The Psalms: An Introduction

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

On Mondays we have been examining traditional ways of prayer, by meditating on the richness of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. Each of these easily memorized prayers gives access to profound depths of encounter with the Gospel.

Today we begin a long series on praying with the Psalms.

The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Church. All clerics and all in religious life are obliged to pray the them, in the Liturgy of the Hours, as the cornerstone of their prayer life. Lay people are strongly encouraged to join them. Another way to say this is: where the Church legislates prayer, it legislates the Psalms; where the Church only encourages, it encourages us to pray the Psalms.

Although there is a standard Liturgy of the Hours used by many communities, it is not that standard order that the Church requires. The Church simply requires communities to pray some approved version of the Liturgy of the Hours. In other words: the Church does not demand any specific way of praying the Psalms, she just requires that the Psalms be prayed. To join in the Psalms is to join the prayer of the Church.


It is to join a long tradition. From the very beginning, the Psalms have been the Church’s prayer. Paul tells the Church to “speak among yourselves in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” James says, “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.”

Paul seems to put them on the lips of Christ: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” On the road to Emmaus, Jesus even singles out the Psalms as a place of prophecy about the Messiah: “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled that were written in the law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me.” On the Cross, Jesus’s last words are from the Psalms.

Since the very beginning, monks and priests have prayed all 150 Psalms every week. Vatican II spread the Psalms out over four weeks only to help priests pray them well, and so to rediscover this centerpiece of traditional Catholic spirituality.

And of course they tie us to a much deeper tradition, all the way back into Judaism and the life of the Temple. Strong arguments can be made that David was the author of all or many of the Psalms – but in any case, they come from his time. The Church’s practice of praying the Psalms ties us to our Jewish heritage – and the Church has always thought this is very important.

To pray the Psalms, then, is an act of communion with the Church through all the ages.


More importantly, the Psalms are wonderful prayers. They are revealed, the prayer book of the Bible. God himself gives us words to pray with. The tradition often prays Psalms antiphonally: with one side singing while the other listens, and then vice versa. It is as if we receive these divine songs of praise as a gift, and then make them our own.

The tradition says the Psalms are a summary of Scripture, “all of Scripture in the mode of praise.” They give a deeply personal summary of the moral teaching of the Bible, they take us deep into the spiritual meaning of sacred history, they call us to the heart of our relationship with God, and they reveal the true meaning of heaven.

Jesus himself says, finally, that they are prophesy about him. We can discover the person of Jesus in new depth when we pray the prayers he gave us, the words he gave us to speak of him. This is profound – we will talk more about it in the weeks to come.


Finally, while the Psalms speak all of Scripture, they also speak of all of our own experience. Psalm is a word that means “twang”: these are prayers set to music (chant music, with harps). And the music is at the service of emotion. The Psalms speak to our hearts. They verge on the embarrassing as they express the full range of frustration, joy, sorrow, fear, and every other emotion.

They give us permission to plumb the depths of our own emotions in ways that make us nervous. They train us in bringing those emotions into relationship with God.

How could you dig deeper into the Psalms?


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