Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
But not all verses are useful for me in this way. I confess that I do feel conflicted about the psalms at times. Some offend me and my more modern and pacifist sensibilities. And I find myself wanting to censor them, choosing which verses to post to the blog and which to leave alone--particularly verses that ask God to "strike all my enemies on the jaw" and to "break the teeth of the wicked" (6:6). I don't know what to do with these passages. Having experienced a bit of betrayal and rejection in my life, I can sense the pain in David's calls for holy vengeance, even if not his inclination toward violence, but Kathleen Norris, in The Cloister Walk, has helped me through these feelings. She says:
The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us re-examine our values.
When we want to "feel good about ourselves" (which I have heard seriously proposed as the purpose of worship), when we have gone to the trouble to "get a life," current slang suggesting that life itself is a commodity, how can we say, with the psalmist, "I am poor and needy" (Ps. 40:17) or "my life is but a breath" (Ps. 39:5)? It seems so negative, even if it is true. How can we read Psalm 137, one of the most troubling of the psalms and also one of the most beautiful? The ultimate song of exile, it begins: "By the waters of Babylon / there we sat and wept, / remembering Zion."
In a line that expresses the bitterness of colonized people everywhere, the psalmist continues:
For it was there that they asked us,
our captors, for songs,
our oppressors, for joy.
"Sing to us," they said,
"one of Zion's songs."
O how could we sing
the song of the Lord
on alien soil? (Ps. 137:3-4)These lines have a special poignancy for women: All too often, for reasons of gender as well as poverty and race, we find that our journey from girlhood to womanhood is an exile to "alien soil." And how do feminist women, who often feel as if we are asked to sing in the midst of an oppressive patriarchy, asked to dress pretty and act nice, read such a psalm? We may feel, as radical feminists do, that the very language we speak is an oppressor's tongue. How, then, do we sing?
If the psalm does not offer an answer, it allows us to dwell on the question. And as one encounters this psalm over and over again in Benedictine liturgy, it asks us to acknowledge that being uprooted and forced into servitude is not an experience alien to our "civilized" world. The speaker could be one of today's refugees or exiles, an illegal alien working in an American sweat shop for far less than the minimum wage, a slave laborer in China. When one reads the psalm with this in mind, the closing verse, containing an image of unspeakable violence against Israel's Babylonian captors, comes as no surprise: "O Babylon, destroyer, / he is happy who repays you the ills you brought on us. / He shall seize and shall dash / your children on the rock!" (vv. 8-9).
These lines are the fruit of human cruelty; they let us know the depth of the damage we do when we enslave other people, when we blithely consume the cheap products of cheap labor. But what does it mean to find such an image in a book of prayer, a hymnbook of "praises"? The psalms are unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche. They ask us to consider our true situation and to pray over it. They ask us to be honest about ourselves and admit that we, too, harbor the capacity for vengeance. This psalm functions as a cautionary tale: such a desire, left unchecked, whether buried under "niceness" or violently acted out, can lead to a bitterness so consuming that even the innocent are not spared.
What the psalms offer us is the possibility of transformation, of converting a potentially deadly force such as vengeance into something better. What becomes clear when one begins to engage the psalms in a profound way--and the Benedictines insist that praying them communally, every day, is a good place to start--is that it can come to seem as if the psalms are reading and writing us. This concept comes from an ancient understanding, derived from the Hebrew word for praise, tehilla, that, in the words of the Benedictine Damasus Winzen, "comes from hallal which does not only mean 'to praise' but primarily means 'to radiate' or 'to reflect.' " He states that "the medieval Jewish poet Jehuda Halevi expressed beautifully the spirit of the Psalter when he said: 'Look on the glories of God, and awaken the glory in thee.' "
I never felt particularly glorious at morning, noon, or evening prayer in my time with the Benedictines, but I did begin to sense that a rhythm of listening and response was being established between me and the world of the psalms. I felt as if I were becoming part of a living, lived-in poem, a relationship with God that revealed the holy not only in ordinary words but in the mundane events of life, both good and bad. As I was plunged into mysteries beyond my understanding-the God the psalmist has exhorted to speech ("O God, do not keep silence" [Ps. 83:1]) suddenly speaking in the voice of the mysterium tremendum ("from the womb before the dawn I begot you" [Ps. 110:3])--I recognized the truth of what one sister told me. She compared Benedictine liturgy to "falling in love, because you don't enter into it knowing the depths. It's a relationship you live with until you begin to understand it."
I love Norris' challenge here to read the psalms in a way that calls me outside of myself. So far my relationship to the psalms has been more of a therapeutic one, which has been extraordinarily helpful as they have helped me through my own processes of healing and internal examination. However, in reading the psalms in this way I am also asked to consider the voices of oppressed peoples, of the extent of human cruelty, and of my part in their story. Do I perpetuate cycles of oppression and violence? Or do I contribute to healing and freedom of the oppressed and stigmatized? There is so much to consider here, more than I can think through in an evening. So I would encourage you firstly, to incorporate the psalms into your daily practices of prayer if you don't already and secondly, to read the rest of Norris' article here! http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/july15/6t818a.html? or her book.
So I leave you with some questions: In what ways do the psalms mirror your own life story? If you are already in the habit of reading the psalms regularly, how has this practice affected your perceptions of the struggles and blessings in your life? When you read the psalms, what stories, images, or social issues come to mind to draw you outside of yourself? Where do you see yourself in this picture? What one simple, but loving action can you take to contribute to the healing and freedom of this person/people group?