My regular readers know that I spent the last month and a half at St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota, working and thinking and losing myself among the meadows, and losing my senses to the quiet ecstasy of the northern forest and the poignant little wild northern flower. And praying. Losing myself in the chapel. One unique feature of the monastic existence is its prayer life: the withdrawal and return of the daily rhythm of prayer, from morning to night, a chorus of voices in and out of sync, sliding up the chapel walls. It’s the Liturgy of the Hours. In full, there are seven daily prayers in the contemplative monastic schedule. My monastery keeps to four, plus the daily Mass—a usual practice for active contemplatives, who have outside ministries to attend to—and the bulk and heart of this communal prayer is the Book of Psalms.
The chanting of the psalms is a practice more ancient than Christianity itself. It goes back to the Babylonian Exile, in the 6th century BCE, when the captured Jews, far from their holy land and deprived of the Temple, began to create “portable Judaism” with features we recognize today: worship centered around prayer and the study of Scripture instead of sacrifice; sacred time of Shabbat instead of sacred space; emphasis on purity laws like kosher diet, distinctive dress, and circumcision. It is then they discovered Paradise in the words of the Torah, and they recited the psalms in daily prayers.
They returned home and rebuilt the Temple, resumed sacrificial ritual, but their newly acquired understanding continued to develop and gained influence from the Persians, Greeks, and Romans in later centuries. By the time of Jesus, it was customary to offer worship in the Jerusalem Temple at fixed times of day: every three hours from 6am to 6pm. Sacrifice and psalmody were part of those rituals. And Christianity, being a form of Judaism, of course, continued this prayer life in a manner that fit it, as Rabbinic Judaism did after the destruction of the Second Temple: minus the sacrifice.
We know that the apostles did this. We know that the early Christian communities did this. We know that the Desert Fathers, the progenitors of monastic life, made this prayer their paramount and unceasing work, adding to the Jewish texts their Christian touches: the Lord’s Prayer, the Gospel and New Testament readings, the hymns. This daily cycle of prayer for the Church that we call the Liturgy of the Hours—or Divine Office—has changed some here and there over the centuries but not all that much. Its essence and principal components endure substantively from at least the 6th century CE, when Benedict of Nursia codified this Opus Dei (“work of God”) in his rule. And now, all over the globe Jews recite the psalms as written, and Christians repeat after them in every conceivable language: Catholic priests, deacons, and monastics, as well as Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran religious, raise their voices to the heavens in a sort of perpetual planet-circling series of meridian-like waves.
It’s a beautiful thought. I’ve thought about it quite a lot for the past few weeks, as I walked to the chapel at St. Scholastica, down the cloister walk to the tolling of the bell: “Gather! Come! Pray!” And almost every day I discovered some line or another in a psalm that speaks to me anew, from a depth or perspective before unfelt. We go through all 150 psalms — most contemplative communities in a week, as intended in Orthodox Judaism (and by St. Benedict), active contemplatives like St. Scholastica in a month. Some psalms reoccur more often than others, more than once a week. Some stay longer in my mind.
Some lines…just take my breath away.
O God, you are my God, for you I long. For you my soul is thirsting… (63:1)
…say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” (91:2)
And Psalm 16, my favorite…
I say to you Lord “You are my God.
My happiness lies in you alone.”
You have put into my heart a marvelous love…
O Lord it is you who are my portion and cup…
…you will not leave my soul among the dead,
nor let your beloved know decay.
You will show me the path of life,
the fullness of joy in your presence…
Still, as I’ve been reciting the psalms day after day in a chorus of voices, my mind could not help but do more than marvel at their wisdom, melt into their longing, and muse at their antiquity. As we pray, I am not always comfortable with what we are saying.
The original, Hebrew word for “psalms” is t’hilim, which means “praises.” Yet if you are even a little familiar with this book of the Bible, you know there is more there than praises. There are themes that run through the psalms. Some speak of praise to the Lord; others are full of anguish—an afflicted soul begging for relief; yet third are devoted to gratitude. Not all praise but all prayer, and I can relate to all of that. A pronounced, however, and recurring streak in the psalms is unadulterated, run-amok vindictiveness. It eats up a few of the poems completely, and it runs through some of the others like an ugly thread in a perfect tapestry. Floats like a dead mouse in a barrel of cream, fouling the thanksgiving, poisoning the praise, making the pleas for mercy fall flat.
