The Church and the Psalms

THE CHURCH AND THE PSALMS

Pink poppies watercolor F. McDonald

This is a ending lecture which I wrote for our morning WCSS group as we were studying the Psalms. As always the ladies present gave me their full attention. What a wonderful group of holy women came year after year for our Bible study!

Psalm 1

“Happy the man who follows not

The counsel of the wicked

Nor walks in the way of sinners

Nor sits in the company of the insolent,

But delights in the law of the Lord

And meditates on his law day and night…

He is like a tree planted near running water

That  yields its fruit in due season,

And whose leaves never fade

Whatever he does, prospers. Amen

I have a short story to tell you this morning– A couple of weeks ago I assisted another Eucharistic minister at a Communion service for several nursing home residents. We brought a small CD player with us as well as recorded music for the service. We handed out the printed words to the music and invited the residents to sing “Amazing Grace” with us at the beginning of the service. The voice of a lady just to the left of me caught my attention almost immediately. The lady sang very loud and very fast, and she sang the same note for every word in the song. I could feel myself becoming agitated, and then, in a most uncharacteristic response for me, I felt myself relaxing and I began to smile. I had experienced my very own moment of “Amazing Grace”!, for I knew in that moment God loved the lady’s singing. It didn’t matter to God that the woman was tone deaf and several words ahead of us; God loved the praise and song she was giving just to Him. Though I had long known the phrase “God loves us as we are” in my head, in that special moment, God’s “amazing grace” had taught that truth to my heart. While I was so critical of the lady for singing the same note throughout the entire song, the sad truth is, that I am rarely able to sing the right note at any time.

Let us begin our reflection this morning by asking a question. It is a question I have been asking myself recently. Are you satisfied with your prayer life?

If you are a cradle Catholic like me, you learned all the standard prayers in elementary school – the Our Father, Hail Mary, the Act of Contrition, the Apostles Creed. When in the company of prayerful non-Catholics, are you comfortable with reciting those standard prayers when others are praying directly from the heart? Or are you comfortable speaking the desires and feelings of your heart in the presence of others?

Until recently, I didn’t often speak from my heart to God as a way of prayer, and never would I pray out loud, unless it was to recite a standard prayer at Mass. I would ask God to take care of those whom I loved before I drifted off to sleep, as every prayerful person does. And then there was an Our Father and 3 Hail Mary’s, which my mom had encouraged my sisters and me to pray, at bedtime. Does that seem a good way to forge a meaningful relationship with Someone you want as a friend?

After attending Scripture Study for a year, talking with God from my heart, in my own words, became more comfortable. Praying every week with the ladies at Scripture Study taught me that it was important to praise and thank God for the incredible love and care He gives to us each and every day, before I tell Him about my needs. I learned that doing so makes us are more respectful of God,. We honor Him for who and what He is and what He does for all of us, when we give praise and thanks first. My prayer life was improving because of this study, and I believed that I was on the way to building the strong relationship with God that I wanted. But lately, it seems as though something is missing.

Pope Benedict gave a talk about the Psalms this past June at a General Audience. Here is just a small portion of what he said: “Since the Psalms are prayers, they are expressions of the heart and of faith with which everyone can identify…..they are given to the believer as the text of prayers whose sole purpose is to become the prayer of the person who …addresses them to God. Since they are a word of God, anyone who prays the Psalms speaks to God using the very words that God has given to us….. So it is that in praying the Psalms we learn to pray.”

Pope Benedict then relates how children mimic their parent’s words, thoughts and speech patterns as they learn to speak. He says: “In the end the parents’ language has become the child’s language. The child speaks with words he has received from others but which have now become his own.”

“….This is what happens with the …Psalms,” the Pope tells us. “They are given to us so that we may learn to address God, to communicate with Him, to speak to Him of ourselves with His words, to find a language for the encounter with God.”

