by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

The Psalms are the most famous poems in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet praying them can often be difficult for the reason that they express sentiments that do not reflect the mindset of the one praying them at that moment. Indeed, some people are put off by the psalms and abandon them completely.

Is there a solution to this problem? I suggest that there is (and I am not being particularly original here).

Take the opening words of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This Psalm is very powerful when the one praying it is distressed and overcome by a sense that God is far away.

But, what does it mean to pray this Psalm when life is experienced as positive, fulfilled, and happy, and the supplicant has a strong sense of the closeness of God?

The answer may be found in the truth that the Psalms are always prayed on behalf of the whole Church, indeed the whole world. One may not oneself find the opening phrase of Psalm 130 particularly relevant to one’s spiritual outlook at the moment, but someone in the circle of family, friends, and fellow parishioners may.

Or, if a pastor knows of a person in his parish who is depressed and whose life is full of trouble, he can pray the Psalm on that person’s behalf, putting the words of the Psalm, so to speak, on that person’s lips.

Or, one can pray on behalf of the whole Church in time of crisis—and especially the suffering Church in places where war and oppression hold sway. For a moment, the one praying the opening phrase of Psalm 130 becomes the whole Church.

One can also pray the first words of Psalm 130 for that part of humanity which experiences the broad range of joy, elation, peace, on the one hand, and tragedy, sadness, and psychological oppression, on the other.

Hebrew poets composed the Psalms. Accordingly, the Jewish people have a special claim on the Psalms—notably Jews for whom the horror of the Holocaust is seared into their hearts and souls to this very day. Many Jewish people lost their faith because of the Holocaust and feel that God abandoned them—if there is a God. Praying the Psalms on behalf of downcast Jews is a good and worthy act.

One can also put the words of the Psalms on the lips of the faithful Christians and Muslims of the Middle East who are suffering terribly, with seemingly no let-up. They may not be able to pray, but we can pray of their behalf.

In all of this, there is an important lesson: Even in the most private prayer there is always a public, communal dimension—a dimension that incorporates all the spiritually needy of the world.

Parishes, for that reason, appropriately pray the Liturgy of the Hours publicly, even if only a handful of people are present. This kind of public recitation of the Psalms was recommended for all Catholics by Vatican II. Even in personal prayer the Psalms are always communal, worldly, and cosmic.

Monastic and other religious communities build their day around the recitation of the psalms, praying not just for their own members, but for the whole church and the whole world.

The opening phrase of Psalm 130 is a good example of a Psalm that may not always meet the personal needs of those who recite it, but is a prayer that one can recite on behalf of the pressing situations of humankind.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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