The Psalms: The Church’s Song Book

February 1, 2022

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I had the extraordinary experience last month of recording all one hundred and fifty Psalms for the new Catholic Hallow App. Over the course of several sittings, sequestered in a tiny studio, I endeavored to communicate the intelligence, passion, and devotion of the person (more likely persons) who wrote these ancient poems. Though I have been regularly praying the Psalms as part of the Liturgy of the Hours for the past roughly forty years, I had never before simply read them through aloud, one after another. It was, at the same time, demanding and deeply prayerful—and it compelled me to see the Psalms with fresh eyes.

As I pronounced these poems from the Church’s privileged book of prayer, I thought frequently of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s musings on the heart. Von Hildebrand complained that the Catholic intellectual tradition gives ample attention to the mind and to the will but that it painfully neglects the heart—which is to say, the seat of the passions and emotions. In the presence of a value, he says, the entire person responds, the mind appreciating what is true in it, the will seeking what is good in it, and the heart delighting in its beauty. This multivalent “value response” occurs in relation to, say, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a pristine winter morning, a lovely face, or an elegant mathematical equation. And it occurs, par excellence, with respect to the supreme value of God. The mind revels in God’s truth (think of the writings of Thomas Aquinas); the will responds to God’s infinite goodness (think of the dedication of Maximilian Kolbe or the Little Flower); and the heart overflows in the presence of his splendor (think of the words and gestures of the liturgy). 

The Responsorial Psalms at Mass are just that: the privileged manner in which we speak back to God who has spoken to us.

Now, there is indeed something of Aquinas in the Psalms, for we could distill a theology of God from them; and there is indeed something of Kolbe in them, for we could tease from them a moral program; but there is in them, above all, the aching, longing, and delight of the heart. The Psalmist exults, laments, spits out his anger, excoriates his enemies, praises God and berates God; he is so happy he can barely contain himself, and he is so profoundly sad that he feels like lying down with dead people. The motto that St. John Henry Newman took when he became a Cardinal was cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart). I can’t think of a better description of what is happening as we recite the Psalms: to the God who has poured out his heart to us, we pour out our own hearts. 

A second strong impression I had upon reading all the Psalms is how much stress they place on enemies. I would wager that “enemy” and “foe” are among the most common words in the book of Psalms. Again and again, the author agonizes over those who are opposed to him; those who threaten him, both with speech and with swords; those who plot against him, those who make him the object of their mockery; those who would be glad to see him in his grave; etc., etc. Moreover, the Psalmist actively wants their destruction, their defeat, their humiliation; he even wants to bash in the heads of their children! The reader of the Psalms might be forgiven for thinking that the author of these texts is more than a touch paranoid. 

But I don’t think that psychologizing the Psalmist is nearly as interesting as musing on the theology that provides the context for his preoccupation with his foes. The simple truth is that, in a fallen world, the righteous man will have enemies, and the more righteous he is, the more of them he will have. The person with no enemies, as Churchill rightly saw, is not be trusted, for he stands for nothing. There is, of course, no better example of this principle than Jesus himself in relation to his contemporaries. As the Gospels unfold, we see the army of Jesus’ antagonists increasing exponentially, and by the end of the narrative, those opponents put him to death. So intense is the opposition to him that we can speak of the sins of the world being placed upon him. To be sure, Jesus consistently urged the love of one’s enemies and, from the cross, he uttered a word of forgiveness to those who were putting him to death. But as Stanley Hauerwas quipped, in order to love one’s enemies, one has to have some enemies. It is difficult to read the Psalms and not come to grips with these peculiar dynamics.

I can’t think of a better description of what is happening as we recite the Psalms: to the God who has poured out his heart to us, we pour out our own hearts.

A third and final point I should like to make is that the Psalms give expression to the distinctively dialogic quality of biblical religion. It is a commonplace to say that Christianity is a revealed religion—which is to say, one based, not so much on philosophical speculation or mythological imagination, but on the speech of God to us. A divine person has addressed us and therefore it is only natural that we should speak back—in praise, thanksgiving, frustration, puzzlement, and grief. The Psalms, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible, display this conversational quality of biblical faith. And, therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that the Church has used the Psalms liturgically as the optimal way to respond to the Word of God. Though they are often obscured by bad lectors or set to tragically treacly melodies, the Responsorial Psalms at Mass are just that: the privileged manner in which we speak back to the God who has spoken to us. It was actually a peculiarly thrilling thing that, as I read aloud these ancient texts and felt the emotion of the author, I sensed that I was indeed conversing with the mysterious one who had first broached the conversation.

So, if you feel that your spiritual life has grown a bit dry, or if you sense that you have wandered away from the God who loves you, I might recommend that you open up the Church’s songbook—and sing.

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