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Athanasius, the heroic bishop of Alexandria in the mid-fourth century—who was sent into exile five times—is best known for his defense of the creed of the Council of Nicaea (325 a.d.) against its Arian detractors. The three-volume treatise Against the Arians is his most substantive theological work. Less known is his little book on the psalms, the Letter to Marcellinus. During an illness, Marcellinus, a deacon in the church in Alexandria, had spent his days studying the Bible, especially the psalms, and he wished to know the meaning contained in each psalm. In his response, Athanasius writes that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16), “yet the Book of Psalms is like a garden which besides bearing fruit that is found elsewhere, exhibits things of its own in song along with the words.” Psalms draws on truths and images from other books of the Bible, but more than any other book, Psalms speaks the language of the heart.

Athanasius matches individual psalms with books of the Old Testament. Psalm 19 sings of events in Genesis: “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The subject of Psalm 126 is the return from exile in Babylonia: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” Some psalms echo the prophets who tell of the coming of the Savior. Psalm 50: “Our God comes, he does not keep silence.” Psalm 118: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. . . . The Lord is God, and he has given us light.” What is said in the gospel narratives is anticipated in the psalms obliquely, in figures. By pointing out these parallels, Athanasius is stating a deep truth. The original and authentic language of Christian prayer is found in biblical history. Divorced from that history, prayer loses its ­potency.

When I was teaching at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg in the 1960s—a time when liturgical experimentation was rife—we decided to substitute contemporary poems for psalms during evening prayer on certain days. Within a week, we knew it was a terrible mistake. The poems may have been rich spiritually, but their language did not speak to the heart. For Christian (and Jewish) prayer, the words of Scripture are indispensable: Mount Zion, Jerusalem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Red Sea, King David, Jordan River, Israel, Judah, Egypt, Gilead, Manasseh, Ephraim, ­Bethlehem, Sinai.

What is found in the other books of the Bible recurs in a different key in the psalms. And that key, ­Athanasius says, is the “emotions of the soul.” In praying the psalms, one wishes not only to understand but to have one’s feelings roused and shaped by what is written there: to repent, to bear suffering, to give thanks, to rejoice. More so than other sections of the Scriptures, the psalms deal with the affections and feelings, even the passions—“My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord” (Ps. 84:2)—the stuff of the spiritual life. One cannot hear the texts of the psalms, wrote Augustine, “without deep feeling.” For as we pray the psalms, the words of the psalmist become our words.

The psalms offer a language that grows out of prayer—the original authors speak to God out of their own experience—and is suited to prayer: words of gratitude, disappointment, sorrow, delight, fear, awe, distress, joy, trust, desire, shame, confusion, praise, adoration. Augustine was drawn to the language of desire and love in the psalms. “Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me,” he wrote. “By your gift we are set on fire and carried upward; we grow red hot and ascend.” We climb “the ascents in our heart,” paraphrasing Psalm 84: “Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” Without the heart, there is no prayer pleasing to God. Above the doorway of the chapel of St. Anselm, the motherhouse of the Benedictine Order, on the Aventine Hill in Rome, is written in Latin the inscription: “When we stand before God, let not the heart wander, for if the heart does not pray the lips move in vain.”

Some years ago, I began to notice how often in the psalms the term “heart” appears: “My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed” (Ps. 57); “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” (Ps. 9); “My heart shall rejoice in thy salvation” (Ps. 13); “I keep the Lord always before me. . . . Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices” (Ps. 16); “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps. 19); “Thou hast said, ‘Seek ye my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek’” (Ps. 27); “My heart became hot within me” (Ps. 39); “Create in me a clean heart, O God. . . . The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart thou will not despise” (Ps. 51); “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Ps. 90). In Psalm 119, it is the heart that moves us to keep God’s commandments: “I incline my heart to perform thy statutes.” The psalmist says not, incline the will, but the heart. Activity of the heart carries over even into our sleep: “In the night also my heart instructs me” (Ps. 16). Our hearts have you in mind while we sleep.

Unlike the mind, which is acquisitive, aggressive, critical, and competitive, the heart is receptive, open, pliable. It is an organ to be filled, a thing to be ignited. The mind receives on its own terms, filtering, discriminating, judging, but the heart is patient; it waits, watches, listens, makes space for what it is to receive. The heart delights not in cleverness but in the presence of the beloved. The work of prayer is the tutoring of the heart, a quite different thing from the training of the mind.

