Psalms, not Walls

As the United States broaches the fifth week of a partial government shutdown, many of may be thinking about the difficulties and dangers which accompany a lack of dialogue.  Regardless of what side of the “wall” you find yourself on, I have a feeling many of us are dismayed by the lack of conversation and communion which we are experiencing.

Communion, of course, has strong implications for our own Christian system of unbreachable borders crisscrossing and cutting apart the body of Christ.  Yes, ecumenical efforts are real, and we can only be grateful for important theological advances like the Roman Catholic and Lutheran World Federation’s 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justifcation, or the work of the Joint International Commission for Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.  True instances of ecclesial communion have even occurred, such as that expressed by Called to Common Mission, the agreement finalized in 2000 which affirmed full communion between the Episcopal Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Yet, ecumenical efforts such as these are often difficult to translate to the pews populated by the faithful.  For some time, I’ve pondered how we might go about the mundane task of introducing ecumenical dialogue in situations closer to home. 

I do not have answers, but I do have one personal example: it is a life goal of mine to figure out how to pray the psalms.  I love the psalms—I love their musicality, I have powerful memories of communal celebrations of the Hours (which center on the psalms), and appreciate how the psalms resonate just as clearly with the Old Testament as with the New.  But I’m terrible at praying the psalms.  Maybe I’m just bad at reading the Hours alone in my little prayer corner at night.  But, it seems that, for someone who seemingly has a decent grasp on what the psalms are, their poetic form, and their historical use in Christian prayer, I’d feel more spiritually fulfilled by praying them!

I am assuming the trouble is not with the psalms, but with me.  And here is is where my own ecumenical dialogue comes into play: I’ve had some conversations about how to pray the psalms with a friend of mine (also Roman Catholic), and he pointed me to a little book about the psalms: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible.  Bonhoeffer is one of the most prominent twentieth-century Lutheran theologians. 

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Published posthumously in 1959 (Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi prison camp right before the regime collapsed), this volume walks the reader, gently, through ways of approaching the seemingly impenetrable psalms.  Right away, Bonhoeffer reminds us that asking how to pray puts us in good company: the disciples went to Jesus asking that same question.   As Bonhoeffer writes, “The disciples want to pray, but they do not know how to do it.”  So Jesus gives them his own words to use (the Our Father), and invites them to pray in his (God’s) own words. 

Likewise, Bonhoeffer explains, we must learn to pray, too, and we can do this in the prayers that God has written for us: “By means of the speech of the Father in heaven his children learn to speak with him.  Repeating God’s own words after him, we begin to pray to him.”

God’s words, of course, appear in Scripture, and Bonhoeffer explains that the psalms have a special place in all of Scripture—as his title suggests, they are the “prayer book” of Scripture.  Thus, “The words which come from God become, then, the steps on which we find our way to God.” The psalms, it seems, might be my way to practice speaking to God, until, in brief moments, I find that I’m not just reading words, but that the words suddenly become my own—or the words suddenly become Christ speaking to me.

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Bonhoeffer (Lutheran) has helped me (Roman Catholic) to think about how I’m praying.  Reaching across ecclesial lines like this might be fruitful for more Christians than just myself—we can share our resources, our spiritual gifts, or a common effort in seeking justice and peace.  What if more of us encouraged our students, our congregation members, or our colleagues to draw upon the work of our fellow Christians?  What if we, ourselves became more familiar with such resources? Can we ask each other to look to “the other” for conversation partners?

Breaking walls down is an arduous task—one which might take millennia, not just months.  Healing, though, is another type of process.  Healing is what conversation and communion might bring about, and even small efforts, like mine, might be ways which help to heal that scandalous division of Christ’s body.

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