We all learned it in the Catechism: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2559). This definition goes back at least as far as the eighth century to the Syrian Arabic writer Yuchanan ibn Mansour, better known as Saint John of Damascus. To help us do this, we were nourished from the great sources of Christian prayer: the Scriptures and the liturgy.
Over the centuries, however, both of these became less accessible to many Christians. Spiritual writers then began to develop methods to help us pray more effectively (the most famous is perhaps The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius), and various forms of popular devotions stood in as viable substitutes. The renewal of Vatican Council II, however, focused especially on Scripture and liturgy, and had an impact on Christian prayer.
If we turn to both of these sources with prayer in mind, what immediately jumps to the forefront is the Book of Psalms. While prayer appears in different contexts throughout the Scriptures, it is especially here that we see, gathered together in one place, many aspects of the biblical understanding of prayer.
When we turn to the liturgy, we see that the psalms are used quite often. They form the backbone of the Liturgy of the Hours, where the psalms are prayed in a four-week cycle; and in the Eucharist they function particularly as prayers of response. “The Psalms remain essential to the prayer of the Church” (CCC, #2586).
The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 prayers from different periods of Israel’s life. While the final collection is connected in a special way with the figure of King David, it is difficult to know for sure which, if any, he actually composed.
We can approach the psalms from a variety of angles: historical, literary or theological. Here we are especially interested in them as a “school of prayer.” What can we learn from them about prayer? Two lessons stand out. First, they are prayers of the whole person. Secondly, they are prayed from the whole of life. Let us examine each of these in more detail.
Prayers of the Whole Person
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” But what exactly does “mind and heart” mean? Often, we consider these to refer to our knowing and our loving. Since a human being is made up of a body—our material part—and a soul—our spiritual part—knowing and loving are actions of the soul.
Prayer is a “spiritual” activity, which tends to leave our bodies behind. While the words body and soul appear in our English translations of the psalms, this is most definitely not the biblical understanding.
In the Bible, a human being is a rich and multifaceted reality that can be looked at from different aspects. Thus, the person can be viewed as “body” or “flesh” (basar in Hebrew). This refers to the whole, living human being—body and soul—viewed from the outside.
Basar is what we see and touch first; it is something we have in common with other creatures. Since flesh is the soft part of the body, it can indicate human existence in its weakness (for example, Psalm 78:39). [All verses quoted are according to the New American Bible, with revised Psalms, imprimatur 1991.]
From another angle, the person is “soul” (nephesh). Again, this is the living human being, but viewed from the inside. The basic meaning of nephesh is “throat,” where experiences of hunger and thirst are felt (Psalm 107:5,9).
From this, nephesh becomes the focus of desire welling up from deep within (Psalm 42:2). While “throat” is not the best translation of nephesh—“neck,” “life,” “person” and “self” are other possibilities—it might be good to keep it in the back of our minds because when we encounter the word soul in the psalms, there will be a strong temptation to over-spiritualize it.
A person can also be a “spirit.” The Hebrew word ruach is not a spiritual term either. It means “wind” or “breath.” God creates humans and breathes into them the “breath of life” (Psalm 104:29-30). Ruach is breath, the vital force of life. When the psalmist prays, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:6), it is not a prayer at death, but a prayer to be preserved from death.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a human being is the “heart” (leb, lebab). For us, the heart is the seat of the emotions; in the Bible, it is much richer. The heart is the seat of thinking (Psalm 10:6,11,13), of feeling (Psalm 13:6) and of desiring (Psalm 37:4).
Insight, understanding and obedience flow out of the heart. “Oh, that today you would hear his voice: Do not harden your hearts…” (Psalm 95:7-8). The heart can be troubled (Psalm 25:17), duplicitous (Psalm 12:3) or contrite and broken (Psalm 51:19). The very center, the core of human life, is the heart, and it is in this sense where we can say prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God.
But there’s more. The living unity—the human person—does not live alone. The person is enmeshed in relationships. First comes the family, then the clan or tribe, then the religious community of Israel. Israel under the monarchy was a nation among all the nations of the earth. When they are happy, the psalmists call out to others to join in their praise.
At times, this is their religious community (Psalms 22:23,26; 95:7). At other times, it is all the nations of the earth (Psalms 96:1; 100:1). When they are suffering, one of the greatest pains is to be isolated, cut off from others (Psalm 88:9,19).
But we cannot stop here. The individual and the community are part of something bigger: all of creation. At its greatest, the call to praise includes the sun, the moon and the stars, as well as fire, hail, winds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and animals of all kinds (Psalm 148:3-10). When immersed in suffering, the psalmist is drowning in the waters (Psalm 130:1), and when beset by enemies, wild and ferocious animals attack him (Psalm 22:13-14).
Prayer in the psalms is full-bodied. It is the prayer of the whole person—of the individual—immersed in community and part of all creation.
Prayed from the Whole of Life
The psalms are “reflections of the human experiences of the Psalmist” (CCC, #2588).
These experiences run the gamut of feelings. Here we will examine how the psalms gravitate around the poles of praise and lamentation.
The English word psalms is Greek and means “songs sung to musical accompaniment.” The title of the book in Hebrew is Tehillim, which means “praises.” Thus the whole book is put under the heading of praise. But what exactly does praise mean? Often we equate it with thanksgiving, but while this is part of praise, it is not the first or most important part.
