I remember when, after years of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I first began to explore how to pray the psalms. I should have done this much earlier! Once I realized what it means to pray a psalm, a new appreciation of the Liturgy of the Hours opened for me.
Rather than discuss this abstractly, I will choose one psalm as a concrete example. And as we examine what it means to pray this psalm, we will see what it can mean to pray any psalm.
For this purpose, I have chosen Psalm 57. I invite you, therefore, before proceeding further, to read Psalm 57 unhurriedly and attentively. This meditative reading will be the best preparation for our discussion of the psalm and how to pray it.
Have mercy on me, God, have mercy,
for in you my soul has taken refuge.
In the shadow of your wings I take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I call to you, God the Most High, to
God who has always been my help.
May he send from heaven and save me,
and shame those who assail me.
May God send his truth and his love.
My soul lies down among lions,
who would devour the sons of men.
Their teeth are spears and arrows,
their tongue a sharpened sword.
O God, arise above the heavens;
may your glory shine on earth!
They laid down a snare for my steps;
my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path, but
fell in it themselves.
My heart is ready, O God;
my heart is ready.
I will sing, I will sing your praise.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, lyre and harp!
I will awake the dawn.
I will thank you, Lord, among the
peoples, among the nations I will praise
you, for your love reaches to the heavens,
and your truth to the skies.
O God, arise above the heavens;
may your glory shine on earth!
When the Church invites us to pray a psalm, She provides more than the text of the psalm: She gives us three rich helps to guide our prayer.
At times, when we pray with Scripture — the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12), for example — we encounter in the text some elements that we understand and others that remain challenging for us. Some explanation of the text, therefore, is helpful — not pages of lengthy academic reflection, but short, simple, spiritual introductions to the text we are to pray. The Church supplies these in the Liturgy of the Hours in three ways.
The first is an antiphon. The Church chooses some element from the psalm and places it at the beginning, before we begin to pray it. This antiphon affords an insight into the verses we are about to read. In this case, the antiphon is, “Awake, lyre and harp, with praise let us awake the dawn.” This is verse 8 of the psalm. The “morning” quality of this Hour — that is, Morning Prayer — is evident in the antiphon chosen. The Church tells us that we are praying this psalm because it is a prayer at dawn, an invitation to praise God as the day begins.
The second is a title of the psalm. In this case, the title is “Morning prayer in affliction.” The title expresses the literal, original meaning of the psalm. The psalmist prayed it as the darkness of night, and the heaviness of heart he experienced in it, broke as dawn approached and the sun began to rise. This became for him a time of new hope.
Psalm 57, therefore, is prayed by a person whose heart is burdened as the day begins and for whom dawn is a sign of hope that God will come to his aid. This psalm allows us to express our own trouble of heart, or that of others close to us, in the wider Church, and in the world, with trust that God will hear this morning prayer.
The third is the sentence that applies the psalm to the New Testament. For Psalm 57, the Church supplies words from Saint Augustine: “This psalm tells us of our Lord’s passion.”
The Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament. The Passover lamb of the Old Testament, for example, is fulfilled in Christ, Whose blood is shed for our sins and through Whose sacrifice on the Cross we are saved. The Old Testament is rich in itself; it is God’s word, rich in teaching and in narration of God’s action on behalf of His people. Everything in it, however, is directed toward its fulfillment in the New Testament. When, therefore, we pray the psalms, we pray them with this perspective in mind.
Augustine invites us to see in Psalm 57 an expression of the sentiments and the
prayer in Jesus’ heart as He faces His Passion. This consideration opens a
whole new approach to this psalm as we pray Morning Prayer. Psalm 57 allows us
to enter Jesus’ heart, to hear His cry of affliction to His Father, and to
perceive also His unshakeable trust that His Father will hear His prayer.
Praying the Psalm
Now we are ready to pray the psalm.
Have mercy on me, God, have mercy: This is the first thing, the cry of the heart: Have mercy on me; bring me Your saving help! My heart is crushed, bowed down, heavy with affliction. Come, and have mercy on me!
For in you my soul has taken refuge. In the shadow of your wings I take refuge . . .: The Scriptures often employ the image of safety in the shelter of God’s wings: “under his wings you may take refuge” (Ps. 91:4); and the hen who protects her chicks in the safety of her wings (Luke 13:34). This person who is so oppressed and in such affliction cries out to God. “In the shadow of your wings I take refuge,” the psalm continues, “till the storms of destruction pass by.”
I call to God the Most High . . .: God “Most High,” Who is Lord of the universe, for Whom all things are possible, Whose mighty power can help the one in distress.
. . . to God who has always been my help: You have always been there for me in my life, Lord. I have experienced Your unfailing help in the past. Be with me now, in my present pain. Come to my aid “till the storms of destruction pass by.” “May he send from heaven and save me, and shame those who assail me.”
May God send his truth and his love: This person, in his morning prayer of need, asks for two things. May God send His truth: the light, the power, the strength of His word; and His love: His word become action, His saving intervention in my life.
My soul lies down among lions . . .: An image of utter helplessness. His enemies are figured here as lions, ravening, wild beasts who surround him. “My soul lies down”: he is helpless; he has no energy to resist them; he falls prostrate on the ground, surrounded by raging beasts who seek his life. Spiritually, this is the person who feels utterly overwhelmed by the burden, the suffering, the struggle, the fear, who feels completely helpless and can only turn to God: “My soul lies down among lions, who would devour the sons of men.”
Their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongue a sharpened sword: Their words are sharp, piercing. They are mortal, killing, destructive words. His enemies hurl these words at him for his ruin.
O God, arise above the heavens!: For the first time, the refrain appears, a cry from the heart, “O God, arise above the heavens!” The dawning sun, the sun rising at the beginning of the day, is for him the image of God arising with great power, on his behalf, ready to intervene, to save him from his enemies.
