As Christians, we are called to a life of prayer. As we seek to respond to this call and live a life of prayer, we need the set prayers of our tradition, just as we also need the spontaneous prayer that comes directly from our own hearts. Both are needed if our life of prayer is going to be substantial and form a “vital and personal” relationship between us and the Lord Jesus.

The set prayers and spontaneous prayers of the spiritual life are powerfully and beautifully seen throughout the 150 psalms of the Old Testament. The psalms show us how to express our desire for God, our awe at creation’s majesty, our anguish and joy over life’s sorrows and triumphs, and our frustration in the battle against temptation. The psalms guide us in expressing our gratitude for the strength and inspiration we find in the love and kindness God. While the psalms are set prayers in one sense, they still preserve the nature of spontaneous prayer. The psalms seem to jump from the page as they sing God’s praises and majesty.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: “Certain constant characteristics appear throughout the Psalms: simplicity and spontaneity of prayer; the desire for God himself through and with all that is good in his creation; the distraught situation of the believer who, in his preferential love for the Lord, is exposed to a host of enemies and temptations, but who waits upon what the faithful God will do, in the certitude of his love and in submission to his will.

The underlying intention of the psalms is the praise of God. Whether such praise is expressed in thanksgiving or in lament, God is worshipped and his praises are sung throughout the psalms.

As we live in a fallen world and have our own share of joys and sufferings, it is a spiritual help to look at the psalms and learn from their unconditional praise of God.

The Catechism highlights this spiritual dynamic:

“The prayer of the psalms is always sustained by praise; that is why the title of this collection as handed down to us is so fitting: ‘The Praises.’ Collected for the assembly’s worship, the Psalter both sounds the call to prayer and sings the response to that call: Hallelu-Yah! (‘Alleluia’), ‘Praise the Lord!’”

The psalms summon us to prayer. They awaken us from our spiritual slumber. They lift us up from our sorrow or temper us in our joy and direct us to God and communion with him. While our world has many factors that distract us from prayer, redefine prayer, or make us question the power of prayer, the psalms weaken and disperse such things and offer us the relief and comfort of time spent well with God.

Rather than the logic of apologetics, or the systems of fundamental theology, the psalms cut through the disbelief and doubt of our age and show us the face of God, who loves us and desires to accompany us through life. Rather than arguing counterpoints, the psalms simply praise God and live in fellowship with him.

The response of the psalms isn’t misplaced optimism, or some type of delusional idealism. The psalms realize the concerns of our heart. Rather than dwell on them in an internal monologue that leads to circular thoughts and perpetual misery, the psalms show us the way out of the sorrows of life by pointing us to the higher realities above us. The psalms are a declaration of freedom from the self-focus that can oftentimes times plague our spiritual lives.

The psalms – while at times lamenting and bemoaning the sorrows of life – lead us beyond them and remind us of the presence and providence of God. The psalms call us to praise God. Their substantiated answer to the darkness of the world is the powerful light of a robust, heartfelt, “Alleluia.”

The Catechism quotes Saint Ambrose, who wrote:

“What is more pleasing than a psalm? David expresses it well: ‘Praise the Lord, for a psalm is good: let there be praise of our God with gladness and grace!’ Yes, a psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song.”

The saintly bishop says it best. The psalms are the answer to doubts, disbelief, sorrow, lament, anguish, and woe. They are the proposed response – one heart to another – to the crises, tragedies, and heartaches of our world. The psalms walk us through the trenches of life and help us to utter our own battered but sincere, “Alleluia” – “Praise the Lord!”

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