle, whether that cycle is weekly, fortnightly, monthly, or maybe bi-monthly. Or, if not the entire book, you will still pray one or two Psalms at each office every day.

The Psalms have been called God’s Prayer Book and God’s Hymn Book. They are the source of much rich depth and beauty in the entire history of prayer and worship, and the office is one means of making them our own. They express the full range of human emotion in interactions with God, and they help us find an approach to God we might otherwise avoid if left to our own devices.

The Psalms are an integral part of most Christian traditions of worship. For example, historically, the singing of a capella Psalms has been the heart of Presbyterian worship. In the Greek East, St John Climacus (literally ‘of the Ladder’, late 6th/early 7th century) says:

The Fathers have declared the singing of psalms to be a weapon, prayer to be a wall, and honest tears to be a bath. -John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent Step 4

Similar thoughts abound in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic traditions of ancient and mediaeval Christianity. In the tradition of western Christianity, St Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and Cassiodorus (d. 585) wrote what would be the classic commentaries on the Psalms. More recently, C.S. Lewis wrote Reflections on the Psalms. Evelyn Underhill recommends them as integral to Christian mysticism.

If we pray the Psalms in the office or at other times of devotion, and pray them truly, we are ushered into the presence of the Almighty in a special way, and we learn further and further how to pray. My interests tend towards the ancient Church Fathers,  especially St Athanasius’ excellence treatise on the Psalms, but today I’ll share with you about someone who’s still alive.

Although I’ve been criticising him lately on my other blog, I actually do appreciate much of Timothy Keller’s book Prayer, and have been challenged in my own ways prayer. When Keller sought to reorient and deepen his prayer life, he turned to the book of Psalms and prayed through them all. Now he prays through them several times a year. If we wish a prayer life deeply rooted in the person of God our Father and in His Scriptures, this is the way to go!

Keller writes:

The Psalms reveal a great range in the modes of prayer. They include exclamations of wonder, virulent complaints, reasoned arguments, pronouncements and verdicts, appeals and requests, summonses and calls, and verdicts of self-condemnation. They represent not only radically different types of discourse but of attitudes and emotions as well. Left to ourselves, to our cultures and natural temperaments there are many kinds of language that we would never use. …

We would never produce the full range of biblical prayer if we were initiating prayer according to our own inner needs and psychology. (pp. 59-60)

The Psalms teach us how to pray, and by making their words our own, we find a newer, richer prayer life. The aforementioned treatise by St Athanasius, in fact, recommends different Psalms for different situations. All of human experience face-to-face with God is found in the Psalms; we are authorised, therefore, to be real in our prayers, not false or falsely sanctimonious or pretend pious, but angry, sad, dejected, happy, amused, calm, serene, annoyed, doubting. Hopefully not distracted.

I hope that when you pray the Divine Office today, you will find a way to make the Psalms truly your own.

~ Matthew ~


One thought on “The Psalms at the heart of prayer and worship

  1. MJH says:

    Reblogged this on the pocket scroll and commented:

    After my criticisms of Tim Keller, here’s my latest post on a different blog where I express appreciation for his book on prayer — more importantly, let’s keep the Psalms at the heart of our prayers. Maybe even bring them back into Sunday worship where they’ve been laid aside?


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