Teach me how to love the Psalms!

June 6, 2012 | 87 comments

I’ve mentioned before that I want to love the Psalms more than I actually love the Psalms. I can see that God has given us a treasure chest of Scriptural riches here, I know many folks who find these parts of the Bible to be an endless source of spiritual refreshment. But I always have trouble getting into them. (This is especially problematic when praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which is based on the Psalms.)

I am well aware that the problem is with me, and not with the Holy Bible. I also suspect that this issue is related to my general inability to appreciate poetry, which probably comes from my tendencies to be overly analytical. I would like to be able to deepen my appreciation for these timeless verses, and am hoping that you guys can give me some advice that will help me get a clue.

To elucidate my problems, let me give you an example of what it’s like when I pray a psalm. Let’s take Psalm 64 (my interior dialog in italics):


Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint;
protect my life from the threat of the enemy.

Voice my complaint! Yes! Boooooy, do I have a few complaints. And, uhh, I didn’t know it was okay to classify others as “enemies, ” but there are some folks who are on my last nerve right now. Protect me from them!

Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
from the plots of evildoers.
They sharpen their tongues like swords
and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.
They shoot from ambush at the innocent;
they shoot suddenly, without fear.

Totally! Yes! It’s like the psalmist was reading the comments to that big anti-Catholic conspiracy theory forum that linked to me yesterday, where they compared my intelligence to that of common houseplants and ended up arguing amongst themselves about which one of them hates me the most. Cruel words like deadly arrows indeed! Isn’t it awful?! Are you hearing this, Lord?

They encourage each other in evil plans.

Oh, man, totally.

They talk about hiding their snares;
they say, “Who will see it?”

That’s right — God sees your trash talking, fools!

They plot injustice and say,
“We have devised a perfect plan!”
Surely the human mind and heart are cunning.

Amen to that.

But God will shoot them with his arrows;
they will suddenly be struck down.

[Imagining that one guy who openly wished that my death will come sooner rather than later: When he goes to write a new update on the thread, his keyboard catches on fire as part of God’s wrath!]

He will turn their own tongues against them
and bring them to ruin;
all who see them will shake their heads in scorn.

Yes. More of this, please. In fact, I’d love a little more detail about how this “everyone sitting around and scorning my enemies” thing works.

All people will fear;
they will proclaim the works of God
and ponder what he has done.
The righteous will rejoice in the Lord
and take refuge in him;
all the upright in heart will glory in him!

Hurray! [Imagining The Righteous, a.k.a. me, rejoicing in the Lord, while the Enemy, a.k.a. those who have annoyed me, having been smote and scorned.]



I’m doing it wrong.

I’m neither a Scripture scholar nor a spiritual director, but I’m pretty sure that you’re not supposed to walk away from the Psalms convinced of your own righteousness and other people’s awfulness. I haven’t checked the Catechism on this, but I think we’re not supposed to ask God to strike down our enemies, or hope to see them ridiculed by others — I’m not sure that we’re really supposed to think of other people as enemies at all.

Undoubtedly part of the problem is that I’m making it too personal, and forgetting here that prayer is not all about me. Perhaps I should read these words and think only of what was going on with the psalmist, or turn my heart towards all who have ever felt this way. And maybe I’m just not reading it as poetry, which is likely since, as I said above, I’ve never felt like I “get” poetry (which is weird since I’m a big music lover — feel free to speculate about what’s going on there.)

Anyway, I’m hoping to get some words of wisdom from you all. Any practical tips from how this overly literal, hard-headed person can learn to love the Psalms?


  1. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours for the past two months and have run into a very similar problem. My solution is going to be a little hard for other people to adapt, but I like it.

    I’ve been taking ASL lessons for about half a year, and I try to translate the prayers into Sign when I say them. I don’t worry so much about poetry (proper syntax is still a very dicey thing for me) and if I don’t know a word, I either use a close one or just speak it instead.

    Part of the appeal is that ASL is a spatially conjugated language, so asking for God’s mercy means directing the sign for ‘mercy’ towards me from God (usually a little up and to the right). It makes some of the concepts more concrete than they would be if I were just reading quickly through them.

    Re the ‘enemies’ problem specifically, ASL means the signs for ‘hurt’ ‘lie’ or other things the enemies do still take place across my body and are directed to God, so I feel more culpable and less disassociated from the sin.

    If you’ve got some experience in another language, trying to translate the psalms on the fly during prayer may get you thinking more about the words you’re using and what is signified by them.

    • Trish

      Fantastic idea to use ASL! Even though I am quite a novice in using ASL, I do agree that the “spatial conjugation” of ASL really makes for a visceral experience of the subject matter. Since the Psalms are are full of passion and longing, I would think that translation to ASL would suit them well.

  2. Robin

    Some thoughts: Try Walter Brueggemann’s book The Message of the Psalms. His organizing principle of psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation is especially helpful. Try Michelle Francl’s blog Quantum Theology, which I think is hands-down the best “Catholic” blog out there. She prays deeply with the psalms and writes beautifully, about both liturgy and laundry. Try going back to Mount Angel Abbey! I was privileged to listen to the monks there chant the psalms very early one morning. In that setting and with that music, it would be hard not to fall in love with the psalter, at least in a vague kind of way — and that’s a start. Try thinking more metaphorically. I don’t think that any of us today are much interested in praying for the destruction of our human enemies. But what about our enemies of despair, sloth, anger, depression, irritability, greed? And finally: s-l-o-w-l-y. As in, one line or phrase a day. Wishing you a wonderful journey.

