February 12, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

New series of reflections on the psalms

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

Many Catholics have never been taught to appreciate the psalms. That’s too bad because these ancient Jewish prayers remain essential to the life of the Catholic Church. Part of a psalm is included in almost every Mass. But too often those at Mass don’t pray those psalms with any great devotion.

With Lent beginning next Wednesday, I thought it might be a good time to start a series of columns about the psalms. However, I want to make it clear from the outset that the columns will be only my non-expert reflections on them.

Nevertheless, I hope that they will encourage you to appreciate them more, to understand them better, and perhaps to pray them with greater devotion. That, at least, is my purpose.

I hope, too, that you’ll read some of my future columns with your Bible open to the psalms, especially when I describe specific psalms. Otherwise, I don’t see how you’ll understand what I’ll be trying to say.

In his keynote address at an international consultation on priestly formation in 1998, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium said, “For prayer, the foundation is the psalms.” He said that he suffered from the fact that so many priests “merely read the psalms. The psalms have never actually entered into their hearts or have had any emotional impact on them.” He was talking to priests, but the same applies to laypeople, too.

I guess my appreciation of the psalms began decades ago when I decided to start praying the Liturgy of the Hours. I began with morning and evening prayer, then later added night prayer, still later the Office of Readings and, finally, daytime prayer.

Anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours prays almost all of the psalms over a four-week period, but some are prayed more often than others are. The one prayed most frequently is Psalm 95, since it is the Invitatory Psalm, a call to praise God, the first prayer of each day.

The psalms were the prayers Jesus prayed. As any good Jewish boy of his time, he probably knew most of the 150 psalms by heart. Even on the cross, he prayed Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

While I was doing the research for my book St. Thomas More: Model for Modern Catholics, I learned that he loved the psalms. Some of them were part of his daily prayers, particularly the seven penitential psalms (which I’ll reflect on in a later column). For night prayer with his family, he chose Psalms 51, 25, 67 and 130, the De Profundis.

Toward the end of his life, St. Thomas wrote an extended commentary on Psalm 91, which extols the benefits of trusting in God’s protection. While in prison, he collected verses from 31 different psalms to form one powerful prayer that he could pray in his cell. His last prayer, as he knelt on the scaffold before his execution, was Psalm 51, the Miserere. †

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