When I go into the chapel for the Divine Office, yes, it is a time for being with God in the deep places of the soul. But, really, all humanity is there, too, because all humanity is represented in the Psalter. In the Divine Office, we sing the one-hundred and fifty psalms of the Psalter through in a week, give or take. The psalms become familiar – some become friends.
In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically. We have the human person’s experience of God crystallised – I suppose that’s what one might expect of biblical poetry. But, less predictably perhaps, we also have the human experience of being human expressed in the psalms. Every human emotion is there in the Psalter: there’s praise and petition, euphoria and celebration; there are psalms of exhortation; some psalms refer to a congregation being there; others seem to be highly personal and private; kings and queens make appearances; shepherds, deer, bulls, goats and rams, fish and rabbits; all Israel is there; the psalms tell the story of Israel’s exodus, of the election of Israel as the Chosen People of God, and of their failures: Israel’s infidelity is frankly admitted – again and again; but so too God’s faithfulness is affirmed – again and again: the psalms testify with wonder and gratitude to God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s notable, also, that the psalmist’s states of disillusionment and abandonment by God are written large in the Psalter. The Psalter’s pictures are not just the pretty ones about deliverance and forgiveness. Unlovely pictures of anger and anguish, rage and raving are painted in vivid colours in these inspired texts.
All this diversity is glorious, on the one hand. But on the other, how can I absorb it each time I go to the chapel to pray? Can it all become “me” every time? What if I go to prayer feeling rather down, and it happens to be the day for praying, “I will sing forever of your love, O Lord”? Or, I may go in feeling rather elated about something, and the psalm happens to be, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
One of the first things I learned about the praying the psalms is that the psalms aren’t just about “me” because prayer isn’t just about me. I wanted to be present to others when God called me. The psalms in their diversity bring others to me and enable me to hear about their experiences as each psalm unfolds, verse by verse, day by day in the Divine Office. In praying the psalms it becomes possible to pray from a stance of listening to humanity. It becomes possible to pray in solidarity with those in the world who are feeling what that psalm is expressing. I can take the psalmist’s experience and claim it as my own, pray it as my own.