How to Approach Difficult Psalms

We love to welcome guests to our monastery chapel to join us for morning or evening prayer, which consist of reciting the psalms in choir. The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible; there is one for every occasion, emotion, question, joy, and sorrow.

Truth be told, though, there are moments when I cringe at the presence of a guest. If the guest is unfamiliar with the Psalms, I dread to think what he or she may be thinking when they hear, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 139:7, NRSV). I want to shout, No, we really don’t wish that on anyone!

There are no less than 10 other “psalms that suck.” Another name for these is “cursing psalms.” For example:

“May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.” (Psalm 109:9–12)

So how do we deal with or pray psalms like the one just quoted above? Perhaps we have been numbed to some of this language because of violence in our media, movies and even news coverage. But when we place those words on our lips in a mindful way as a prayer, we have to ponder, What am I really praying here? Is the God I believe in, know, and love, one who annihilates those who may have hurt me or others?

I think there are four ways we can approach these psalms. Let’s start with the word enemies and consider the psalmist at the moment of composition. The psalmist may be feeling discouraged, victimized, hurt, or angry, and those are normal feelings. And good mental health dictates that we own our feelings. So far, so good! We can be grateful that the psalmist is not acting on those feelings. On the other hand, it is tempting for the psalmist, as it is for us at times, to make God in our own image; so the psalmist calls on the god of his imagination to wreak havoc on his enemies because god is surely on his side. We can all see the flaw in that thinking. The God of our Judeo-Christian tradition is compassionate and merciful, and we are made to live in that image.

Secondly, we can pray the psalms as prayed by Christ, with Christ, or about Christ, as Thomas Merton suggests. In this sense, the Body of Christ is suffering enemy blows at this very moment; while I may be rejoicing, others in Christ are suffering. I can pray in the name of those members.

Another way to look at these psalms is the fact that sometimes I am my own worst enemy. Envy, pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, and ambition get the better of me and keep me from the peace and love God wants me – all of us – to have. It is then that I can truly pray that those enemies be crushed, silenced, and their “children” be dashed on the rock, which is Christ. Let Him take care of these enemies within.

Finally, the world is, as it was always, blighted by systems of corruption and oppression. As Bonheoffer once said, “The cursing psalms lead to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies… In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray those psalms correctly.” These systems are true enemies of the kin-dom of God, and God must put an end to them. We rightly pray for an end to these systems. We call on God to work miracles of peace and healing and for the grace to do all we can to notice, name, and work to eliminate the enemies of the kin-dom of God.

Mary Coswin, OSB, MA (Formative Spirituality) is a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery and currently Director of St. Benedict’s Retreat and Conference Centre.

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