The Way of Beauty Two powerful Psalms

Last week’s essay, “Complaining to God with the Psalms,” elicited a number of responses from readers, one from mainland China.   Many are devoted to the psalms.  They read them and reflect on them every day.  Their enthusiasm for the Psalter, which Jesus himself prayed, has prompted another essay on the power of the psalms to humanize our prayer and sanctify our activity. 

Metaphors for God

The psalms, which anticipate the coming of the Messiah, describe God in metaphors, strong, vivid, and consoling.  God is my refuge, my strength, my fortress, my rock, my place of safety; God is my song.  These metaphors permeate the Psalter and are not situated in one psalm alone.  Even one image can rivet the attention for long periods.  It did for Jesus on the cross.

Out of the Depths I Have Cried to You, O Lord (Ps 130)

One of the most frequently prayed psalms of the entire Psalter, Psalm 130, is a Penitential Psalm.  Here the Psalmist cries out to God asking for mercy because he feels like those who are going down into to the pit.  His is a universal feeling which all of us occasionally share.  It is here that the metaphors come to our lips.  My refuge, strength, my rock, my fortress, my place of safety, my song!  God’s mercy leads to a greater sense of the divine presence in our lives. God will forgive our sins even when we are reluctant to forgive ourselves. This deeply emotional psalm is prayed during the Jewish High Holidays from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

Psalm 130, in Latin, the De profundis clamavi ad te Domine, has inspired composers of every age to set it to music, a fact that underscores the power of its content. The list of composers is long—Johann Sebastian Bach, Josquin des Prez (two settings), Andrea Gabrieli, G.F. Händel, W.A. Mozart, Giovanni Palestrina, Arvo Pärt, to name a few.

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” (Ps 22)

During Holy Week, the scene of the Agony in the Garden surprises us.  On the verge of crisis, Jesus prays not for strength, courage, and acceptance of his Father’s will.  Instead we witness the human repugnance, the horror, the revolt, and the effort to escape. With the arrival of the final hour, Jesus becomes Everyman when he cries out with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Ps 22:1).   Here Jesus solidifies his feelings with those of all men and women. He pours himself out, “tasting death for everyone” (Heb 2:9), but his plea is made without despairing (Raymond A. Brown, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, 44).

Jesus seeks consolation from his Father, because his life has been spent living in union with his Father and pleasing him (Jn 8:29).  But now, he feels abandoned by the one he most loves.  “It is as if the Father loads on him the full burden of sin, [sin] that is absolutely opposed to God.  And the one who is God’s Word remains dumb.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, VII: 208). How can this be?  Jesus trusts his Father to the very bitter end as have so many canonized saints and sainted men and women. Great thinkers and writers like Fathers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Yves Congar, Henri De Lubac, and Jacquie Dupuis, to name only a few, remained in a posture of trust and hope despite the narrowness of their censors when their works were shelved instead of published. 

Psalm 22 ends on a note of hope; the Lord has not hidden his face from the suffering soul.  This psalm is part of the Seven Last Words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.  They have been set to music—seven string quartets with introduction, by Franz Joseph Haydn but without the Latin text.  In listening to the music, it is assumed that the listener is already familiar with the Latin words.

Praying the Psalms in Transit or at Home 

The Psalter can be easily downloaded from the Internet onto smartphones for easy access.  Hard-copies of pocket-size versions of the psalms are also available for easy access.  To name only two of them: 

1. The Psalms (NIV = The New International Catholic Edition)

2. The Psalms (NCV = The New Catholic Version, St. Joseph Edition).  This translation is virtually the same version as the NIV.  Other editions are also pocket-size.  This information may be found on the Internet.

3. Still others who wish to pray to the full Liturgy of the Hours may purchase the four volumes online.  Daria Sockey has written a very readable booklet entitled, The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours.  It is available from Amazon for $12.99.

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