As we have seen in the past two weeks, the Psalms contain some of the most beautiful prayers that have ever been written. Just like the Prophets which we studied last year, the Psalms foretold of the Messiah – His life, His painful death and His Resurrection. Sister Therese, who developed our study, writes in her commentary this week that there is a strong connection between the two testaments of the Bible, particularly in the predictions and descriptions of Jesus as Messiah.

We find some of these predictions in Psalm 22, for example, when the psalmist writes: “They have pierced my hands and feet; I can count all my bones.” In studying the  description of Christ’s Passion in the Gospels, we recognize that the predictions in Psalm 22 were realized.

In psalm 23 we read that “The Lord is our Shepherd…beside restful waters he lead us”. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 10, Jesus tells His disciples that He is the Good Shepherd. Not only does Jesus care for His sheep; He searches for them when they are lost and brings them back to the sheepfold. Jesus even promises to give His life to protect His flock.

We read in Psalms 18, 62. 95 and 144, and perhaps others, that God is our rock and our salvation. Is it just a coincidence that Jesus gave Simon, one of his twelve Apostles, the name of Peter (Cephas) which means “rock”? Was Jesus leaving a message for us by giving this new name to the head of His Apostles? As far as we know, Jesus gave nicknames to only two other Apostles – James and John. He called them “Sons of Thunder”, because of their quick tempers.

We have all heard from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16: “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.”  Was Jesus also reminding those of us who would come later, that the “earthly rock of salvation” – the Pope, and through him the Church – has an intimate connection to God, serves at God’s discretion, and fulfills God’s will? That the “earthly rock” was meant to be the human connection to the heavenly Rock which is God? These are interesting questions to ponder. I can only guess at the answers.

The Psalms teach us that God should be the center and the purpose of our lives, that God is the answer to every important question we have, and that every moment of our lives we stand in His presence. Every problem we have, no matter how small, can be brought to God, every solution we discover comes from His loving care.

The Psalms demonstrate God’s infinite mercy and remind us all that regardless of our sins – God will welcome us back with open arms, if we repent and ask for His forgiveness. We must take the first step by acknowledging our sins, confessing them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and striving with all our will to avoid sin in the future.

After studying the Psalms these past two weeks, we have all been impressed by the variety of styles among the different psalms, the beauty of the written words, the musical quality of the verses, and the many prophetic words about the Messiah. The Psalms are truly a “pearl of great price” and having now found them, we need only to open our Bibles and begin to read and pray with them, to profit from the wisdom they contain.

Included in this weeks commentary is information about the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours.  Our Catechism tells us: “The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist … permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. This celebration, faithful to the apostolic exhortations to “pray constantly” is so devised that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God.

In this public prayer of the Church, the faithful exercise the royal priesthood of the baptized…. It is the very prayer which Christ himself, together with his Body, addresses to the Father. … The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours demands not only harmonizing the voice with the praying heart, but also a deeper understanding of the liturgy and the Bible, especially of the Psalms.”

Many of us have been touched by the knowledge and wisdom of our clergy and particularly our recent Popes, Blessed John Paul and Benedict? How can they know so much about the Lord? How can our clergy be so confident in their faith in the light of their trials and often difficult and demanding work? They have all had extensive and ongoing education in theology and philosophy – this we know. But Faith doesn’t come solely from book knowledge, though that may help. There must be some other reason, some other path to grow in faith and holiness. Our clergy and religious are required to pray the Divine Office each day. Perhaps this devotion opens a person’s mind and heart to the Lord in ways we had not imagined.

It may be for me, and perhaps for you as well, that adding a Psalm each day to our daily prayers will help us grow closer to our Lord. Perhaps some of us will even want to pray the Divine Office. We should think about these choices as we go about our day, especially if our prayer life is not what we want it to be.

Finally, you and I would not be here in this Scripture Study, if growing closer to the Lord was not the desire of our hearts. We would not be here, if our Lord were not inviting us to a more intimate relationship with Him. From what we have learned in these two lessons, praying the Psalms, learning from them, could be the path to that intimacy which both the Lord and our hearts desire.

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