In his Confessions , St. Augustine records how a friend of his, the doctor Vindicianus, was instrumental in leading him away from astrology. When St. Augustine asked how, if astrology were false, some of its prophecies nevertheless seemed to come true, Vindicianus chalked it up to luck: an astrologer may foretell something which seems relevant to the client by mere chance, just as when a man by hap-hazard opens the pages of some poet, who sang and thought of something wholly different, a verse oftentimes fell out, wondrously agreeable to the present business (4.3.5).
That analogy is something we’ve probably all experienced to some extent in our own lives: reading a poem, seemingly at random, we find the words written there aptly suited to our own situation. Many’s the intro-to-English-literature college student who, while pining away over a classmate, found this or that love poem far too apropos. We feel, almost instinctively, that this line, or this verse, is about me. We know, of course, that Vindicianus is rightthat it is merely by chance that the words fit us; that they were likely written about a situation completely different than our own.
And yet we still can’t help but read ourselves into the text from time to time. It seems to me that some of this might be attributable to our desire to examine our own lives and beliefs (and test out other potential lives and beliefs) through literature ; we take Bunyan’s advice and lay our head and heart together with the book. We know it’s not about us literally; and yet we believe, innately, that it has the capacity to become about us.
But there is one book (or series of books) that Christians have throughout the ages repeatedly affirmed is about us: the Bible. And no book in this library is declared about us more often than the Psalms. St. Basil the Great explains the idea well: The Holy Spirit composed the Scriptures so that in them, as in a pharmacy open to all souls, we might each of us be able to find the medicine suited to our own particular illness . . . But the Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behaviour to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cases ( Homily on Psalm 1) .
While this is a valid and important way of reading the Psalms, it should not become the sole way we read themsomething Jonathan Kraemer discusses in his article Praying the Psalms with the Body of Christ. After all, while this or that Psalm may seem to fit how we’re feeling on any given day, there are many more which will not. What good is it then to read Psalms that have us lamenting when we feel like praising; and praising when we feel like lamenting?
Kraemer explains that the answer comes in remembering that the Psalms are not simply a prayer book for individuals; they are rather the prayers of the entire Church. As wonderful as it is to have the Psalms that express in words what we feel so deeply, he writes, there are also great blessings that come from praying Psalms that do not fit the way we feel, when they seem like someone else’s prayer. Because in fact, that’s what they are: the prayers of the body of Christthe whole body, and not just me.
To that end, we are called to pray Psalms that don’t always fit our own situation; in these moments, the prayers are not for us but for other members of Christ’s body. Kraemer quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer here: Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth. Kraemer expands: In those times when we are on top of the world, but are praying a psalm like Psalm 13 (How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?), we are praying the prayer of a fellow Christian who is using that very Psalm for herself. It might be someone in our own congregation, or it might be someone a world away whom we will never meet. But when we pray their prayer, we pray with them. And they, in turn, pray with us in the midst of our joys and sorrows. The entire Body of Christ, with Christ Himself its Head, makes intercession before God through the Psalms for all members of the Body, both those sorrowing and those rejoicing.
So yes, this or that Psalm may be about you. But the Psalms collectively are not just about you; they are about Christ and His whole body. Let’s read them that way.
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