Nouwen: happy are those who carry the Psalms in their hearts

Giovannino de Grassi Psalm 118 (119), Biblioteca Nazionale Florence via wikimedia commonsSince my time in seminary I have been praying the Psalms according to the two month plan offered in the  Book of Common Prayer.    The Psalms, of course, have served as perhaps the greatest source of wisdom and guidance in the history of Christian worship and spirituality.  They are indeed “the prayer book of the Bible”  (Bonhoeffer), and can give voice to our own prayers in an amazing variety of circumstances.

As time goes by, I find myself less inclined to attempt to compose my own prayers.  I would much rather submit myself to these rich forms of prayer that have nourished and inspired my brothers and sisters down through the centuries.      

I think those of us who find ourselves in “free” worship traditions tend to think of extemporaneous prayer as superior, because we assume it to be more authentic and sincere than the offering of prayers that have been written by another.  But this presupposes that prayer is, first and foremost, an expressive practice – a form of speech through which we pour out our self before God.  While it is certainly true that prayer has this expressive dimension, it is also a formative practice.  The prayers that we utter and hear on the lips of others are  shaping our understanding of God, his Church, ourselves, and the world around us.  The sincerity of a spontaneous prayer is important, but so is the depth and thoughtfulness of a written prayer – and no prayers have greater depth than the prayers of the Psalms.

This morning I was reading a bit of Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, and came across these thoughts on how the recitation of Psalms during Compline brought him strength and comfort.  Commenting on Psalm 90, he writes:

Slowly these words enter into the center of my heart. They are more than ideas, images, comparisons: They become a real presence.  After a day with much work or with many tensions, you feel that you can let go in safety and realize how good it is to dwell in the shelter of the Most High.

Nouwen Genesee DiaryMany times I have thought: If I am ever sent to prison, if I am ever subjected to hunger, pain, torture, or humiliation, I hope and pray that they let me keep the Psalms.  The Psalms will keep my spirit alive, the Psalms will allow me to comfort others, the psalms will prove the most powerful, yes, the most revolutionary weapon against the oppressor and torturer.  How happy are those who no longer need books but carry the Psalms in their heart wherever they are and wherever they go.   Maybe I should start learning the Psalms by heart so that nobody can take them away from me.  Just to be able to say over and over again:

O men, how long will your hearts be closed,
will you love what is futile and false?
It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves;
the Lord hears me whenever I call him (Ps. 4)

That is a prayer that really can heal many wounds.

Like Nouwen, I hope that as I absorb the prayers of the Psalms on a daily basis, they will sink in to my bones, and lodge themselves in my heart, so that they provide me strength and nourishment during the trials that surely lie ahead.

7 thoughts on “Nouwen: happy are those who carry the Psalms in their hearts

  1. Very helpful thoughts. I like the way you termed it – not just “expressive” but “formative”. Thank you, James.

  2. Indeed we have often considered our spontaneous prayers as being so personal and direct but truly the prayers of the Psalmist or prayers which have been written for us to pray with regularity and in a meditative stance, can be so insightful and meaningful to us and to God’s ears. Thanks you , James, for sending me your words and Henri’s.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Your post makes me want to re-read Genesee Diary. Also, I found that the prayers in the Psalms not only richer, but also “bolder”. So, when we thought we are more “free” in the free worship tradition, we are actually more “bounded” (by ourselves). But when we thought we are more “bounded” by praying the Psalms, we are actually more “free”.

    • That is a wonderful insight, Derek. I agree with you about the boldness of the Psalms. The Psalmists pray things that I would probably never be bold enough to pray on my own (such as “Why are you so far from saving me…? My God, I cry out by day but you do not answer!”). The fact that these prayers are found in scripture tells me that God can handle such bold prayers. So, it is just as you say – there is real freedom in binding ourselves to these bold prayers. Thanks for your comment.

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