An Online Retreat prepared by Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ and Catherine Litecky, CSJ
“As the deer longs for running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
A thirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?”
[Ps. 42: 2-3]
The deepest longings of the human heart are expressed in the beautiful poetry and prayer of the Psalms. Whether we pray or sing the psalms by ourselves or with a community, we join Jewish and Christian believers over the centuries who have made the Book of Psalms their own prayerbook. We who seek God in this Retreat thirst for the “living God” on our journey to see the “living God.”
Look at the photo of the waterfalls and think of a time when you were really thirsty. Remember how grateful you were to quench your thirst with cool, fresh water? The deer in Psalm 42 is an image of our seeking living water, a symbol of God’s grace.
Pause for a few minutes to ask yourself: Do I really thirst for God? How do I give thanks to God for satisfying my spiritual thirst?
The Psalms like all great poetry give us insights into universal themes of life, death, joy, grief, guilt, repentance, thanksgiving, hope, and trust. They describe these experiences and their feelings about them in vivid imagery and strong rhythmic language.
The Psalms deal with life honestly. Psalmists cry out in pain when life is hard, and they sing and dance for joy when pleasant surprises come. The psalmists, like King David who wrote approximately a third of the psalms, express their religious experiences in their own language, imagery, and world-view.
In the Psalms we can find appropriate prayers for almost every need we have. Three typical Psalms ( 51, 27, and 136) can speak for us when we are in need of forgiveness, want to pray for perseverance, or give thanks for God’s love.
King David, after his grave sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his plan to murder her husband Uriah, wrote a powerful Psalm in which he acknowledges his sin and asks for forgiveness from God. David prays:
“Have mercy on me, O God,according to your steadfast love: in your abundant mercy blot out my sins.
Wash me thoroughly from my offenses, and cleanse me from my sin.” [51:3-4]
The first step in asking for forgiveness is to admit that we have sinned. David does this. He does not make excuses but speaks of “my offenses” and asks God to “cleanse me from my sin”. He knows that he can count on God’s “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy.” He trusts that God will give him the courage to make amends and live a good life.
Later in this Psalm he prays:
“Create in me a clean heart, put a steadfast spirit within me.
Cast me not from your presence, take not your spirit from me.
Give me again the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.” [51:12-14]
What a marvelous prayer of asking forgiveness of God and what a healthy way of accepting pardon and beginning again!
Longing and seeking for God is found in many of the Psalms. This seeking is expressed powerfully in Psalm 27:
“One thing I have asked of the Lord,that I will seek after:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life
To behold the beauty of the Lord….” [27:4]
At the time the psalmist was writing, the “house of the Lord” meant the great Jewish temple in Jerusalem which every devout Jew wanted to visit. For us today it symbolizes the presence of God which is everywhere.
Spiritual writers tell us that growing in thankfulness indicates a deepening prayer life. In psalm 136 we give thanks for creation and for God’s enduring love which surrounds us. Each verse begins with words of thanks and concludes with the refrain “for your love endures forever.”
“We give thanks to you, for you are good,
for your love endures forever….
We thank you, Creator of the universe,
for your love endures forever….
You give food to all living things,
for your love endures forever.
We give thanks to you, God of heaven,
for your love endures forever.” [136: 1, 5, 25, 26]
You may wish to memorize a verse or two from these psalms or others. Keep your verses in mind when you feel the need to ask forgiveness or to give praise and thanks to God whose love endures forever.
The tradition of praying the Psalms throughout the day became a way of “praying always” for the early Christians. They prayed the Psalms, listened to readings from the scriptures, and asked God to help them in their personal and community needs.
These set prayers recited or sung at certain times of the day make up the Liturgy of the Hours which later came to be known as the Divine Office or Breviary. Current versions of the Hours are available to all Christians. Many people today are praying the Hours privately or in parish groups. One woman compared her attraction to praying the Liturgy of the Hours to being drawn to a magnet.
In morning prayer we celebrate a new day to be dedicated to the service of God. At evening prayer (sometimes called vespers or evensong) we ask forgiveness for our faults and failings and give thanks for the blessings and activities of the day. Short daytime prayers, which in the past were said every three hours during the day, are now gathered together in a short noon-time prayer.
This way of praying offers us a way to sanctify time. Over a four-week cycle almost all of the 150 Psalms are prayed
Sometimes when you are reading a psalm, you may be struck by a verse or two that touches you deeply. You may want to use the words as a mantra, saying the words to yourself as you go about your day. You may also want to try writing your own Psalm in words that fit your own current life situation.
Notice, when you are part of a congregation gathered to worship on Saturdays or Sundays, that many of the hymns have lyrics taken from the Psalms. Notice also the responsorial psalm sung/prayed during the liturgy of the word which connects the first and second scripture readings. The psalm response, repeated by the congregation, is easy to remember and reflect on during the week.
What do these psalm responses say to you?
“If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.” [Psalm 91]
“Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.” [Psalm 66]
“Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” [Psalm 33]
“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” [Psalm 23]
“Lord, you will show us the path of life.” [Psalm 16]
Find others that speak to your heart.
Helpful to your prayer might be to look at the beautifully illuminated ancient manuscripts found in art museums. In bookstores or libraries are to found recently published Books of Hours containing collections of contemporary prayers, poems, and photos.
When you are ready, move on to Session 4 of this Retreat: