Last year, walking into the chapel at Bourgade Catholic High School where I was chaplain, I was struck to hear the students praying together out of a little red book the Psalms and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. My heart rejoiced that the students really took to this “education” that the Church gives us through what is known as “The Divine Office”.
Education? Yes, by putting words into our mouths, words we don’t make up but receive, the Church shapes our hearts, our minds, our lives to a new self-awareness. And not just any self-awareness. The Psalms are the same prayers that Christ and His disciples prayed in the synagogues and Temple.
Vatican II, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 84) tells us:
By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church’s ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.
The Psalms are unique prayers. They are the Word of God in that they are an inspired and infallible part of the Scripture. They are the word of man in that every human experience is reflected therein. And this is the real educational value of the Psalms. It is the education of the Incarnation: Christ, taking on our human nature, has shared with us everything that is truly human, filling it with His divine life for our salvation.
Let us look at the Psalms from two angles: the Incarnation and the Communion of Saints.
Every time we recite the Creed at Mass, we bow at the words For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. On the solemnities of the Annunciation and Christmas, we even kneel at that part of the Mass, as the Church “compels” us to recognize the greatness of the mystery.
The Psalms are an incredible way for us to understand more deeply the mystery of the Incarnation. Saint Augustine said (somewhere, I can’t remember) “In order to teach us how to praise God, God praised Himself.” God used the human experience of the Psalmist (David and others) in order to show us what the true stature of our humanity really is. Just as Jesus pointed out in the Gospel the publican who would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but humbly asked God for mercy, holding him up as an example to us all, so also the Psalms are God’s outline for us of what is a true human position before God.
And we might be surprised: Psalm 73 speaks about the man who notices, as all of us have noticed, that the just seem to suffer more while the wicked are “sound and sleek”. He expresses his frustration with God, wondering if it is “useless to keep my heart pure and wash my hands in innocence,” until he realizes that God will work everything out. Coming to his senses, he comments: “I was stupid and did not understand, no better than a beast in your sight.” But still, God was faithful in all that drama: “Yet I was always in your presence; you were holding me by my right hand.”
So, what part of this Psalm is God’s Word and what part is the word of man? All of it! We cannot separate God’s part from the human part. And here is the fascination of what God did in becoming man. He took all of this on Himself. As Saint John said, “He knew what was in the heart of man,” not only because God is omniscient but because God had (has) a human heart.
So, the comfort of the Psalms is in the fact that nothing I experience is foreign to God. When I pray the Psalms in “the key of Christ”, I realize that I am always in His presence and that He is holding my right (or left) hand. The Psalms find their fulfillment in the Incarnation, when God does not just use some other humans’ words (David or Solomon), but has the same experience as all of us, to the point of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22 by the way).
But what if I am not experiencing the particular situation or feeling of the Psalm that the Church gives me for Daytime Prayer of Thursday Week 2? What if “Lord, you have been good to your servant according to your word” (Psalm 119) is not my experience today? What if “they fight me all day long and oppress me” (Psalm 56) does not fit with my rather boisterous and peppy mood?
The very objectivity of the Psalms within the Liturgy of the Church allows us to situate this prayer within the Communion of Saints. Simply said, I pray the Psalms in the context of the whole Church, and someone in the Church is having the experience that this Psalm describes. When I do not “feel” what the Psalm is saying, I can be in solidarity, in communion, with someone who is going through what that Psalm says. The “saints” refer to the whole Church, those who belong to Christ, those who are united in the holiness of the Church, a holiness that is outside of us and that stretches and shapes us.
The communion of saints is the deepest reality of the Church, because in Christ, through Baptism, we are made sharers in the communion of life and love which is the Blessed Trinity. As such, we are united to one another in the Body of Christ. Through this fraternal communion we draw nearer to God and we are called to support one another spiritually. The communion of saints does not only embrace the Church on earth; it also embraces all who have died in Christ, the souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven. –Pope Francis, 30 October
The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church. It does involve our “private” feelings and devotion, but cannot be limited to that. We cannot be limited to that, because no one is a private Christian. Through Baptism, we have been brought into the drama of the Son of God to whom we belong, a drama that is expressed on every page of the Scripture, but particularly powerfully in the Psalms. We have been stretched and are being stretched into the Communion of the Saints.
This is the education offered to us in the Liturgy of the Hours, the education I was so happy to see those students at Bourgade participating in that Tuesday morning last year with their little red books.