Uncomfortable Psalms

My Mom recommended an article to me a week or so ago: Amy Hollywood’s Spiritual but Not Religious: The vital interplay between submission and freedomAmy Hollywood teaches at Harvard Divinity School, and her article is about how many people nowadays desire a “spirituality” that is spontaneous and without structure, and yet the structure of the Benedictine monks gave them a framework for interaction with the divine.  She states:

Central to the ritual life of the Benedictine are communal prayer, private reading and devotion, and physical labor. I want to focus here on the first pole of the monastic life, as it is the one that might seem most antithetical to contemporary conceptions of vital and living religious or spiritual experience. Benedict, following John Cassian (ca. 360–430) and other writers on early monasticism, argues that the monk seeks to attain a state of unceasing prayer. Benedict cites Psalm 119: “Seven times a day have I praised you” (verse 164) and “At midnight I arose to give you praise” (verse 62). He therefore calls on his monks to come together eight times a day for the communal recitation of the Psalms and other prayers and readings. Each of the Psalms was recited once a week, with many repeated once or more a day. Benedict provides a detailed schedule for his monks, one in which the biblical injunction always to have a prayer on one’s lips is enacted through the division of the day into the canonical hours.

To many modern ears the repetition of the Psalms—ancient Israelite prayers handed down by the Christian tradition in the context of particular, often Christological, interpretations—will likely sound rote and deadening. What of the immediacy of the monk’s relationship to God? What of his feelings in the face of the divine? What spontaneity can exist in the monk’s engagement with God within the context of such a regimented and uniform prayer life? If the monk is reciting another’s words rather than his own, how can the feelings engendered by these words be his own and so be sincere?

Yet, for Benedict, as for Cassian on whose work he liberally drew, the intensity and authenticity of one’s feeling for God is enabled through communal, ritualized prayer, as well as through private reading and devotion (itself carefully regulated). Proper performance of “God’s work” in the liturgy requires that the monk not simply recite the Psalms. Instead, the monk was called on to feel what the psalmist felt, to learn to fear, desire, and love God in and through the words of the Psalms themselves. For Cassian, we know God, love God, and experience God when our experience and that of the Psalmist come together…When the monk can anticipate what words will follow in a Psalm, not because he has memorized them, but because his heart is so at one with the Psalmist that these words spontaneously come to his mind, then he knows and experiences God.

Personally, I’ve often struggled with the Book of Psalms, and I wonder how so many people of faith can find comfort in it.  I have a hard time relating to the Psalms.  They talk about oppressors seeking the Psalmist’s life, and how the Psalmist hopes that God will punish them.  There are plenty of people whom I don’t like, but I don’t think they deserve for God to strike them dead!  They’re not exactly threatening my life right now.

The Psalmist talks about God ruling the earth and bringing about justice, punishing those who oppress the poor.  But, self-centered person that I am, I wonder what that has to do with meSo many people read the Psalms and find comfort—as if God is expressing his love for them on a personal level.  When I read the Psalms, I see talk about the oppression of the poor, which doesn’t directly affect me, a privileged white American.

The Psalmist says that God loves those who obey him.  But I prefer for the Psalms to say that God loves everyone—those who obey him, and those who do not.  I’d like for the Psalmist to be like Martin Luther, affirming that God justifies those who trust in his love, even if their deeds are far from perfect.  But, while the Psalmist talks about divine forgiveness and affirms that God’s anger does not last forever, I get the impression that the God of the Psalms offers a conditional kind of love—God loves those who are righteous, while punishing those who are not.

I think it’s important for me to realize that not everything is about me.  God has an agenda of righteousness for the whole world.  There are people on the face of the earth who are in vulnerable states, and God cares about them.  There are oppressive people and power-structures, and God desires to put oppression to an end.  And, while I believe personally that God’s love is strong, God also opposes those who deliberately hurt others for their own personal gain.

And yet, I’d like for God to offer a word of love to me personally, as he does for so many Christians.

Sometimes, the emphases of the Psalms can transform a Christian’s life.  In Loving God, Chuck Colson tells about a Christian who starts to read the Psalms, and notices how they talk about God’s love for the poor, and God’s hatred of oppression.  That sets this man on an uncomfortable path of speaking out for the dignity of prisoners.  God can offer comforting, touchy-feely messages, but he also gives us stuff that makes us feel uncomfortable!

Hollywood’s comments also remind me of a Rich Mullins’ song, “Creed”: “I didn’t make it, but it is making me.”

BTW, check out Looney Fundamentalist’s August 25, 27 posts about Walter Bruegemann’s The Psalms and the Life of Faith.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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