The story is told of an old West Texas cowboy who was not very articulate. He struggled mightily to express himself, even in his prayers. And so he finally resolved his dilemma by writing out the words to the Lord’s Prayer and posting them on the wall beside his bunk, and then every night right before going to sleep he would look over at that piece of paper, nod and say, “Lord, them’s my words.”
This is how I learned to pray. I cut my spiritual teeth on the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (the 1945 edition), and I still use it often in my life of private devotion. Its rhythms and cadences, its words, phrases and thoughts have gradually become my own through decades of use. “Them’s my words.”
The British theologian Alister McGrath talks about the value of what he called spiritual “hitchhiking” in one of his books (The Journey – 30-32). “Hitchhiking” is the term he uses to talk about how the spiritual experiences and expressions of others can be a tremendously helpful resource in the development of our own spiritual experiences and expressions. “It reminds us that we do not have to be alone or depend on our own resources as we journey” (30). To hitchhike “is to get a free ride and to travel in company.” It is to learn a little bit about the road you are traveling on from someone who has been down it before.
C.S. Lewis once said that he read books in order to know that he “wasn’t alone” in what he was thinking and feeling, and spiritual “hitchhiking” can do this for us as well. Because we are not the first or the only people to have a relationship with God, by exploring the prayers of others we can gain a better understanding our own experiences with God by learning about theirs, and by becoming more open to new experiences with God, ones we haven’t had yet. And this, I’ve found, is both the key to understanding the Psalms, and the reason why they are worth the effort to get to know.
It was the Protestant Reformer John Calvin who called the book of Psalms “an anatomy of all parts of the human soul, for there is not an emotion of which one may become conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” D. Brent Sandy and Tiberius Rata in their essay on “Approaching the Psalms” in Interpreting the Psalms for Teaching and Preaching (Chalice Press – 2010) explained this same thing about the Psalms by describing them as being “inward reaching” (2). “Praise is proclaimed, worship is experienced, sins are confessed, fears are expressed, doubts are exposed, frustrations are dumped, anger is unloaded. On our own we are reluctant to express our feelings to God so freely. We would barely give birth to words of praise so high and seldom, if ever, shout out compliant so deep” (2). But there they all are, finding full-throated expression in the Psalms, and inviting us to join in the song. As Thomas Merton put it, “To understand the Psalms, we must experience the sentiments they express, in our own hearts. We must sing them to God and make our own all the meaning they contain” (Praying the Psalms – 13). It’s “Lord, them’s my words,” but it’s more than that. It’s also “Lord, them’s my feelings.” This is how the Psalms yield their meaning to us.
First we connect with the moments from life that they describe – inhabiting “the hamlets of human experience” that they narrate (Sandy & Rata -7). And then we identify deeply the feelings that go with those experiences, feelings that we fully share with the Psalmist. And then finally, we start to talk openly with God about all of those experiences and feelings that we are having just like the Psalmist did. Thomas Merton described the French poet Paul Claudel’s poems based on the Psalms as the themes of the Psalms getting “restated in his own words.” Merton said the Psalms “entered the poet’s whole life and being,” became “part of him,” and then they came forth “from the poet’s heart brand new” (23). He described Claudel as “a twentieth century psalmist, saying over again what David and the others said thousands of years ago” (23). And I’m pretty sure that this is what we are all supposed to be: contemporary psalmists, people who can talk with God honestly about what is happening in their lives and in their worlds.
The Psalms are designed to be vehicles that carry us into our own encounters with God. Fr. Louis Evely said that the most important rule for the proper interpretation of the Bible that he ever learned was this: “Everything that they tell happens in your life; everything that happens in your life is prophesied, has already been lived out in the Scriptures” (Our Prayer – 70). And while I believe that this is true for all of Scripture, I believe that it is especially true for the book of Psalms. Psalms will never be understood at the level of the ideas that they teach alone. Oh, clearly there are ideas at work in the Psalms – important truths about God and ourselves that are being revealed. But we don’t get at these truths first or best with our heads. We get at them first and best with our hearts, and so it is to the heart and of the heart that the Psalms speak most clearly. And it is when the connection is made between our hearts, the psalmist’s heart and God’s heart, that the Psalms cease to be ancient Hebrew poetry and become living statements of faith; not just an account of somebody else’s encounter with God from long ago and faraway, but a description of our own encounters with God that are unfolding in our lives right here and right now. DBS+