The best gift we can receive as we’re learning how to pray is clear guidance from a person who already prays. And there is no greater expression of such prayer and spiritual mentorship than the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament.

The 150 psalms are filled with cries of lament and songs of praise. They collect and express every possible emotion of our souls. They are spontaneous, fluid, and a profound expression of the beauty and chaos of the human heart. The psalms are a rare collection of snapshots of the human psyche and its desire to see and understand God.

The Book of Psalms was collected by King David. The great king of Israel surveyed the spiritual tradition of God’s people and brought together the best of our spiritual heritage. He also drew upon his own prayer with God and – as the Lord Jesus would say of him later in salvation history – “by the Spirit,” he drafted over seventy of the psalms himself.

The Book of Psalms was brought together in the light of the great hope that Solomon, David’s son and successor, would be permitted to build the stational Temple in Jerusalem. Such an honor was not given to David, since God indicated he had too much blood on his hands, but it would be given to his son. As such, David prepared by collecting the materials that would be needed for the project. He also prepared spiritually by bringing together the psalms of God’s people.

The Book of Psalms were organized into five books of the Psalter. The five books were intended to spiritually reflect the five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. The Books of Moses are the heart and foundation of the Old Testament. They contain the most ancient and revered revelations of God to humanity. When properly understood and placed within their biblical context, the five books within the Book of Psalms are a heartfelt expression of the truths given in the five Books of Moses.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “Thus the psalms were gradually collected into the five books of the Psalter (or “Praises”), the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”

The Book of Psalms is popularly referred to as “the hymn book of the Temple,” since the psalms were intended to be sung. But the book could be viewed by broadly as “the prayer book of God’s people,” since the psalms are prayers that can be sung or said, offered in public liturgy or uttered in private prayer. The psalms are as fluid as they are diverse.

The psalms, many of them written even before David, have continually guided and taught God’s people in the way of prayer.

The Catechism teaches us: “From the time of David to the coming of the Messiah texts appearing in these sacred books show a deepening in prayer for oneself and in prayer for others.”

When King Solomon built the Temple, a feat that was accomplished in only seven years, the psalms were sung in the liturgies throughout the year. They were the crown of the public prayers of God’s people.

The psalms were also offered on the local level in the synagogues, as well as in the homes and hearts of God’s people.

The Catechism paints the picture for us: “The Psalms both nourished and expressed the prayer of the People of God gathered during the great feasts at Jerusalem and each Sabbath in the synagogues. Their prayer is inseparably personal and communal; it concerns both those who are praying and all men.”

The psalms were a gift to God’s people, whether sung in public or offered in private. The psalms were also intended as a gift to all humanity. While first and continually uttered on the lips of God’s people, the psalms are for everyone. The inquirer, the doubter, the denier can also find a spiritual home and expression in the psalms.

The Catechism rightly observes: “The Psalms arose from the communities of the Holy Land and the Diaspora, but embrace all creation.”

The psalms give us companionship and a compass. They lead us and guide us into a deeper life on prayer, which is a communion and open conversation with the living God, who loves us and desires fellowship with us.