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Praying with the Psalms:
Everyone prays -- kind of. It's our most human action. At the deep center of our lives, we are connected somehow or other with God. That deep center often gets buried under the everyday debris of routine and distraction and chatter, while we shuffle about out of touch and unaware of our true selves. Then a sudden jolt opens a crevasse, exposing for a moment our bedrock self. spontaneously we pray. We pray because it is our most human response. We're made by and for the voice of God- -- listening to and answering that voice is our most characteristic act. We are most ourselves when we pray.
The jolt comes variously -- a stab of pain, a rush of beauty, an encore of joy; we exclaim, "God!" The cry can be complaint or curse or praise, no matter, it's prayer. When that deep, deep center of our lives is exposed -- our core humanity, which biblical writers so vigorously designate as "heart" -- we unthinkingly revert to our first language: we pray.
For some that's the end of it, brief and random exclamations scattered haphazardly across a lifetime. But others of us, not content to be our true selves incidentally, hunt for ways to cultivate fluency. More often than not, the hunt turns up its quarry in the psalms.
David is the name most prominently associated with writing and praying the psalms. His life is the most extensively narrated we have in the scriptures. We know more about him than anyone else in our biblical records. We know about his growing up and his dying, his friends and his enemies, his sins and salvation, his triumphs and defeats. Nothing is heldback or suppressed; the entire range of the human condition is laid out for us in the narration of David's life. Alongside the story we are given his prayers, the inside of the story. For everything that happened in David's life became prayer, became the occasion for listening to and answering God. Nothing in David's life was left lying around on the surface; he took everything "to heart:' interiorized it, welcomed it in God's name for God's work.
That is why praying with David is the chief way we have of cultivating fluency in this our most human language. We get the first words out easily enough, but then sputter to a stop. We are alternately indolent and clumsy.
The psalms, more than anything else in the churchs life, are God's provision for the people who find themselves in this condition, directing and shaping the prayers of Christians into fluency. They do not do our praying for us -- they cannot be mechanized into a prayer wheel -- but they get us praying when we don't feel like it, and they train us in prayers that are honest and right. They are both encouragement to pray and patterns of prayer. They represent the experience of men and women who have prayed in every conceivable circumstance across thirty centuries. "The psalms acquire, for those who know how to enter into them, a surprising depth, a marvelous and inexhaustible actuality. They are bread, miraculously provided by Christ, to feed those who have followed Him into the wilderness" (Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, New York: New Directions, 1964, p. 3).
Praying with the Psalms is a book to guide and encourage the daily prayer that clarifies and deepens our perception of God's will so that we can pursue it; it is a book that exposes the shoddy and cheap so that we can reject it; and it is a book that nurtures the true, the beautiful, and the good so that we will live at our best with and before God.
I have two suggestions for those who use this book as an entrance into praying the psalms. The first is that the word "entrance" be taken as literally as possible. The focused meditation and prayer is an opening into a large interior. Step briskly through the entrance, and then take your time. Settle into the spacious interior. Make yourself at home in the psalm. Once inside there is so much more to listen to, so much more to say. The brevity of the daily entries is not offered as a quick and convenient way to pay off a social obligation (to God).
The second suggestion is that you include others in your prayers. This can be done in groups that gather for spiritual nurture, using the book to initiate further meditation and prayer. It can also be done between friends, praying with and for each other, more or less "in step," following the sequence of daily prayer provided here. And it can be done by correspondents, who find letter writing a congenial way of friendship, using the common stimulus of this book as texts for deepening friendship in prayer.
The psalms are access to an environment in which God is the pivotal center of life, and in which all other people, events, or circumstances are third parties. Neither bane nor blessing distracts the psalmists for long from this center. They are not misled by demons of Size, Influence, Importance, or Power. They turn their backs on the gaudy pantheons of Canaan and Assyria and give themselves to personal intensities that become awe and intimacy before God.
For such reasons, among people who want to pray, the psalms are God's best gift. "In this as in so much else," wrote Baron Friederich von Hugel to his niece, "I find that you are one with the church, that you pray the psalms" (Letters from Baron Friederich von Hugel to a Niece, ed. by Gwendolen Greene, London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1958, p. 185).Praying with the Psalms. Copyright � by Eugene H. Peterson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.