May your glory shine on earth!: The glory of the Lord, in this person’s present affliction, is the Lord’s saving intervention in his life. As the sun rises, as I offer my prayer this morning: Lord, let Your glory shine on the earth; let Your glory, Your saving love and help, come to me as I lie helpless, overwhelmed by burdens, oppressed by the assaults of the enemy.
They laid down a snare for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path: A second image of the oppression of his enemies: They are hunters, and they have laid traps into which, unsuspecting, unaware, he will fall and be lost.
They dug a pit in my path, but fell in it themselves: This is the pivotal moment in the psalm. Now everything changes. Their own snares have caught them. God has intervened with His saving power.
Has God’s intervention already taken place, and therefore this person rejoices? Or is he now so certain that God will intervene that he already rejoices, even before that intervention takes place? It is difficult to know. I think of the words that Blessed Solanus Casey repeated so often, “Thank God ahead of time.” This person’s heart lifts as he experiences or knows beyond doubt that he will experience God’s intervention.
My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready. I will sing, I will sing your praise: He is no longer prostrate and helpless on the ground. He has straightened, is on his feet, is standing. His heart is filled with joy, and he is ready to praise God.
Awake, my soul! Awake, lyre and harp! I will awake the dawn: This is the verse the Church highlighted in the antiphon, a morning prayer in which affliction of heart lifts with the certainty of God’s loving aid. This person, now sure of God’s help, calls on those who play musical instruments to accompany him as he sings God’s praise at dawn, after the darkness, both cosmic and spiritual.
I will thank you, Lord, among the peoples, among the nations I will praise you: I want all the peoples in the world to know of Your saving help in my life and to join me in praising You.
For your love reaches to the heavens, and your truth to the skies: The two things for which he asked, God’s love and truth, have been given, and in abundant measure.
O God, arise above the heavens; may your glory shine on earth!: The psalm closes with the repetition of the refrain.
After the psalm, the Church supplies three further helps to complete praying the psalm. We pray the Glory Be, such that every psalm and canticle leads finally to the praise of the Holy Trinity.
An optional psalm prayer is then provided. For Psalm 57 in Morning Prayer, the psalm prayer reads, “Lord, send your mercy and your truth to rescue us from the snares of the devil, and we will praise you among the peoples and proclaim you to the nations, happy to be known as companions of your Son.”6 Our enemy is identified as the devil, from whom we ask to be freed as the day begins. We ask that the Lord send us His mercy and truth to this end, and that this freedom awaken praise in our hearts and a desire to proclaim the Lord to others. In a lovely way, this prayer applies the psalm to our spiritual reality this day.
Finally, we repeat the initial antiphon as we conclude our prayer of Psalm 57, “Awake, lyre and harp, with praise let us awake the dawn.” We express once more, now having prayed the psalm, our desire to praise God as the day begins.
Praying a Psalm on Three Levels
A psalm may be prayed on three levels. We may choose one or another freely, as we feel the desire or need. We will apply these levels to our Psalm 57 when prayed in Morning Prayer.
1. An Expression of Christ’s Prayer.
First, as Saint Augustine indicated, we might pray Psalm 57 as an expression of Christ’s prayer in His Passion. As we pray this psalm, we might feel moved to enter the heart of Christ as He prays in His affliction. We might do this any time we feel so moved; for example, in Lent we might feel even more inclined to do so.
We could, then, pray this psalm with Jesus, as a window into His heart, as a prayer that brings us close to Him. Thus, the words “My soul lies down among lions,” “their teeth are spears and arrows,” “they laid a snare for my steps,” “they dug a pit in my path,” and the rest will speak to us of the arrest, trial, and condemnation of Jesus. We will also see in this psalm the joy of the Resurrection: “Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp, I will awake the dawn. I will thank you among the peoples.” A psalm, therefore, may be prayed as a prayer with Jesus and as an insight into His own prayer.
2. The Church and the World.
Second, the psalm may be prayed on the level of the Church and the world. We might, in this case, pray Psalm 57 this morning for those suffering in the Church, whose waking is filled with affliction, who feel as if they are lying down among lions, for whom tongues like sharpened swords and snares may be realities.
We could think, for example, of Christians who are oppressed for their faith, whose lives may be in danger this day for their fidelity to Christ. We can offer the prayer of Psalm 57 on their behalf. They are our brothers and sisters, our fellow members of the Church, and in our prayer we ask for God’s saving intervention on their behalf.
Perhaps something in the news about the sufferings of Christians in one part of the world is on our hearts as we pray this morning. We may wish to pray this psalm for them. As we pray Psalm 57, we give expression to the sentiments of their hearts and their desperate need, praying to the Lord on their behalf, “O God, arise above the heavens, may your glory shine on earth this day. Defend them, lift them up from the pit, save them.”
The suffering of people we know might also be in our hearts this morning, perhaps a family member undergoing a trial, a spouse, a son or daughter, a parent, a cousin, an uncle, a colleague, friends, or parishioners whose lives are burdened this day. Then we can pray Psalm 57 as a cry for God’s help, mercy, and saving intervention for them.
We might also pray this psalm for suffering people throughout the world.
3. A Personal Level.
Third, we may pray the psalm on a personal level. As we rise this morning, there may be affliction and burden in our hearts. We may feel as though our souls are lying down among lions, as though in some way a pit has been laid before our steps, and we may feel helpless, unable to carry our burden. Psalm 57 then becomes an expression of our morning prayer in affliction, “O God, arise above the heavens, may your glory shine on earth. Intervene in my life this day in the way I so need.”
Any of the psalms may be prayed on any of these three levels. In the Liturgy of the Hours, we are free to pray on one level or another or in a way that links them, as our hearts desire.