The Cloister Walk
Kathleen Norris
February 10-11, 2021 – The Paradox of the Psalms

The Psalms are surprising when we think about (1) their place in scripture and worship, (2) the way they are raw expressions of emotions. The Psalms are not neat and clean statements – rather psalms express the full range of human emotions and conditions. Interestingly to me, the Psalms, for their part in scripture and worship do not always appear to be “religious” or dignified (at times). But regardless, those who possess a conviction of faith and spirituality intentionally place these songs in a place of prominence.

Part of the reality of the Psalms is through them people are exposed to the genuine emotions and experiences of people. Through the recitation of the psalms, we can be transported to a place of connectedness and given an image of the relevance of the body of scripture in our world; we really are not as different as the writers of scripture as we might believe.

A Benedictine, Sebastian Moore, gives insights into this claim when he said, “God behaves in the Psalms in ways he (sic) is not allowed to behave in systematic theology… [psalms which seem to be] rough-hewn from earthy experience [are] absolutely different from formal prayer.” We, certainly as North American Christians, tend to leave messiness out of our prayers, because we feel that God wants praise from us and intercession for others. Yet, when we are real with ourselves, we know the mess that is our life of faith.

Norris posits, “… the true religions of America are optimism and denial… psalms do not spring from a delusion that things are better than they are, but rather from the human capacity for joy.” The frankness of the psalms helps us give voice to the world as we experience it – not the world we think should exist – and the hope that the things which give us life can be found in the middle of the mess of life.

When discussion a poem from Emily Dickinson, “Pain – is missed – in Praise,” Norris offers a reminder of our nature as hopeful people. “One thing we often try to do is to jump from pain to praise too quickly by omitting the necessary but treacherous journey between them…” This proves to short sell both states in the process – there will be pain and there will be praise and we must experience the movement between the two.

There are some psalms which “polite society” wants to skip because the emotions “aren’t us.” Yet if we step back, we realize that the words of the psalmist could easily spring from this present time and situation. And often the enemies the psalmists (and by extension us) rails against is not an “enemy out there” but rather it is our own demons we rail against.

Thoughts for reflection

* Devotion by itself has little value… and may be a form of self-indulgence. Unless devotion leads to transformation of the personal into the relational with God and community it may become stale and useless.

* Psalms may not offer an answer, but they will allow us to dwell on the question. How might a change of perspective on the psalms bring us into a closer relationship with God?