There seem to be an awful lot of foes populating the psalms—you’d think a paranoid nightmare if only most of it probably weren’t real. “The wicked,” the enemies of God and of the poet, are everywhere, plotting and warring and scheming and being generally bad—and terrible things happen to them or are asked to happen. No forgiveness, no mercy, and no moderation exist for them. Please, Lord, scatter them into ashes, bash their heads in, tear them from limb to limb! Flood the valleys with their children’s blood. And when they are mutilated, humiliated, dead, and eternally condemned, our psalmists—the voices of righteousness they are supposed to be—rejoice and get back to praise and thanksgiving.
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked. (3:7)
Endless ruin has overtaken my enemies,
you have uprooted their cities;
even the memory of them has perished.
The Lord reigns forever… (9:6–7)
You made my enemies turn their backs in flight,
and I destroyed my foes.
They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—
to the Lord, but he did not answer.
I beat them as fine as windblown dust;
I trampled them like mud in the streets. (18:40–42)
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
and his fire will consume them.
You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
their posterity from mankind. (21:8–10)
Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies,
the hairy crowns of those who go on in their sins.
The Lord says, “I will bring them from Bashan;
I will bring them from the depths of the sea,
that your feet may wade in the blood of your foes,
while the tongues of your dogs have their share.” (Psalm 68:21–23)
The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad…
Fire goes before him
and consumes his foes on every side. (97:1–3)
This vengeful streak in the Tanakh is not new, of course, to me or to anyone who’s read the Bible. It gets better and it gets worse, but the Hebrew Scripture is a reflection of the life and times of ancient Hebrews, and it was a hard life. Those were, as ever, violent times. More or less steeped in fact along its axis, the Bible’s is a bloody and brutal history.
The psalms were written over half a millennium at least, from the inception of the monarchy in the 11th century BCE through inter-tribal struggle and separation of kingdoms, through the fall of Israel to Assyria and of Judah to Babylon, through the Great Babylonian Exile and return. For much of that time, Israelites were half-farmers half-soldiers, and good ones at that, seeing their God first and foremost as warrior king, mightiest of all the other gods. They were not even fully fledged monotheists until about the time of the exile; they were just getting there yet. Almost half of the psalms are attributed to King David himself, though he is unlikely to have authored them—but it is his story and spiritual authority that sound in the words of the liturgical poems, it is his fight and triumph over every foe, his longing for God, rise from nothing, and everlasting legacy. It is a primitive, if hopeful, theodicy of the time that sounds in the psalmists’ words, in which God’s faithful and good are rewarded in this life, for there is no greater reality yet to consider — and the enemy of Israel is the enemy of its God, to be trampled and punished immediately and into dust :
I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
(Psalm 37:25 of David)
Well, I have. You have, too. Every day the righteous starve and die all over the world. But when I read the lines of the more ancient psalms, I see in them the nascent realizations of the grandeur and complexity of reality, and I see them changing, deepening, and growing. When I see the exhortations to the genocide of their enemies, I am sad but understanding, and I cut the ancients a little slack for the world they were living in, lessons they were learning, for the trails of wisdom they blazed we now walk. I am a Bible scholar. That’s how I read the Bible.
Except…it’s different when we pray, isn’t it? When we recite words in prayer, we’re not supposed to think of their historical and cultural contexts, we’re not supposed to evaluate them in light of their national heritage. In prayer, we recite from the heart, sending up and out sentiment contained in the lines. We cannot help it. We shouldn’t have to be able to help it. We should be able to mean it.
So when I say,
Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock (137:9),
should I? Mean it?
All things change in our temporal universe. Times, cultures, symbols, foundations of moral law and social pillars, forms of expression. That’s one of the reasons we cannot live literally even by those biblical laws that were actually meant literally when they were written, thousands of years ago in a land far away. All things change, and we cannot simply repeat the same prayers for thousands of years without beginning to wonder at some point if every line in them expresses the relationship we now have with the Divine. Because as we change, the world changes, God changes, our relationship changes too.
