I Hated the Psalms

Michael Philpott

For most of my life, I disliked the Psalms. It all started as a kid sitting in the pew at Mass during the Liturgy of the Word. I enjoyed the Old Testament stories in the first reading and hearing the Good News from the Gospel reading. The second reading, typically from an epistle, often went over my head, but I could live through them. But the responsorial psalm? Blech. 

First, I didn’t appreciate the music of a modern simple chant. Most of the time, I spaced out. But when I would try to focus on the words in the missalette… I felt zero connection to this part of the Word. Running deer and clapping rivers? Chariots, bucklers, and arrow quivers? It seemed to be an endless stream of boring poetry that kept vaguely repeating the “God is great” with different metaphors that had no meaning to my young self.

My, how wrong I was. But simply reaching adulthood wasn’t enough. Though I did have a better understanding of the place of the psalms on an intellectual level, I still didn’t “get” them, let alone find much use in them. But finally, FINALLY, the beauty, importance, and USEFULNESS of the psalms in prayer life opened up to me when I started to pray them instead of merely reading them.

A little over a year ago, I started to pray the Liturgy of the Hours – the so-called “prayer of the church”. It’s the series of the prayers that priests and religious have been praying for centuries at certain hours of the day, which Vatican II opened to the laity. And guess what? The bulk of it consists of the Psalms.

And I finally realized what the psalms really are. Or at least, what they are to me.

The psalms are a place that I can meet God, meet myself, and ponder my relationship with Him. And each psalm is a poetic meditation on that relationship. There are Psalms that proclaim His greatness, His mercy, His justice, and any number of other attributes, pointing our minds and hearts to contemplate the Almighty in covenant with us. There are Psalms that laser in on our own very personal sense of alienation from ourselves, each other, and the world, showing us the need for God. They tell us how our great God rescues us from this alienation. But not all the psalms are pretty. Some dig deep into the times when God allows us to remain in periods of crushing self-doubt and victimization. Such psalms teach us that we can’t run away and hide ourselves from our wounds but must recognize the place where our hearts are amidst a cruel world.

The psalms help the soul converse with its creator. They are dialogues. Isn’t that a foundational core of prayer?

I daresay that one of the challenges to appreciating the psalms is that when we encounter them in the Mass – if we’re not distracted – they move along quickly as part of a communal hymn. Sometimes, we may perceive it to be a random musical interlude between the readings. So, let’s do something different today. Stop reading this article for a second and get your Bible. Or pull out your phone and get ready to look up a psalm.

Ready? Okay, go to Psalm 130, today’s responsorial psalm, but read it slowly and try to focus on the words. Turn off any background noise. Think of it as a whole rather than as disconnected verses. How do the words connect to each other? How does each verse build to the next? Take your time. This bulletin isn’t going anywhere.

Done? Okay, great. So, here’s a little meditation on this psalm. What was yours like?

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my cry! How often does the world seem so much bigger than I! I feel so small and weak all the time. Does God even know what’s going on in my life, in my heart? I am in the depths! Alone! But still, I call out to Him. Please, Lord, let your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication.

Why would God even listen to me? I’ve screwed up so many times. Sometimes badly. Very badly. But then I remember that we all have, and that hasn’t stopped God’s saving grace yet. If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness that you may be revered. I take courage. I remember the salvation of Christ and that He bridged the gap of sin between me and Him. 

When the great accuser, the serpent himself, tempts me to doubt in God’s mercy, I lift my eyes up and trust in the Lord. My soul trusts in his word. More than sentinels wait for the dawn, let Israel wait on the Lord. I remember my time in the Army. Pulling watch at night is fraught with danger, uncertainty, fatigue, and fear. And it seems to go on forever, as does the solitude of mortality. But the dawn does come with light and the hope of life! 

For with the Lord is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption; and he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities. No matter how dark it is, the light of salvation is there for us all. My soul may sometimes feel shrouded in darkness. And in that darkness, it may feel like evil has won the world. But it has not. I trust in You; I await your dawn in my soul.

This psalm gives me the courage to cry out to God in my pain and hope in His promise that He will save His people.

Thank you for joining me on this little meditation on one of the Psalms. Perhaps you will find this part of Scripture useful in your own journey in talking to God.

One last thing. Later this month at the Jackson Cor meeting, we will be having a conversation on how specifically men can engage with the psalms in their relationship with God, others, and themselves. If you are a man, please join us on Saturday the 15th at 7am at St. Mary’s church hall (in the basement) where we support each other in walking the road of virtue. We would love you to come and experience the fellowship!