Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I Don't Know How to Pray

[The Psalms teach us that] singing before God rises up, on the one hand, out of an affliction from which no earthly power can save man—his only refuge is God. But at the same time it emerges out of a trust that, even in utter darkness, knows that the crossing of the Red Sea is a promise that will have the last word in life and in history. It is important to say that the Psalms frequently come from very personal experiences of suffering and answered prayer, and yet they always flow into the common prayer of Israel. They are nourished out of the common store of God’s saving deeds in the past.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 138

Reflection – ‘I don’t know how to pray.’ A common lament, right? Or, ‘when I go to pray, I don’t have any words.’ Also common. It is typical, normal, and absolutely proper really, that human beings find themselves a bit tongue-tied before God, a bit unsure of what to say to Him. What is there to say, anyhow?

Well, the Holy Spirit anticipated this problem, and has given us 150 things to say to God in prayer. The psalms, the working script for our ongoing dialogue with the Most High.

As Ratzinger points out here, the psalms do not come out of a nice comfortable bourgeois existence. They are not prayers prayed to God on a full stomach in an easy chair. They come out of a certain desperation.

‘Save me, O God, the waters have risen to my neck… they compass me about like bees… in my distress I call to the Lord…’ the psalms are urgent cries of help in times of peril. We have to know that in this world (even if our stomachs are full and there are easy chairs) we are in times of peril continually. There are temptations lurking behind every easy chair; opposition and even persecution always threaten in the distance or not in the distance as the case may be.

So, the psalms place us in the spiritual reality of our wretched condition. Alleluia! But they also place us in the deeper, the deepest spiritual reality of God’s condition. ‘You O Lord, will defend me… in you O Lord I put my trust… blessed are those who trust in the Lord… happy the people who acclaim such a king…’ and so on and so forth. Childlike expressions of trust, loud acclamations of joy and exultation, sober and purposeful acts of abandonment to this faithful God—that is the spiritual attitude the psalms teach us.

So you don’t know how to pray? Pray a psalm. Words dry up when you go to talk to God? Pray another psalm. Cat got your tongue, vocal prayer-wise? Pray a third psalm. That’s what they are there for.

There’s a good reason the Church from day one has made these very Jewish prayers Her own. The whole liturgy of the hours, which priests and religious pray each day, has the psalms at its utter core. Jesus prayed them, of course, even to the point of his death, even on the Cross. And we have always seen, from the very beginning, that these inspired hymns and canticles and prayers reveal the heart of prayer and worship, and place our spiritual life on a solid core of spiritual truth.

Pray the psalms. Make them an integral part of your spiritual life. Don’t worry about praying the whole liturgy of the hours – it can be a bit intricate and hence off-putting for untrained laity. Just pray a psalm. Or two. Or three. If you’re not sure which ones or where to start, I recommend looking at the Pss 112-118, or Pss 140-150. There are some very lovely ones in there. Also, Pss 27, 34, 103, 101, 63, 23, 40, 131, 120-129… anyhow, there’s gems upon gems in there – it would be a shorter list to say which psalms are more difficult to pray.

The Church in its wisdom has made the psalms the core of its worship for 2000 years now. We can do no better than to make these prayers the core of our own personal piety, and the wellspring of our own worship as we pray them through, with, and in Jesus Christ in the company of Our Lady and all the saints of heaven who continually cry out praise and worship before the throne of God.

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