What if someone could guide you to God in those moments, could take you before the throne, lean over and whisper, “Just say it like this,” and then unfurl a stream of words that meant everything your heart was feeling but cannot communicate? That someone is Christ, and he whispers in the Psalms.
The church has always recognized the Psalter as its first tutor in prayer, just as it was for the saints of the Old Testament. Early Christians, ministers and laity alike, turned to the Psalms to learn what, when, and how to pray. Sts. Athanasius of Alexandria (293–373), John Cassian (360–435), and Benedict of Nursia (480–547) all, for example, wrote about using the Psalter in prayer. The latter two focused on monastic use, but Athanasius’s words apply to any believer.
Says that ancient defender of the faith, the Psalms not only enjoin us to be thankful, encourage us to endure tribulation, and point us to repentance, they also give us the words to use for those moments. And it’s not just these things; the Psalms provide words fitting for the myriad “movements of the human soul. . . . In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.”
And the supreme grace of it: God has provided the words. They are the words of Christ himself. Standing in total solidarity with us, Jesus, the New Adam, is in every way like us. He assumed our total human experience and thereby healed and redeemed it. But unlike us, Christ is without sin, and so has complete and perfect communion with the Father. Only he can truly pray, and for this reason we can only truly pray when we do so in his name, following his lead. One place he leads is in the Psalms.
Traditionally, the primary speaker of the Psalms is David. But Christ is in the shadows. “In the Psalms of David the promised Christ himself already speaks,” explains Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “The prayers of David were also prayed by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David.” This perspective on the Psalter is shaped and informed by two millennia of church tradition and interpretation—by men like Athanasius, Cassian, and Benedict—which sees Christ in the Psalms as our elder brother teaching us how to pray.
When we pray the words of the Psalter, we pray with Christ at our elbow. Again Bonhoeffer:
It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who pours out the heart of all humanity before God and stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we. Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by him which comes here before God. It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.
When we open the Psalms and begin to read, begin to pray, we are often surprised at how fitting they are, how they capture our moment, whatever we feel (or want to feel). It should not surprise us that the Psalms speak our secrets. They know both the open spaces and dark corners of our heart because they are the words of the one who first fashioned our heart and then later took its joys, sufferings, hopes, and struggles upon himself for our sakes.
In his little book on praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton talks about people who “know by experience” that through the Psalter “Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself.” I want to be one of those people. How about you?