Hope in the Lord — Psalms: Poems, Steps, Mirrors

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

“We are born with this book in our heart. A little book: one hundred and fifty poems; one hundred and fifty steps erected between death and life; one hundred and fifty mirrors of our rebellions and our fidelities, of our agonies and our resurrections. More than a book, it is a living being who speaks — who speaks to you — who suffers, who groans and dies, who rises and sings, on the threshold of eternity — and who takes you up and carries you away, you and the centuries upon centuries, from the beginning of time to the end.”

What a summary of the Psalms ­— poems, steps, mirrors! Recently I read this quote from a 1970 book by Andre Chouraqui in an article in Cistercian Studies Quarterly by Sister Marie-Christine Vilmain, a Cistercian Sister of the Strict Observance.

This ode to the psalms provides an explanation for my attraction to a monthly day at the Abbey of Gethsemani, which has been part of my life over the past 8 years (though less this year). When I join in the choir stalls with the monks for morning prayer, there is a quiet poetry to the chanting, and the words do speak of the steps through life toward death and resurrection. The image of the mirror reflecting joys and anguishes, as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes relates, is an apt image for that day during which I step back in prayer.

Sister Marie-Christine’s article is worth reading. She used two words that led me deeper into appreciating the attraction of quiet prayer and reflection within a community. One was “osmosis.” I remember this word from biology class, as it describes how nutrients are absorbed through the outer layer of the body by certain creatures. In this context, osmosis describes the process of absorbing the prayerful sentiments of a community of monks at prayer. I sit with the monks in the choir stalls, and the goodness of the lived psalms comes alive. Somehow the words seep into my being in an effortless way.

The other word used by the author is the Greek “kairos.” Greek has two words for time. “Chronos,” from which we get “chronology,” is that measured time that is one moment following another as surely as the sun rises and sets each day with unfailing certainty. The meaning of “kairos” is different. It describes a time that stands still and seems eternal – when a big decision is made or the sheer delight at God’s creation takes over our heart. It’s that kind of time in which we step back a bit and see life before our eyes.

The article relates kairos to the use of the Latin word, “hodie,” which means “today” and is used only twice in all of the 150 psalms. The first is Psalm 2 — “This day I have begotten you” — relating to the magnificence of creation. The second is Psalm 95: “Oh, that today you would hear his voice, do not harden your hearts …” — relating to decisions flowing from our receiving of God’s plan in our lives.

When I pray the Divine Office each day in my breviary, I take seriously the responsibility as a priest to pray these prayers “… for the Church and for the whole world.” Somehow at Gethsemani’s Abbey, it seems so much easier to make that connection.

So much of the Psalms is really a conversation between Jesus Christ and His Father in heaven. Thus, in Luke 24:44, Jesus refers to the fact that He not only prayed the psalms (the Gospels are just full of these references!) but that He also has fulfilled the psalms: He is our death and resurrection!

The article concludes with a not so obvious observation — easily forgotten when we pray — that the prayer itself is a divine initiative with which we cooperate. I recall an image from a retreat talk years ago that referred to our prayer as wading into the water of the prayer of Jesus. We join in this prayer, which is not ours but His, and we are transformed. Surely the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass is the highest example of this movement.

So when I return from a day at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I feel renewed and refreshed. I am thankful for those 150 poems, steps, mirrors — and for the monks who faithfully pray them throughout the day. The experience gives me a small sense of what happened when the Gospels tell us “Jesus went off to pray.”

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