What is your favorite psalm?

I actually meant to talk about psalms yesterday, but somehow that post, almost from the first word, was taken out of my hands and morphed into this piece on Oblates and Tertiaries, and I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t fight that sort of stuff anymore.

Those who check in from time to time to pray Morning Prayer or Vespers with me in the podcasts know that I consider psalmody a spiritual wellspring for our eternal thirst, and a most perfect reflection of the human condition in all of its muck and glory.

I also think of the psalms as a necessary disinfectant. No matter how good you think you are, when you catch yourself identifying with the darkest parts of the psalms, you cannot deny the opaque parts of your own soul. And when you are in the depths, feeling lower than a worm, nothing can buck you up so fully as a word from the psalmist, who knows that God is good.

In the funk of acedia, nothing, but nothing, works like psalmody to get you back on your feet, and ready to re-engage the world.

One of my rare complaints about monastics
is that some of them – I stress only “some” – have made a misguided move to accent-u-ate the positive and elim-inate the negative in their breviaries. They’ve decided to omit the darker parts of the psalms – the cries for God to smite others, the self-loathing and doubt – because someone has floated the disturbing idea that we should only focus on “the good things.” That may sound lovely, but it leaves us spectacularly unprepared to deal with the corporal life or the spiritual life, both of which are often under assault by darkness within and darkness with-out.

A psalter without darkness is the spiritual equivalent of prozac. It takes away the highs and lows and leaves you drifting through a passionless and sterile middle ground, where everything is “fine” and nothing penetrates, and the weak spirit just sort of sags into inertia.

I have many “favorite” psalms. Off the top of my head, I will tell you that I love psalms 1, 24, 86, 110, 122 and 139, for very different reasons. With some I love the images, others the consolation, others the mystery. Yesterday I hit another of my faves, Psalm 19, particularly those first seven lines:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story
and night unto night makes known the message.

No speech, no word, no voice is heard
yet their span extends through all the earth,
their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

There he has placed a tent for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his tent,
rejoices like a champion to run its course.

At the end of the sky is the rising of the sun;
to the furthest end of the sky is its course.
There is nothing concealed from its burning heat.

I wouldn’t blame you for wondering what’s so great about it; tastes are subjective. But what I like is the surprise of that seventh line. We begin with pure praise and the lovely poetry delivers us immediately into the cycle of life, the quiet affirmation that carries on, day through day, in the wind through trees, the crack of ice, the buzz of life into which we are so deeply embedded, we don’t even hear it, and here comes the sun! A champion, a bridegroom! The very gift and light of life, itself, running its course! And we cannot hide from its illumination…or its power to burn.

I love tra-la-ing along and then suddenly confronting the seriousness of the truth: it all comes with the burden of scrutiny and accountability. Mercy and Justice reside together, or not at all.

Psalmody, psalmody, psalmody. Whatever you’re wrestling with – bring yourself to the psalter. Open the pages and open your heart; “O God come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” (Psalm 70).

You will be amazed. Seriously. Amazed.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Ellen

    Psalm 51 hands down. I have it almost memorized. I am going to a retreat this fall that will focus on the psalms. It’s being given at a Benedictine Archabbey. I can’t wait!

  • Debbo

    It’s hard to pick just one, but today it’s Psalm 141, particularly verses 2 and 3: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (NRSV).

  • kmac813

    My new favorite Psalm has become 24. I wholeheartedly agree that reading the Psalms are a balm to our souls. Psalm Balm.
    The other day, I was reading Psalms at random, usually starting with my favs 91 and 86… I was asking God to help me remove that unseen barrier that keeps me from Him. I started thinking about a song we used to sing in church – the chorus being “Lift up Your Heads oh ye Gates” – and I was thinking I wonder where that verse is in the bible…on my way to 23 – I happened upon Psalms 24 and decided to read it… there at the end…Lift up your heads oh yea Gates….
    Our God is alive and well and enjoys reading Psalms to us too!

  • btsea

    I admit to being woefully ignorant regarding the psalms though I hear them in Church every week. The ones that stick out in my mind are:

    “I rejoiced when I heard Him say, ‘Let us go to the House of the Lord.’”

