The monastic writer, John Cassian, writes in the fifth century that when we pray the psalms over time, it will be like this:
[The one praying will] take in to himself all the thoughts of the Psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart [emphasis mine] not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances, and his very own prayer…. [c.f. Conference X:11].
How does this happen? Is the every-day experience something that always involves the “deepest emotion of heart”? Well, of course, there are good days and bad days, as is always the case with any human endeavour. But, on a deeper level, it may be important to say that the concept of the heart for the ancients had connotations that we don’t automatically think of today. The heart, for Cassian’s original audience, has very little to do with the mushy, over-emotional concept we may associate with the term today. For Cassian, the heart is the most important part of the inner being. It includes the mind, but it is also to do with the will, the place of deepest inner truth, of self-dedication, firm decision, profound responsibility. So when Cassian talks about the deepest emotion of the heart we need to understand something that has more permanence and stability than we usually attribute to the emotions, maybe akin to a kind of “groundedness” in truth. In a fast-changing world, and an often chaotic life-style, this description of the heart’s inner strength and capacity for self-dedication can be highly appealing. The psalms can help us to realise this state in our own lives.
Many of the psalms are composed in the first person. This allows a species of “transference” to take place, because when we pray things like “O God whom I praise, do not be silent, for the mouths of deceit and wickedness are opened against me” (108:1), or “When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy Lord, holds me up” (93:18), or “I am beset with evils…” (39:13) and so on, the “I” in any given psalm can become our “I” when we’re praying, no matter what our mood might be at that particular time. In this way, the psalms become not only a mode of praying, but they help free us from the tyranny of our own emotions, and become a means of self-transcendence, and of empathy. The psalms enable us to say to humanity, “I am praying not merely for you, but as you”. We can pray the psalms from within the very consciousness of the one represented by any given psalm. This allows us to put our own “stuff” to the side, and really listen to and pray from the perspective of different “stuff.”