“The dead do not praise the Lord, all those gone down into silence” (Psalm 115:17). Death is characterized by lack of praise; on the other hand, life manifests itself in praise. There cannot be true life without praise of God. Praising God and being a living creature belong together in the Bible.
Instead of offering a definition of praise, let’s provide an example. When my youngest nephew was about two years old, for Christmas I gave him a purple teddy bear. As he began to open it, his eyes lit up. He tore off the rest of the wrapping and ran back and forth between his parents saying, “Look! Uncle Mike gave me a purple teddy bear!” Only later, with parental direction, did he come and say, “Thank you.”
Children have to be taught how to say, “Thank you.” They do not have to be taught how to praise. It calls out to others and it focuses on the giver and the gift. The “thank you” comes only later. Praise, at its most basic level, is the spontaneous response to the giftedness in life and the giftedness of life. Praise is a religious “Wow!”
This simple illustration contains all the key elements of psalms of praise. Psalm 117, the shortest of the psalms, is representative:
“Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Give glory, all you peoples!
The Lord’s love for us is strong;
the Lord is faithful forever.
The psalmist calls out to others. The experience of life bubbles over and brings others into its orbit. And then a reason is given: for, because. Sometimes the reason is a more general description of God—God’s attributes or the ongoing activity of God in creation. This type of psalm is frequently called a “hymn.”
At other times, more concrete acts of deliverance are recalled. “I sought the Lord, who answered me, delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:5). In some specific situation of need, the individual or the community turned to God and God responded. This type of psalm has been called a “thanksgiving.” This proclamation of the giver and the gift is important for another reason. When we do this, we are remembering what God has done for us, and memory is an essential part of our lives.
From time to time, we hear in the media of persons being found with complete amnesia. They do not know their names, families, where they came from or where they are going. Memory gives us identity; it tells us who we are, where we are from and where we are going. Praise is an act of religious memory; we are from God and en route to God.
Praise, then, is a response to the giftedness of life, a response that focuses on the giver and the gift and shares this with others. It is prayed out of joy, strength, happiness and blessedness. It is a corrective to pride and arrogance, because it helps us to remember that we depend on God and are God’s creatures. As one spiritual writer has put it, praise is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.
Our lives are not all joy, happiness and strength. At times we experience exactly the opposite. We know brokenness and pain, alienation and confusion, doubt and the absence of God. Then we lament: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:2).
Just as praise is not the same as thanksgiving, so lament is not identical to petition. If praise is a spontaneous response to happiness in life, lament is a spontaneous response to pain. If praise is a religious “Wow!” than a lament is a religious “Ouch!”
Laments are the single largest type of psalm. Approximately 50 are cries of pain. It is a type of prayer with which we are not very familiar and are not comfortable. But it is a thoroughly biblical form of prayer, occurring in both the Old and New Testaments.
Laments are prayed directly to God: “Out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord, hear my cry!” (Psalm 130:1-2). God seems very far away. They ask heartfelt questions of God: “Why?” (Psalm 10:1) and “How long?” (Psalm 13:2). These imply, “I do not understand what is happening” and “I cannot hold on much longer!”
The afflictions of the speaker(s) are described in stereotyped ways with which all sufferers can identify: sickness (Psalm 6:3), danger and mistreatment by others (Psalm 6:8), loneliness and alienation (Psalm 31:12), shame and humiliation (Psalm 4:3), old age (Psalm 71:9) and death (Psalm 28:1).
Laments often speak of enemies. At times these enemies are from outside the community, but more often the enemy who schemes and plots against the psalmist is from within (Psalm 31:14). Sometimes the psalmist suggests to God things that God might do to these enemies. These are the so-called “cursing psalms”(Psalms 10:15; 58:7-10).
As Christians many of us are uncomfortable with these raw emotions and we think, at times, that it is wrong to express them. It is possible to see in lament just the opposite. The psalmist(s) really felt this way, and there may be times we do as well.
To deny or suppress these feelings is not healthy. Lament suggests we entrust them to God. Our feelings are real and they won’t go away. Lament is a constructive way to deal with them.
It has been noticed that almost every lament psalm (except Psalm 88) ends on a turn to praise, such as Psalms 6:9-11 and 22:23-32. From the viewpoint of prayer, the meaning seems clear: Once we lament, healing can begin.
The power and blessing of life are experienced anew, and the turn to praise expresses this. In more theological terms, it is only by facing and going through death that we come to new life, to resurrection. The structure of lament warns us that it may be possible to praise too soon.
The Cycle of Prayer
The prayer of the psalms circulates around the poles of praise and lament, and these are rooted in real experiences of life and happiness, of death and brokenness. The hymns express God’s ongoing and gracious care in our lives—orientation.
When things take a turn for the worse—disorientation—our pain comes to expression in lament. When we are restored to a better situation—reorientation—we express thanksgiving to God for a specific deliverance. We can pray authentically at any point on the cycle.
The prayer of the psalms takes our human life, in all its dimensions, very seriously. They are full of “heart” and full of feeling. Nothing in our experience is foreign to our prayer. It is there in the everyday interactions of our lives, in our deeply felt blessings and joys and our deeply suffered pains and hurts, that we respond to our God, the source and root of all life.
The psalms are truly prayers from the heart, from the heart of our persons and from the heart of our lives.
Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California. This article first appeared in the January 2005 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.