    There is something very peaceful about this psalm both in life and as an accompaniment in death.

    The other one is:

    “God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord”

    I just finished reading C.S. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms. It’s possible I’ve read it twice, since I’ve had in on my bookshelf quite awhile and it caught my eye as something I hadn’t read (or had I–some parts seemed too familiar!). Either way, C.S. Lewis, kind of like Chesterton, always provides and extraordinary insight into things that one never has reflected on too much, things like Genesis, things like the Psalms. He always has such a fresh viewpoint. If you like the Psalms, you will probably enjoy his book.

    [edited to admit link - admin]

  • ViolaJ.

    I love Psalm 139 because it reveals just how incredible personal our relationship with God is.

  • http://deedledee.wordpress.com/ deedledee

    Psalm 88 is so me – as one who has spent a lifetime in the dark night of the soul and wandering in the desert…wasn’t it supposed to end after 40 years? At least, someone long ago had the same sadness…alone, friendless, imprisoned, eyes have grown dim, daily I call upon you Lord, I stretch out my hands to you, why, oh Lord, do you reject me, afflicted and in agony from my youth, dazed with the burden of your dread, your fires have swept over me, your terrors have cut me off, companion and neighbor you have taken away from me, my only friend is darkness…

    Yes, there’s lots of wonderful, hopeful Psalms I have written in my little rosary/bible verses notebook, but when I read Psalm 88, it so perfectly is the cry of my soul to my Lord and my God who doesn’t take this cup from me. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away…blessed be the name of the Lord.

  • DonnaC

    Can you believe I actually learned the 23rd and 100th Psalms in public school? Of course, that was back in the late 50′s, but during those days we began, in public school, the class day with Bible reading and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. I was not raised in a Christian home, so it was godly teachers who first introduced me to my Lord and Savior. I look forward to seeing them, in Heaven, to thank them…

  • DonnaC

    Sorry, I should have said, “the class day began with Bible reading and the Pledge…”

  • Hantchu

    My favorites are in a constant state of flux. Sometimes one, sometimes another jumps out at me according to what I’m going through at the time, and I’ve learned that the Psalms that had not spoken to me before can take me by surprise. My favorite Psalm? It would be like asking me which is my favorite child.

    I never identified the psalms in which David talks about enemies and persecutors until I actually had a few of those myself. I knew, really knew that was not alone, and that G-d, unlike man, does not “blame the victim”.

    It is said that King David kept a harp on the wall next to his bed, and that ofttimes, in the middle of the night, the wind would blow the strings and begin to play for him. His frequently-interrupted sleep (were told that David never slept well) was interrupted on those blessed nights by something wonderful. Difficult, but wonderful. I think one of the reasons the Psalms endure and speak to so many of us from different places is that they COST the poet something. As with suffering in all our lives, their is a hidden gain, but you pay for it.

  • http://www.roadsassy.com/spicedsass/ ligneus

    You should pop over to Alan Sullivan at Fresh Bilge, he is a poet among many things and with the help of a Hebrew scholar is working through the Psalms, refining meanings and matching meter with the content and style of each one.

  • Wild Bill

    I can’t pick an all-time favorite but I do have favorites for different occasions/situations. For instance, Psalm 24 is my communion prayer. In the first half, as I block out the idiotic campfire songs, I remind my soul of who owns everything and everyone and how He is to be approached. After a pause to receive communion and go to the second part. I imagine I am an attendant standing outside the gates demanding entrance for my Lord. And then we make a triumphant entry into my most fortified heart where He is enthroned and given the attentive worship He deserves.

  • http://benningswritingpad.blogspot.com benning

    When I decided to read the Bible from start to finish I figured Psalms would put me to sleep. And then I came upon the 22nd Psalm. And it’s the one that has stuck with me. It begins:

    “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? [Why are You so] far from helping Me, [And from] the words of My groaning?”

    Full of prophetic descriptions of the crucifixion of the Messiah, it is my favorite Psalm.