Praying the psalms, then, is a means of kindling love—a truth that St. Bonaventure saw with blinding clarity. If you ask how one can know God, wrote Bonaventure, seek the answer in God’s grace, not instruction; desire, not intellect; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light but the raging fire that will bear you aloft.

In a striking passage in book 9 of the Confessions, Augustine recalls meditating on Psalm 4. He was staying at a friend’s villa near Milan while preparing for Baptism: “My God, how I cried to you when I read the Psalms of David, songs of faith, utterances of devotion which allow no pride of spirit to enter in . . . how they kindled my love for you.” They are sung all over the world, says Augustine, and there is no one “who can hide himself from your heat” (Ps. 19:6). He wished that ­others were nearby “watching my face and hearing my cries, to see what that psalm had done to me.”

When I first read that passage years ago, I was brought up short by the word “done.” Doing is not something we attribute to prayer; it implies action, not meditation. But praying the psalm did something to Augustine. The feelings expressed by the psalmist became his feelings. When the psalms are prayed, they don’t simply express something; they effect something, like an oath of office, or a couple’s wedding vows, or the words of consecration. The language is performative. Again, Augustine: “If the psalm is praying, pray yourselves; if it is groaning, you groan too; if it is happy, rejoice; if it is crying out in hope, you hope as well; if it expresses fear, be afraid. Everything written here is like a mirror held up to us.”

The more one prays the psalms, the more one realizes one will learn nothing new. In traditional monasteries the entire psalter was prayed each week. The words and sentiments were repeated again and again, week after week. We say the psalms again and again so that their words can become our words, so that their feelings, their affections, their desires, can become our feelings, our affections, our desires.

As the psalmist has it, “I have hidden your words in my heart” (Ps. 119:11). But the psalms also present an intellectual challenge. It is often difficult to know who is speaking. Some of the psalms can be prayed in one’s own voice: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51). But in others, the speaker seems to change. Psalm 18 begins with the voice of a believer: “I love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer.” But at verse 20 we read: “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me.” Here the speaker appears to be Christ. Psalm 24, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” sounds like the voice of the believer. But in answer the psalmist writes, “he who has clean hands and a pure heart.” That sounds like the voice of Christ, as does what follows: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! and the King of glory may come in.”

Augustine gave much thought to this matter, and in his sermons on the psalms he develops the theological idea of the totus ­Christus, the whole Christ: Christ speaking in his own voice, Christ speaking in the voice of the believer, Christ speaking in the voice of the Church. In Psalm 22, Christ speaks in his own voice: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Likewise, in Psalm 35: “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.” ­Augustine says that when the psalmist says, “Malicious witnesses rise up . . . and requite evil for good, my soul is forlorn,” it is Christ the head who is speaking.

But in Psalm 40 Christ speaks as the believer: “He has put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” Likewise in Psalm 3: “But thou, O Lord, art a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.”

And then there are psalms in which Christ speaks for the Body of Christ, the Church. Psalm 129: “Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth, let Israel now say. Sorely have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me. . . . What grievous scandals are all about us, multiplying by the day.” The psalmist responds: “Often have they afflicted me from my youth.” Augustine considered why the psalmist added the words “in my youth.” In our days, he says, the Church, though old, is still under attack. But let it not fear, for though its enemies are many it has not been destroyed: “Yet they have not prevailed against me.”

Psalm 61 sounds like the voice of one person: “Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to thee when my heart is faint.” But it continues: “From the ends of the earth I have called to you.” The psalm becomes the prayer of all the members of Christ’s body, as the individual believer joins with the faithful all over the world. By highlighting the psalms as the prayer of the whole Christ, Augustine shows how the psalms can be a book of prayer for all occasions and ­circumstances.

In praying the psalms, I am often reminded of the evening hymn by John Ellerton:

The day Thou gavest, Lord, is
The darkness falls at Thy behest;
To Thee our morning hymns
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.
We thank Thee that Thy Church,
While earth rolls onward into
Through all the world her watch
     is keeping,
And rests not now by day or
As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never
Nor dies the strain of praise away.

When spoken as the prayer of the totus Christus, the psalms become living words that are as fresh and vivid today as when first they were written. They are the prayers of Christ, of individual believers, and of the Church enriched by the experience of myriad generations of Christians. What was—and is—the song of the people of Israel is the new song of the Church, a song that is sung not only with the lips but with the heart. 

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.