The Psalms

Art: Week 2

The Psalms
Sunday, May 20, 2018

So much of our lives is dictated by our preferences, what we like and don’t like. We all naturally gravitate toward what we find attractive, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But we need to be aware that there are things deeper than our preferences. If we do not recognize that, we will follow them addictively and never uncover our soul’s deeper desires. Often the very things that don’t appeal to us have the most to teach us spiritually.

If you’re like me, you’d much rather spend time in the classical, medieval, or renaissance galleries than in modern exhibits. We tend to be attracted to whatever version of art makes us feel comfortable or reflects our worldview. We play this game of preference even in what we we’ve deemed the “sacred art” of the psalms. We prefer the calm bucolic scene of Psalm 23, but cringe when the psalmist mirrors back to us the messiness, violence, and confusion of being human. St. John Cassian (c. 360–c. 435) taught that the psalms carry in them “all the feelings of which human nature is capable.” [1]

Poet Kathleen Norris writes of her experience singing the psalms three times a day as a guest in a Benedictine monastery:

The psalms demand engagement, they ask you to read them with your whole self, praying, as St. Benedict says, “in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” [2] . . . You come to the Bible’s great “book of praises” through all the moods and conditions of life, and while you may feel like hell, you sing anyway. To your surprise, you find that the psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect on them. . . .

But to the modern reader the psalms can seem impenetrable: how in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture? At a glance they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world. And that’s the point, or part of it. As one reads the psalms every day, it becomes clear that the world they depict is not really so different from our own; the fourth-century monk Athanasius wrote that the psalms “become like a mirror to the person singing them.” [3] . . . The psalms remind us that the way we judge each other, with harsh words and acts of vengeance, constitutes injustice, and they remind us that it is the powerless in society who are overwhelmed when injustice becomes institutionalized. . . .

In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the psalms act as good psychologists. They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first. [4]

The Psalms—like all great art—lead us to a truer image of ourselves, reality, and God.

References:
[1] John Cassian, Conference 10.10. See John Cassian: Conferences, trans. Colm Luibheid (Paulist Press: 1985), 133.

[2] Benedict, Rule, 19. See Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad: 1999, ©1992), 89.

[3] Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus, 12. See Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Paulist Press: 1980), 111. 

[4] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books: 1996), 92-94, 96.

Image credit: Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Cecil Payne, Miles Davis, and Ray Brown (detail), by William P. Gottlieb, 1946-1948, Downbeat, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When Miles Davis blows the cacophony that can barely be contained by the word song, we come closest to the unimaginable, the potential of the future, and the source of our being. —Barbara Holmes
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