All things change, some slower than others. If the Book of Psalms were composed today, its “praises” would be the same in certain ways and yet different. There would be praise in it and there would be longing, there’d be pleas for relief, complaint, and thanksgiving. I think there’d be a lot more explicit questioning of God about the problem of evil and the meaning of life. And a lot less calling for smashed children’s heads, no wading in blood of our enemies, and no exalting of God for burning nations to a crisp. We are praying today with the voice of the past, a voice not to be severed, but a voice we haven’t added to in 2,500 years or so. I wonder. By repeating week after week the exhortations to blood-letting and fire-blazing calamities to our multitude of plotting foes, what subtle indoctrination do we exert upon our subconscious minds? What sort of strange self-propaganda are we engaging in even as we ponder the metaphor of the psalm for our lives and times?
Of course, even in the angry psalmody meaning abounds, and vengeance is intertwined with terror, and terror with pain, and pain with longing, and longing with praise. Remember the line about children smashed against the rock? It’s from Psalm 137, one of the more famous and beautiful, and one that pierces my own heart in such a wounded place that I can hardly read it often, and when I do, I cry.
By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat weeping
when we remembered Zion.
On the poplars in its midst
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us
for the words of a song;
Our tormentors, for joy:
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”
But how could we sing a song of the LORD
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget.
May my tongue stick to my palate
if I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
beyond all my delights.
Remember, LORD, against Edom
that day at Jerusalem.
They said: “Level it, level it
down to its foundations!”
Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
blessed the one who pays you back
what you have done us!
Blessed the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock.
This is a song of lament of the Jews in exile. They have seen their homeland come down in a cloud of dust. They are condemned to die in a foreign land, beyond the great river, among those who destroyed their Temple of faith—those who now will listen to our native song as light entertainment, and no grief and no guilt will burden their mindlessness. I know this place. I am these psalmists, and they are me. But one doesn’t have to experience exile, it seems, to feel the pain of their words, because this is one of the most popular psalms and deeply felt. And it ends in vengeance.
It’s understandable, isn’t it? Angry psalmody for today. It’s not all hold-over from primitive times, it’s relevant. There is catharsis in it and an occasional lesson for our actual fights and struggles, and to think of it, not all enemies are external—there is passion there for the banishing of personal demons. And yet, approaching the last lines of Psalm 137 with a torn and mangled heart, I trip over the ending, and I can’t. Here, in Babylon, my blood doesn’t boil for revenge, and for its children I will lay myself on the rocks. Any day.
We all need catharsis from time to time, but I hardly imagine most of the people who pray the psalms deriving much satisfaction from the imagery of even metaphoric enemies going up in a blaze of fire, bathing our feet in their blood, perishing from memory in the wind. Whatever we try to find in the vindictive lines of the psalter to justify them in our prayer life, they still bring an alarming regularity of condemnation, revenge, and plain old violence. In the end, these are songs of an ancient and violent world. We should read them. We should know them. We should taste the words that grew up and blossomed fresh and beautiful, like wild flowers, through the scorched earth of the psalmists’ embattled era and take those for our prayers. But I am not sure we should be reading down the psalmists’ embattled score, whole, note for note, every day, for the rest of our lives.
Centuries after the last psalm had been written, a man would walk the same Jerusalem streets, and he would say, “Love your enemies and pray for them.” We are his disciples, and we try to do that, for better or worse, like he said, but I think it might turn out to be a little easier to love our enemies if five, six, ten times a week we did not proclaim in a chorus, in a chapel, in a posture of prayer:
O God, do not remain silent…
See how your enemies growl…
With cunning they conspire against your people…
… Do to them as you did to Midian…
who…became like dung on the ground.
… Make them like tumbleweed, my God,
like chaff before the wind.
As fire consumes the forest…
so pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your storm. (83:1–16)
The teacher we follow was faithful to his scripture, but this was not, in the end, what he said. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”