Praying Those Complaining Psalms

I think it is generally true that people turn to prayer most often when they are in some sort of difficulty; namely, when they are sick, when they are facing some dilemma, when they are threatened by some calamity, etc. This is certainly true of the men and women who wrote and prayed the psalms. The most common psalm is the lamentation or complaint. When we lump all the communal laments and the personal complaints together, they outnumber all the other psalms by a wide margin. We begin almost every hour of the Liturgy of the Hours with a familiar expression from the psalms: "O God, come to my/our assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me/us."

In today's second reading from the Office of Readings, St. Augustine speaks of how the psalms makes our prayers the prayers of Jesus and the prayers of the Church, the Body of Christ. Referring some of the words Jesus is reported to have uttered during the harrowing events of his Passion, St. Augustine maintains that these prayers, like the drops of blood he shed, are offered to God on behalf of all Christians who find themselves in straits of danger, illness, threats, etc.

One of the most beautiful things about the psalms of lamentation is, however, the fact that they contain a sort of movement. When they are prayed carefully, the one who is using them is moved from fear to confidence, from sickness to a sense of health, from ennui to vigor. For instance, Psalm 22 begins with the words which we hear from Jesus as he is hanging on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Just a few verses later, the psalmist reminds himself that the answer to his question lies in the experience of his ancestors who also called upon God for help and were eventually saved from their plight. Reasoning that if his ancestors were helped in their time of need he could also expect to be helped, the psalmist goes on to say that the way out of his plight is to help others in need.

When I was a nineteen year old novice being introduced to the psalms on a daily basis, I often found myself wondering whether I would ever find the psalms a satisfying experience of prayer. Of course, when one is nineteen years old, he has not generally experienced many difficulties in life. As he grows older and discovers the realities of poor health and the various other negative experiences of life, the psalms begin to make more sense. While the complaints of the psalmist may have seemed something of a downer in the beginning of life, they certainly don't seem that way now. Through the psalms, I have come to understand that one way to overcome such difficulties is to let God know that one is confident that God can and will intervene.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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