Praying With The Psalms
Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · November 18, 2010
Fr. Wilbur introduces his new podcast by talking about the depth of the Psalms and how the Church views the Psalms in terms of the Historical, the Christological, and the Liturgical.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” This cry of the Lord’s disciples belongs in the heart of every Christian. The Orthodox Study Bible affirms that this expresses an universal longing to be in communion with God.
Just as John the Forerunner had taught his disciples to pray, the Lord met the need of his followers by telling them what to say in the words of what today we call the Lord’s Prayer. He said: “When you pray, say:” and he gave them the words. But as we say “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” we soon begin to sense that we need more wisdom. We need a greater depth to understand the meaning of these profound words so that they do not become familiar but un-felt phrases as we repeat them over and over again.
So where do we find this deeper, fuller instruction in prayer? The Church has long believed that the Lord’s Prayer is a distillation of the prayer-book of Israel called the Psalter or the Book of Psalms. Or to put it another way; the Lord’s Prayer is the flower and the fruit of the roots, the stalk and the stem of the Psalms. It has been said ‘the Psalter penetrates the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer penetrates the Psalter’ so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to bring them into joyful harmony.
There are three expanding visions of the Psalms that help us embrace the grace that they provide us. There is the Historical, and the Christological and the Liturgical.
Let’s look for a moment at the Historical.
From the songs of the angels of God at the Creation, to the communion of Adam and Eve in the pristine garden of God’s delights, to the community of Israel lifting their hearts with the smoke of incense, to the incense seen in the book of the Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. They’re the heart-cries of the Church. These ancient prayers born of the Spirit rise to join the heart of man to God the Father and form a communion, a river, through the ages from man to God. And it is that history, that beautiful, that deep, that pure and flowing river that we come to again and again and again. So that when we pray we are are not alone; we stand in the company of untold thousands and even millions of Christians, of saints, of those who have said these same words. Words that have been honed and purified and directed and filled by the Spirit of God, so that as we enter into the history of the prayers of God’s people we are entering into life.
And that leads us from the Historical to the Christological.
When we pray we pray in the name of Jesus, we pray in the name of Christ. In Luke 24:44 we remember that the Lord spoke to his disciples once again, helping them remember that he had taught them again and again how the Psalms were full of the Spirit’s guiding of people down through those earlier centuries to himself. The Psalms spoke of him.
Centuries of the prayers of the people of God were brought together to form this prayer book that guided both the private and corporate prayers of Israel. The place of the Psalter in the life of Israel led the Church to a deep conviction that the Psalms come into their full vision, their glory, their wisdom and power as we see them as nothing less than the very prayers of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.
As a devout Jew, nurtured by his holy Mother (whose own prayer life is revealed in her glorious Magnificat) he would have been immersed in these prayers from infancy. He would have known the Psalter as a second language. And as he brought his earthly life to its full offering to his Father on the cross many of his last words flowed out of his life of praying the Psalms.
In his book Christ and the Psalms, Fr. Patrick Reardon (a priest and an author to whom I am greatly indebted) urges us to look at the Psalms through ‘the lens of Christ’. The whole idea of this, he tells us, is to pray the Psalms with what St. Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’, which means the life of divine grace, the mystery of our redemption, the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the nurturing wisdom of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. So that learning to pray the Psalms through the heart, the mind and the lips of our Lord is the foundational vision of what these Psalms really mean.
St. Athanasius attributed a kind of ‘Christ-therapy’ to the Psalms. In his letter to Marcellinus he wrote that God inspired these prayers as a pattern of the humanity of Christ before his sojourn in our midst, so that just as he provided the model of the earthly and the heavenly man in his own person so also from the Psalms he who wants to do so can learn the emotions and the dispositions of the soul, finding in them also the therapy and the correction suited for each emotion.
How much better it is for us to pray the Psalms and find Christ’s form for our emotions rather than to take the Psalms and merely shape them to fit our emotions. How often I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I love the Psalms! I can always find something that meets my mood or my emotions.” Well, that’s good. But how much better it is to come to the Psalms and find how Christ lived. How he took the experiences that are so clearly described in the prayers and how he prayed and shaped and formed his own inner life just as we can as we pray these very words that form the prayer life of our Lord
Even more, when we come to Psalms that don’t seem to connect with our emotions, or our circumstances, we can submit ourselves to the heart and mind of Christ so that we enter into his life, his suffering. Seeking, even before we share that experience that the Lord had, how it is that we are to receive that experience when it comes to our lives and to our souls. It’s almost as though when we begin to pray the Psalms after Christ it’s like the little brother in the family getting his big brother’s coat. And he puts the coat on and it’s way, way too big and the sleeves hang way down and the bottom of the coat drags along the floor. But if he wears it long enough the day comes when he’s grown into that coat.
As we begin to pray the Psalms after Christ and as we see how his experiences, his life, the Father’s working and his accomplishing the mission that he was given begins to touch our own lives. And we pray, whether it is with joy or with sorrow, after the very heart and wisdom in spirit of our Lord.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in writing of how our souls may become purified and liberated from our selfishness, wrote:
So the Psalms have been formed like a sculptor’s tools by the true overseer, who, like a craftsman, is carving our souls to the divine likeness
Praying the Psalms to the Father in the name of Jesus through the Holy Spirit is to enter into the great temple of Heaven and to participate in the rich and many-faceted experiences of the glorious Lord Jesus as he expresses himself to his Father, to his Abba.
Well, as we’ve thought of the Historical and the Christological approach to the Psalms, there is one last rich area of discovery and growth. That is for us to understand, to enter into and participate in the Liturgical use of the Psalms.
Now it makes great sense to believe that if we discover that Christ permeates the Psalter at every turn, in every circumstance and in every movement of the heart, then we can expect to find our bearings. When we pray in Christ we we find a place to stand, so that we are praying these grace-filled words in the Church as the Body of Christ. These great prayers of the Psalms truly can unite a diverse group of people standing in congregation, in union, in synaxis. United into the very presence of our Lord because we have become the Body of Christ. The words on a page have now been raised by the Holy Spirit into flames in our gathering as the Church. And we truly begin to pray as Christ prayed, for Christ truly is in our midst.
As we journey through the Psalms we will often reflect on where and how they are used in the the Orthodox Liturgy, because the worship of the Orthodox Church is filled as it is formed by the Psalter. Each time a Psalm is employed in the Church there’s a wealth of spiritual wisdom in prayer in that setting. Just understanding why it’s there, what it means here, how it speaks of Christ.
For this reason, in these meditations, we will use the Greek-based text of the Psalter in the version called The Psalter According to the Seventy translated and published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Boston. The value of using this version in our private prayers is that it is also a version commonly used in many of the liturgical settings of the Church, so that when we go from our homes to the Church these same words will be easily recognized and will make deeper impression over time, both on heart and on memory,
When we come together next time we will begin moving through the Psalms themselves. I encourage you to listen with the Psalm text before you. Begin to read and then to memorize so that soon you can meditate on each Psalm before moving on to another.
Let us walk together, not just for a lifetime but for an eternity of opening our souls to be formed and filled with the very prayers of Christ. And may the Spirit of God grant us his mercy to join the words of the Psalms to the spirit of our inner lives, so that we might pray:
Let my prayer arise as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)