A tight rope walk with Thomas Merton on one side of the chasm and King David (and several lesser known authors) on the other still leaves me struggling with the wisdom of the Psalms. Our busy lives present many valleys to ponder. Thomas Merton short book explores how the Psalms can be used in prayer to traverse chasms in life.
The barriers for me I believe is the context of King David’s time and the Old Testament language and experience being applied to modern times in modern vernacular. More than that the Psalms are not meant to be read – they are meant to be sung in praise and celebration. Experience any psalm played by talented musicians at the Psalm Project.[iii] Surely this how King David envisioned the Psalms to be used to praise God.
You can really feel the power of the psalms when attending charismatic churches that embrace full musical choirs. It can be a powerful experiential spiritual journey. Yet, even alongside hundreds or perhaps thousands of believers (mega churches), you can be left with only fleeting grace, fading before you exit the parking lot. What is missing is substance. Your substance:
The problem is therefore not to learn from the Psalms a totally new experience, but rather to recognize, in the Psalms, our own experience lived out and perfected, orientated to God and made fruitful, by the action of loving faith. Ultimately we do this by uniting our joys with the joys of Christ in the Psalms, our sorrows with the sorrows of Christ, and thus allowing ourselves to be carried to heaven on the tide of His victory.[iv]
Merton knows just how to state things so plainly, so intuitively that you may miss the depth of what such a simple statement implies. The substance of the Psalms applied to our own life with sincere contemplation (meditation), shared devotion (songs of praise at church or temple), and action (a continual awareness of God’s presence and ability to have all of our actions and decisions be guided by humble discernment).
This is not as hard as it sounds. Merton describes it as merely only listening and acting to what we already know:
“I delight to do Thy will, O my God, and Thy law is in the depths of my heart.” [vi]
But there are real human barriers for us all to content with every day:
Obedience: It is interesting how people struggle with the idea of obeying an omniscient God. I ask where people think their sense of right and wrong is derived from as individuals and as a collective. When we are at our best are we not intuitively listening to “something” instilled on our nature, something profound, something universal that we have all come to recognize that all humans share across nations? Call it the human spirit. We know when the human spirit is distorted. We recognize it immediately in our guts whether wrong actions are committed by the individual (Charles Manson), by extreme religiosity (ISIS today, The Crusades, and other religious wars), or by nation states (Hitler’s Germany).
Politics: Nation states are particularly frightening today recognizing that charismatic leaders can bring their nations down the road of evil through fear, intimidation, and false patriotism with massive arsenals at their disposal. We live in and have a responsibility to be engaged in society. You can be deceived into believing you are fighting for goodness. In America we believe we stand for righteousness. One TV interviewer had a Trump supporter saying whatever Donald Trump says is what God wills. This is a distortion of epic proportions. Some other nations believe we have it deadly wrong. Our current President has shaken the world’s confidence that we can stand for moral principles in times of turbulence. Internally our nation is divided and torn by both politics and race. We have put our faith in men and parties rather than our minds on truth and God.
Discernment: It is not political. It is not a party. It is not a nation. It is an individual responsibility. It is to be actively lived and to be actively engaged with the world.
Selfishness: How often our own self-interest is put ahead of the world’s poor. How often are we challenged by our own desires or simply to avoid boredom?
Estrangement: As a nation gone astray we can especially feel estranged from discernment, feeling isolated and definitively alone with our struggles where we may exclaim something akin to Psalm 12:
“How long, O Lord, wilt thou utterly forget me? How long wilt thou hide Thy face from me?”[vii]
It can be grueling when as believers we have a “feeling” of spiritual dryness, a struggling moment or many moments piled high days on days on days on end? Some refer to this as the dark night. I cannot say I have experienced the “Dark Night.” I have had many dark nights and times of misery — though I fear experiencing the depth that some saints have experienced before me or even the dark nights that others are experiencing tonight as I sit hear contemplating God and writing about psalms.
All of the above challenges and many more can take us away from truly knowing God or having a proximity to conscious awareness of God’s way from which to draw on for support and guidance. It is a terrible lonesomeness.
“As the hind pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God: when shall I come and see the face of God? My tears have become my bread day and night, whilst they say to me daily: Where is thy God?”[viii]
Many great mystics and believers feel this same way often. Many priest. It is not something we can demand – it is a gift to have even a passing fragrance of God’s presence.
It is easier to fight man’s wars with man’s tools. We can easily join the noise and fight fire with fire, anger with anger, violence with more violence — especially when we cannot “feel” God’s presence. How weak are we that we need or year for that presence on demand when we are suffering? If we always felt God’s presence discernment and living God’s will certainly be a great deal easier.
Why turn to God’s way when revenge or counter attack seems called for and perhaps even on its surface, morally the right thing to do?
The reason why we submit entirely to His will is because He is good. We do not obey merely for the sake of obedience, but as a testimony to the supreme goodness of God Himself.[ix]
Again, Merton nails it with simplicity above. Not with the nails of the cross, but with the reality of the majesty and unknowable goodness of God himself. Meditating on why we should surrender to God’s way and continue to seek God’s way can be guided by spending serious time with different Psalms. Doing so can prepare you for any circumstance every day, including the final circumstance, when our physical body surrenders to mortality.
The Lord is my shepherd: I want for nothing; he makes me to lie in green pastures. He leads me to waters where I may rest; he restores my soul. —Psalm 22: 1-2.[x]
We cannot by mere human ingenuity or talent exhaust all that is contained in the Psalms. Indeed, if we seek only to “get something out of them” we will perhaps get less than we expect, and generous efforts may be frustrated because they are turned in the wrong direction: toward ourselves rather than toward God.
God knows you – Psalm 139[xi]
[i] Citation (APA): Merton, T. (2015). Praying the Psalms [Kindle iOS version].
[iv] Page 25 · Location 161
[vi] Page 31 · Location 208
[vii] Page 32 · Location 224
[viii] Page 36 · Location 253
[ix] Page 39 · Location 277
[x] Page 41 · Location 287
[xi] Psalm 139New Living Translation (NLT)
1 O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!
7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
8 If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
9 If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.
13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.
17 How precious are your thoughts about me,[b] O God.
They cannot be numbered!
18 I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
you are still with me!
19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
for your enemies are my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
- 139:8 Hebrew to Sheol.
- 139:17 Or How precious to me are your thoughts.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.