Monday, March 1, 2021

Praying the Psalms

    My life is centered in prayer. A lot of that is personal, inward, direct, meditative or conversational. But the kind of prayer that forms the structure for my life, the kind that frames time, is called The Divine Office. This is the prayer that keeps me connected with a whole body of pray-ers, of people praying near and far; not only hermits, monks and nuns, but all Catholic and some Protestant priests and religious, past, present, and future, around the world and in many languages. It is a tradition that goes back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and beyond, back before Christianity, before the Second Temple, before the exile and restoration of Judea, even before Israel and Judea separated into two separate kingdoms, if tradition is right in attributing at least some of the psalms to King David. That would make them about 3,000 years old. 

    There are 150 psalms, and I chant them all, spread out over a two-week cycle, four sessions or "Hours" per day. Most priests and religious pray the "Roman Office," as I did while I was working full-time. It's the same thing, only the psalms are spread out over a 4-week cycle with 2 long and 5 shorter Hours per day. I guess I spend about two hours per day praying the Office, which is made up of biblical and non-biblical readings and other scriptural canticles, as well as the psalms. That's a lot of time I spend immersed in the psalms. And it's good, it is a source of stability and connectedness in my life that is very valuable.

    Then again ...

the psalms. There is a lot of beauty and goodness in the psalms! But you know what? They are also chock-full of vengeance and violence, self-righteousness, political propaganda, and jingoism. Needless to say, women are practically non-existent, and God is most emphatically a He, a strongman and a Lord, full of wrath, punishment, revenge. The mutual flattery and justification between the centralized monarchy and the centralized priesthood is outrageous, and I find myself sympathizing with the ten tribes who seceded from Judea, when "wise" (ha!) King Solomon died and his son promised to be an even worse despot (the Bible as we know it is Judean). It can get more than a little depressing, really. Of course, it's not all like that. I mean, I couldn't sing the psalms all day if they weren't at least as full of goodness as they are full of ugliness. 

    So what to do? I tell you, this is a constant, everyday tension in my life. As a lay hermit, there is no canonical requirement laid on me to pray the Office at all, so I'm free to tinker with it however much I want. I have ... let me count them ... oh, I don't know, 10 or 12 English-language translations of the psalms. Which just proves that the problem isn't the translation, it's the text itself. To translate out the half-whining, half-swaggering, bloodthirsty vengefulness of the originals would be to write a whole new book of verse, it would be a dishonest translation. Occasionally I get so disgusted, I switch to praying the Office in Latin, or French or Portuguese, some language I can manage but don't speak fluently, to blunt the emotional impact of the words. 

    So what to do? Well, this is what I am trying to do: meditate on each psalm, one by one, until I can find a new way to read it that is still true to the original but equally true to my own understanding of a God who rewards meekness and humility; who encompasses and transcends masculine and feminine, the particular and the universal, matter and spirit; a God of love and joy and creativity; a God who shelters and keeps me safe, not by sending the bad guys "down into the pit" but by opening up a deep well of quiet security within me that is capable of transforming evil into good. So I have begun taking time daily to meditate on the psalms one at a time, what we call lectio divina, something like this:

  • I try to imagine the circumstances in which the psalmist might have written, how very much less safe and secure than my comfortable 21st-century American life. Ancient Israel was a little nation trying to carve out and defend some fertile land against too much competition in a harsh territory.
  • name and acknowledge the human attitudes and emotions the psalm expresses, the good, the bad and the ugly. Then look within myself to find their echoes in my own heart, even if they aren't directed against "enemies" in the same way. 
  • ponder on how the psalmist does and how I might call on God in response to those experiences, for support, for safety, for vindication, in gratitude or in longing.
  • consider how I might reinterpret the literal prayers for vengeance and violent conquest - as metaphors for conquest of my own self-destructive tendencies, or for the overturning of the structural sins of society at large. 
  • ultimately, I want to try to re-write at least some of the psalms, to translate them, not just from ancient Hebrew into modern English, but from the ancient psalmist's experience into my own religious experience. And do it in rhythmic, poetic, chantable verse, that I can use in my Office. 
    I am inspired in this project by the book Opening to You, by Norman Fischer. As a Zen Buddhist, Fischer has participated in some of the Interreligious Monastic Dialogue encounters between Buddhist and Catholic Benedictine monastics. At Gethsemane Abbey he joined in the Divine Office, and was blown away by the passionate anger and general nastiness expressed in the psalms. But at the same time, he was impressed by the genuine peace and integrity of the Catholic monks and nuns he met, who chant the psalms daily. He is also Jewish by birth, and grew up chanting the psalms, albeit in incomprehensible (to him) Hebrew. 

    I'm sorry that Fischer didn't re-imagine all 150 psalms, because his versions are sometimes the only ones I can stand to sing. On the other hand, the gaps he has left are enough to prod me to undertake the same project myself. I can't lean on Fischer's or anyone else's heart, I have to take the psalms deep into my own. I have to engage with them deeply, to reinterpret them as prayers that can lift me up and not drag me down.

    I kind of feel like there is a lesson here that is an extension of my ongoing theme of Real Me vs. Fantasy Me. I have already let go of Fantasy Me in a lot of ways, a lot of areas of my life. But in my prayers, I want to be perfectly spiritual, perfectly loving, all that stuff. And I want my religion, and my religious texts, to be perfect, too. I don't want to show up to prayer with human flaws and weaknesses, and I don't want to show up to prayer with other weak and flawed humans, either. 

    But all the pain, all the fear, the lashing out in anger, the vengeful victimhood, the self-justification, the dreaming of some huge weapon or champion to blast all our problems off the face of the earth -- I mean, that's real. And it's not just real King David or real ancient Levite choirmaster, it's Real Me. I might not be boiling over with violent rage, but I sure get frustrated, I get indignant, I get discouraged, I get into denial about my own bad choices, and maybe expressing an exaggerated version of those emotions is more honest than composing my words into the smooth and sanctified me that I ain't.

    This is the work of a lifetime, and I've just started. I've gotten all the way through ... psalm 1. LOL yeah, this is more aspirational than actual, folks, I'm telling you all what I think I need to do, not describing what I've got experience doing. I mean, as far as doing it methodically, deeply, not just fussing with it but really taking hold of it. Psalm 1 was easy, it's actually already pretty lovely. Psalm 2 is more challenging. But I'm not willing to cut loose from the tradition of my Church, of the ages, of the community of friends and strangers all over the world who are praying the psalms with me. So I'll keep grappling with them, and see what comes of it. 


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