The book of Psalms has played an important role in the spiritual development of an untold number of people throughout the centuries. Devout people who set a regular time aside for prayer and meditation can easily use and adapt the songs and prayers from the Book of Psalms to address issues in their own lives and struggles. The songs and prayers of the psalmist express the struggles of doubt; they deal with the issues of faith and mirror the problems and challenges people face every day. What makes the Psalms so relevant to life and spirituality is the fact that these songs and prayers are true expressions of the psalmist’s humanity, and they are honest assertions of faith and praise that reflect the worshiper’s encounters with God in daily life.
For those believers who experience God in churches where the liturgical approach to worship is not strong, the Psalms are not emphasized to the degree that they are in the worship of liturgical churches. In addition, very few people in Protestant churches have ever heard of Ignatius of Loyola, much less of his Spiritual Exercises. The ignorance about the spiritual traditions of other religious communities, and, at times, the unwillingness even to learn how other faith traditions seek and serve God, contributes to the impoverishment of the spirituality of many people who would be blessed by different approaches to their spiritual lives. Ignatian spirituality and its perspective on worship could enrich the lives of other Christians.
In many religious communities, the Book of Psalms has become an integral part of their religious activities. In her book, Living with Contradiction: Reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict, Esther de Waal emphasizes the role the Book of Psalms plays in the Rules of St. Benedict and in the life of Benedictines. She wrote: “St. Benedict has himself clearly been shaped by the psalms, and the Rule quotes them constantly, more frequently than any other biblical source. He clearly wished that in his monastery the life of the community and the life of each individual should also be shaped and formed by them. So the psalms hold the central place in the daily saying of the offices, and the whole Psalter is recited weekly, until the words of the psalms would inform the mind and penetrate the heart. Benedictines are people of the psalms.”
Endres draws on his spiritual tradition as a Jesuit and uses the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola to focus on the Psalms as an aid to “prayer, reflection, meditation, and communal prayer.” Endres believes that a meditative reading of the Psalms can achieve the intent Ignatius articulated in the Principle and Foundation In that section of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius wrote: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their souls. The other things on the face of the earth are created for humanity to help them in attaining the end for which they were created.” The best way for human beings to achieve the end for which they were created is by developing a “creation-oriented spirituality,” which is focused on the praises of God as the creator.
Human beings are created to worship and serve God the creator. The prayers of Psalms were written in response to the psalmist’s life experiences. These same prayers and songs also reflect the whole range of human emotions, the same emotions which are present in the lives of every human being today. For this reason, human beings must approach God by the means God has established for us to worship him. It is because the Book of Psalms expresses such a variety of human emotions that the Psalms have become an excellent way for worshipers to pray to God with the words of Scripture, for when one prays with the words of Scripture, one becomes acquainted with prayers as God wants them prayed. When worshipers pray with the Psalms, they encounter words and sentiments that are ready to be used in the worship of God. This is the reason the early Christians, with gratitude in their hearts, sang “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” to God (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Walter Brueggemann says that when we pray the Psalms, “we find that the words of Scripture bring power, shape, and authority to what we know about ourselves.”
The contribution of form-critical studies on the book of Psalms has aided those who want to use the Psalms as a prayer book by classifying them according to their types. In the Psalms we discover the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people as well as their petitions and laments. In addition, in the Psalms we find faith mixed with anger, vindictiveness with forgiveness, questioning with assurance. Thus, the book of Psalms is a place where we can learn the true meaning of prayer, and it is a book that can teach us how to pray the right way. To pray in the right way means to speak to God in a way that corresponds to God’s own words to his people. True prayer in the Book of Psalms is basically and fundamentally a prayer of praise to God the creator.
Endres’ selection of Psalm 8 is fitting because it reflects Ignatius’ view that human beings were created to praise God. In this Psalm the words of the psalmist are marked by the humility of the worshiper in attempting to speak of the majesty of God the creator. In contemplation, a worshiper can see the majesty of God’s creation and marvel that God has given human beings a special place in creation. Psalm 148 is a hymn of praise in which all the elements of creation and all the inhabitants of the earth are called to praise God, their creator. In reading Ps 148 a worshiper will understand what Ignatius said in the introduction to his Exercises, that human beings were created to praise God. The “Principle and Foundation” of the Exercises calls for the use of “other things” to help human being achieve the goals “for which they were created;” therefore the selection of Ps 74 is fitting because the psalmist affirms that out of the horrors of life, God is the one who acts on behalf of his people. Meditating on Ps 74 causes a worshiper to realize that the powers of evil, which often attempt to overpower the people of God, have been vanquished and subdued by God.
The faith expressed in the Psalms is based upon the personal trust of the worshiper in the God of Israel as the creator of the universe. The origin of this trust in God lies in the mighty acts of God which God performs on behalf of his people. These acts of God in the history of Israel provide the foundation for the psalmist’s faith because they are works of salvation. Thus, the psalmist celebrates these historical acts of God because they have given meaning to Israel’s existence, and eventually, to the psalmist’s own life.
One of the many benefits of praying with the Psalms is that the songs and prayers in the Book of Psalms come out of the worshiper’s fellowship with God within the community of faith. This is the strength of using a spiritual guide such as the Spiritual Exercise of Ignatius of Loyola for prayer. When believers pray together as a community of faith, they strengthen one another.
The Book of Psalms is indeed a priceless source of assistance to those pilgrims who embark on a journey of faith and discovery. Those who seek communion with God will find in the Psalms the strength and the encouragement they need to meet God in their daily pilgrimage. Those who struggle and those who celebrate will find in the praises and prayers of the Psalms help to know that the God who created them is the same God who has been active in the life of his people. It is for this reason that worshipers today can learn from the worshipers who expressed their feelings and sentiments in the songs and prayers in the Psalms.
Note: This article was read at the Symposium on Theological Interpretation of Scripture held at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois, on September 26-28, 2002, in response to the paper “Praising God the Creator: Praying with Psalms During the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius” by John C. Endres. The article was published under the title “Response to Endres,” Ex Auditu 18 (2002) 116-19. Andres’ article was published on pages 93-115 of the same volume. This article was published with the permission of Wipf & Stock, Publishers. To read the article with its footnotes, click here.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary