Walking the way of the psalms

By Leo Campos

Lately my kids discovered passwords. Not the type we use on computers, but rather the daily shibboleths we have. For example, my 3-year-old is having to learn the “Please” password. Without the password he will not gain access to whatever goods or services he needs from mother or father. His older brother has taken the password game to a whole new level.

He will say: “What’s the magic word?”

The younger one will diligently say “Please.”

“Wrong,” the older one says. “the magic word is ‘magic word’.”

Round and round they go, trying to out trick each other, in the verbal equivalent of computer hacking.

The other night I was retelling the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves to them. I think the question came up regarding “Open sesame” and what exactly is “sesame”. At any rate, it was important that Ali Baba use the correct password. To say “Open bananas” would not work no matter how heartfelt, how loudly it was shouted.

One, or perhaps “the”, most marked trait of monastics of any stripe are their focus on the psalms as a primary way of prayer. Be it Benedictines chanting in choir or Jesuits whispering psalms to themselves as they go about the world, psalms are part and parcel of a monastic’s toolbox.

I have been asked, by those who begin to be more concerted in their spiritual efforts how to pray the psalms – as if the psalms will open Ali Baba’s cave. Apart from learning some secret chanting technique, people are concerned about what appears to be the spiritual and emotional immaturity of the psalm composers. The conversation usually goes something like this:

“David is whining again! I do not know how I can be uplifted by his psalms!”

“Why do you think he is whining?”

“Because he keeps blaming everyone else for his problems. Does he really think he is perfect?”

“And you think this is wrong?”

“Of course it is wrong! No one is blameless. He is falling into this victim-hood trap!”

“And the way to avoid it is?”

“To accept responsibility, of course! To rely on God!”

“So in your spiritual life you live with full realization that the things that happen to you are really your fault? Or God’s?”

It is easy for us to blame David for blaming others. But the opposite view is equally unbalanced. We cannot blame ourselves for everything that happens either! If you do that you are going down the road of such New Age mumbo-jumbo as the Prosperity Gospel and the stuff preached on the book The Secret. If you blame God for everything then you are falling into some sort of Calvinistic fatalism which denies the freedom which God has granted you.

So there has to be a balance, of course. But this work of balancing your life is not the purpose of the psalms. They are not there to balance you, but rather to expose your heart to its own imbalances.

Another very important part of the psalms is what it feeds us. We are what we eat, or to put it more generally, we will become like whatever we give our attention to. If you think and dream about money then everything you see and do is colored by money, value, profit and loss. The same thing goes to any of the eight wrong thoughts as outline by Evagrius. That is why they are “deadly”. They deaden your heart and spirit. Jesus asks us to find our hearts by looking at what we treasure. This is not as complicated as it seems. What do you treasure?

There is another level of reading the psalms which is important – and this is to just read the psalms. Let me tell you what I mean. Let us take a well-known psalm such as the 23rd psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…” But how we usually read it is to put a lot of silent commentary between the ideas. Add emphasis or some personal “tone” to each psalm. If your mind is like mine the inner dialog tends to be both absurd and profane.

To really make the psalms your way, or as the Camaldolese would say it “the way is in the psalms”, you need to resist the temptation to follow any association of ideas. You just take the one psalm in front of you and it alone. You can follow the various connections to specific Old Testament passages later when you do Bible study. There will be other times for that. You can also let the psalms inspire your thinking at other times of the day, and even to let your prayer life be circumscribed by the psalms. This is all very good and profitable, but it is not using the psalter as a tool.

Read a psalm very slowly. At first read it as if there was a comma between each word: “The, Lord, is, my, shepherd.” Then do it as if there was a stop: “The. Lord. Is. My. Shepherd.” But do not put any special emphasis in any of the words. Just each word at a time. With plenty of silence around them.

Of course, at this rate it will take you about 10 minutes to recite the 23rd psalm. Clearly you cannot go through the psalter with a lot of speed! You may end up spending a week or more on the longer psalms, like 119. But so what? What’s the hurry? You can read through and study and cross reference the psalms during your Bible study time. But when you are using them to pray just say the psalms.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the “tech guy” for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

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