June 23, 2011

Praying the Psalms

God has revealed to us how we are to praise Him -- and the right way to praise God is found in the psalms.  The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, explains that the Psalms teach us how to pray to God.  His catechesis has ancient roots.  St. Athanasius passes on this same teaching he learned from St. Antony of the Desert at the end of the 3rd Century.  The psalms teach us how to raise our hearts in prayer just as Jesus raised his heart in prayer.

The praying of the psalms, especially in the Liturgy of the Hours, is a school for the heart, providing words for interior movements so delicate and beautiful, the heart itself is scarcely aware of what they are and without divine help powerless to articulate them.  It is a matter of learning how to "feel" about God and all things in relation to God in a manner that truly renders fitting praise.  This perfection, the heart feeling what it ought to feel before God, lived in the heart of Christ informing every word and thought He offered the Father.  Conforming our hearts to the Heart of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit to which the psalms dispose the soul.  In fact, the Word himself prayed the psalms -- and based on his own teaching on prayer, he must of prayed the psalms with complete attentiveness to every thought and emotion they disclose, complete confidence in how our heavenly Father would receive such prayer, and complete attention to who He was to be offering such prayer.

Earlier this year, Father Benedict Groeschel offered the annual retreat to our seminarians.  It was an honor to have an opportunity for a short conversation with him after the retreat while taking him to the airport.  Just before we left, one of the seminarians asked me to find out how Father Groeschel prays the psalms.  So I asked him.  He answered with one word, "Slowly."

This would seem to be the best way for us to allow the psalms to teach us the movements of the heart of Christ.  When we pray them slowly and consider what the psalms contain - that "range of human experience" the psalms convey, as Pope Benedict reminds us - it gives ours hearts the time they need to catch up and to appropriate the psalms to our lives. Even better, taking time to thoughtfully consider what we are offering the Lord in these revealed prayers affords the Holy Spirit the opportunity to appropriate our lives to the psalms.  In this kind of prayer, our lives become the praise we offer.


  1. Beautiful reflection, as usual. And don't you just love Father Groeschel? His response made me chuckle, but is so spot on, no other words are needed.

  2. Any suggestion for good study books or reflections on the psalms which might aid in fully appreciating them as one prays the LOH?
    Dcn Steve

  3. Dear Deacon Steve --
    This is a great question -- one that other readers of this blog might be able to answer better than me. I am not sure how much Pope Benedict is going do with the psalms in his Wednesday audiences -- but I would go back over these. A few years ago a whole series was done on the psalms. Personally, I love to read the commentaries of the Fathers on the psalms -- especially St. Augustine. I notice that both Thomas Merton and C.S. Lewis also have books on praying the psalms -- but I have not read these and would appreciate hearing from someone who has.

    Here is C.S. Lewis's book:

    And here is Thomas Merton's:

  4. That last link did not post right -- Thomas Merton's book is at:

  5. I have loved praying the psalms over the years. There is always something there that expresses what my heart feels at any moment and puts it in the most beautiful words to offer to God. Thank you for this reflective article. What you say is so true..."It is a matter of learning how to "feel" about God and all things in relation to God in a manner that truly renders fitting praise. " The psalms do teach us this, form us in this way. What a beautiful gift!