If You Want to Know God, Immerse Yourself in the Psalms
Like most Christians, I have always loved the book of Psalms. It was the first hymnbook of the early Christians and the hymnbook and prayer book of the Jews. Jesus died with the words of the Psalms on his lips. After his resurrection, he told his disciples: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, New Revised Standard Version, author’s emphasis). No other book of the Old Testament is so often quoted in the New. It is a storehouse of messianic prophecies that the first Christian preachers expounded and applied.
Like many people who grew up in church, as a boy I memorized Psalm 23, the Great Shepherd’s Psalm, along with Psalm 100. At VBS, in those familiar words from Psalm 119, I pledged allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word, “a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. Its words will I hide in my heart, that I might not sin against God.” Later, as a graduate student, I discovered The Book of Common Prayer, and for years the daily offices of morning and evening prayer, which always include several psalms, have provided structure to my own devotional life.
Then several years ago, I picked up Joan Chittister’s The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, a brief and very readable commentary on Western Christianity’s leading guide for monastic living for the past 1,500 years. Benedict called for monastic communities to structure their day around work and prayer—which is not a bad idea for those of us who are not monks. His tradition of Ora et Labora, “pray and work,” calls for seven daily “offices” or times when the monks cease their work and pray.
Most Evangelical Christians, when introduced to the daily Benedictine offices, are surprised to discover how biblical their prayers and worship are. For the most part, they come directly from Scripture. Benedict apportioned the Psalms across the seven daily hours of prayer so that the entire Psalter is prayed or sung through each week.
This introduction to Benedictine spirituality—especially the practice of praying through the Psalms each week—was intriguing to me, so I decided to try it for myself. For 40 days I observed the seven hours of prayer each day: Vigils (night prayers), Lauds (sunrise), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (noon), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (sunset), and Compline (evening prayers that “complete” the day just before retiring). I followed Benedict’s arrangement for the Psalms and prayed completely through all 150 each week for six weeks. It was a life-changing experience.
Through this constant exposure to the Psalms throughout the day, I came to know God in a deeper way than ever before. Over the years I have been blessed by many approaches to daily devotions, but nothing compares to this simple immersion in the Psalms based on a Christian tradition dating back to the sixth century.
Following that first 40 days of praying through the Psalms each week, I returned to my usual practice of morning and evening prayer using the Psalms and other Scripture readings from the lectionary in The Book of Common Prayer. But from time to time, I return to the seven daily hours for special seasons of prayer and devotion.
In recent years, God has also blessed me with the friendship of one of the monks at the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. From time to time I visit my friend Brother Cassian, usually arriving in time to join the community in the choir stalls to sing the Vespers service. With a little help from Cassian, I have learned how to sing the Psalms set to the Gregorian chants, which is done antiphonally from choir stalls facing each other across the nave of the monastery church. My Benedictine friends also introduced me to what has become my favorite and most used prayer. Their daily offices begin with the words from Psalm 70:1, “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me” (Douay-Rheims Bible). Keep that prayer on your lips, and it will change your life!
While worship at a Benedictine monastery is a markedly different experience from our services in the Christian church, to me it is a thing of great beauty and deep spirituality. I hear the Word of God clearly in the plainsong of the monks and see him in all his majesty through the Psalms, just as the Jews saw him in the temple, the early Christians in the catacombs, and countless believers across the ages have seen him in the only inspired, infallible hymnbook and prayer book we have.
The great lesson here is that if you want to know God well, immerse yourself in the Psalms. Read them. Study them. Sing them. Pray them. O how it will bless you, and change you forever.
Barry McCarty is senior minister with Peachtree Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and a past president of Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.