The Way of BeautyPraying with the Psalms during Lent

The Psalms are a masterpiece of prayer, a treasury for prayer.  King David is considered their chief author, but this lyric poetry of rare beauty was written over a period of 700 years. 

Intended for both personal and communal use, the Psalms are used not only at Mass but also at the Liturgy of the Hours. The 150 Psalms are prayed over the course of one week during the five Hours of the day:  Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Day Time Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer.

The Psalms and Human Emotion

Addressed directly to God, the Psalms reveal how intimate the relationship was between the Jews and God. It was unimaginable to live without Providence in daily ups and downs, for nothing happened by chance, they believed. God was at work in each event showing them what he was like, healing them, and challenging them to grow.  Life could be painful, exciting, joyful or dull, but it was always meaningful.  

It comes as no surprise then that in the Psalms, we find the Jews pouring out their hearts in praise, thanksgiving and pleas for mercy. At the same time, they are not shy in expressing their raw emotions when overcome by anger and frustration.

After 1,000 BC, foreign invasions dominated the land and the consciousness of the Jewish nation.  Between 900-700, the Assyrians ruled over them, and after them, the Babylonians from 700-500.  Jews were deported, and they became the Diaspora, separated from their homeland.  From 500-340, the Persian overran the Babylonians, and from 340-63 BC, the Greeks ruled over the Jewish nation.  Finally in 63, with the Roman occupation, foreign domination was about to end.

Distress over foreign domination lasted for almost a thousand years.  Are we surprised that the Jews cried out for consolation, cursing their enemies, chiding God for withholding help, thanking God for his mighty arm in victory over their enemies? Most of all, they cast their cares on the Lord.  God was their rock, their refuge, and their song. 

Nonetheless, emotions in the Psalms run high.  Psalm 44 exemplifies sharp indignation: 

“Yet you have rejected us, disgraced us: you no longer go forth with our armies. You make us retreat from the foe, and our enemies plunder us at will.” 

Often their sentiments become ours:  “Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep?  Arise, do not reject us forever!  Why do you hide your face from us and forget our oppression and misery” (Ps 44)?

Some Reflections on Prayer

Personal prayer is analogous to spending time with a friend and deepening that relationship. The friend I meet in prayer is God in the person of his Son.  It is the great exchange, as Father Thomas Dubay, S.M. was fond of repeating. 

Personal prayer is best done in a place away from noise and distraction.  But even in solitude, I pray as a member of the Body of Christ.  I am in communion with every member, for in the Catholic communion, there is no such thing as private prayer.

At prayer, I bring everything in my life before the Lord, all that I am and am not. I bring to prayer my successes and failures, my fatigue, concerns, and fears.  To whom shall I go for consolation? Psalm 62 begins: “In God alone is my rest.”  This is echoed in: “Come to me, all you who labor and laden down with heavy burdens [you who are forced to bear heavy burdens], and I will give you rest.  Take up your yoke upon you, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:28).

If my heart is honest and docile, then prayer will transform me.  I will put on Christ, put on his mind and wear his heart, be his hands, his patience and energy and feet (Col 3:5ff). This is why St. Paul could say, “I live, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).  In order for this to happen, I must shed my sinful ways.  I alone am responsible for my sin, always before me.

Yoga and Buddhist Meditation

Yoga, Buddhist meditation, or other techniques are valuable ways to relax and quiet the mind, and relieve stress.  These strategies help in coping with life’s challenges.  If they benefit the individual, then that person will be better able to help others. 

More in The Way of Beauty

For all their value, these self-help techniques are no substitute for prayer.  They are not to be confused with prayer.  They are not prayer. Yoga and Zen can lead the individual to prayer.  They are additions to prayer.
Whereas Yoga and Zen focus on self-help, prayer focuses on the encounter with the person of Christ who is our help.    

Yoga and Zen quiet the mind.  Prayer quiets the mind so that Christ may enlighten and transform it.

Some years ago, I made an eight-day Zen retreat with a noted Zen master who was also a Jesuit priest.  In silence, about thirty women and men sat on individual mats facing a blank wall—a still point—for seven hours a day, for eight days. This experience offered a different approach to western meditation. 

In meditative prayer, the physical senses play an important role.  As one advances, prayer is simplified.  Here, the individual prays with the spiritual senses.  Some individuals can rest in the Lord with few words or with no words at all.  This is mysticism.  In the history of western art, there are several depictions of saints in a mystical posture.  “St. Teresa in Ecstasy,” sculpted by Bernini, is perhaps the most famous of them all.

Conclusion

The Church needs men and women whose lives have been transformed through the prayer of the Church, men and women who are able to communicate to others the experience of encountering God in prayer.  The Church needs this kind of saint whom God uses to transform others, and by extension, the entire world.

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