  3. Jennifer Fitz

    Okay, first note that it is comical for me to be giving prayer advice. But two small things that work for me:

    1) Read the psalms in the context of the mass readings before and after. Read them as an interpretation of what you just read — God breaking out in song for the musical number, like the veggie tales musical interlude, only sacred and serious, of course.

    [See: Don’t take advice from me.]

    2)Put in your mind a prayer intention. Or, put in your mind something you want to meditate about — some incident from the Gospels, the words or actions of a saint, etc.. Then pray psalm as if it were a commentary and a light on that incident.

    –> Don’t bother trying to match ’em up. Just pick the intention and slap whatever psalm on it, doesn’t matter, it’s 100% mix-n-match.

    This works because sometimes the psalms are best prayed as contrasts. Even the happy psalms are about suffering. Even the suffering psalms are about God’s victory over death.

    That’s all I can think of. Wish I prayed this well every time. But it is good to be reminded I know what to do, and just need to do it. :-).

  4. JMC

    Great topic.

    A couple of brief thoughts…

    1. Understand generally who wrote it and the context. Try to picture yourself in their position.

    2. Contemplate how this Psalm applies to the life of Christ (and His Church).

    3. As far as the whole “enemies” thing goes, run it through St. Paul’s words in Ephesians: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

    Understand broadly that though this Psalm was written centuries before Christ, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it was written for Him and His Church.

    Hope that helps!

  5. Christina

    When I first started praying the psalms I also wondered about the enemies part. A few suggestions:
    1. Your enemies are demons, which it’s fair to say “smite them Lord”.
    2. Your enemies are your own sins. Again – if you want to grow in holiness all that is in enmity with God needs to be destroyed.
    3. You are praying for the conversion of your enemies. St Paul was thrown off his horse and blinded by God, and then became a great apostle…I think I have a bit too much fun with the possibilities with this one though πŸ˜‰

    I’ve been praying the LOTH for several years now and the psalms now are a part of my prayer life. It’s hard to explain, but these memorized bits of prayer become internalized over time so that I’ll find myself reciting bits and pieces as they apply.

    Recently, I was attacked by several people who used to be close friends because I had to uphold a Catholic teaching. In prayer I found myself reciting these pieces about their tongues being sharpened swords and setting a trap in my path. Yet as I would recite the psalm I would find myself at the ending “Yet I will praise God”, which was difficult to pray. At that point I only wanted to cry in anguish, yet the psalm closes with praising God. It’s almost like I was forced (no drawn) to praying that part even when I didn’t see His deliverance at that time. I think that is the beauty of the psalms, that in times of anguish they acknowledge the pain and direct us to the source of healing and grace.

    • Amanda

      My enemies are demons! My enemies are my sins! Wow, how has that never occurred to me/been preached on in my hearing? Thanks.

  6. elizabeth

    I’m not a poetry person, either. Someone once told me that if you’re better at algebra, you’ll prefer prose. If you’re better at geometry, you’ll like poetry. Count me in the algebra crowd.

    I’ve grappled with Psalms, too, for years. David said a lot of things I’ve been trained to not even think!! The only thing I have come to so far is that we clearly relate to the emotions of Psalms (raging against enemies and all), so perhaps God is giving us the green light to be totally honest with Him.

    Many of us have absorbed this “proper way to talk to God,” where we try to talk holier than we actually feel. (Like He’s going to be fooled or something.) It’s often billed as respectfulness, but I’m not sure that’s exactly what God’s after so much as humble, raw honesty. Sometimes our “respect” becomes a cloak for hiding deep needs and thoughts from God…. Like Adam in the garden, hiding from a relationship that suddenly felt vulnerable because it exposed him.

    Lately I have been struck by how quickly we veer away from grace. By grace we are saved, but then we try to make ourselves holy by self-effort… forgetting that the power that can redeem us, can also make us holy. Real holiness (transformation of those emotions instead of merely masking them – like we often see a change of mood mid-Psalm) springs out of deep relationship with God.

    As long as we’re holding back, hiding, and trying to measure up, we won’t get very far relationally with God. But if we draw near in honesty with all our baggage, we have a chance to lay it before Him and watch His grace change it. Perhaps this is what the Psalmists are doing: patiently laying their innermost, realest thoughts before God so He can transform them.

    This is as far as I have come on the topic after ten years of thinking about it, so you should also count me in the slow-learner crowd. πŸ˜‰

    • Veronica Mitchell

      This is beautiful. If I had read it first, I would have considered my comment unnecessary. This is exactly it.

      Remember the story of Job: Job’s friends piously upheld the theological wisdom of the day while Job addressed his heartbreak and desperation directly to God in rawness and honesty. God’s response to the friends after all this was: “You did not speak well of me like my servant Job did.” What God wants is our absolute real selves directed toward him. That is more precious than making him one more audience for a pretense of propriety. Our behavior isn’t a “witness” to God; he already sees our hearts.

    • Sarah Izhilzha

      elizabeth, I love your comment. It’s very close to what I was going to say.

      I *do* love poetry, so I’ve enjoyed praying the Psalms for years, but they took on a much deeper meaning for me when I stopped thinking there was a particularly holy way to pray them, and started praying them as permission to be honest with God–either in my own feelings and petitions, or in intercession for others.

      Even the “enemies” problem, which I have struggled with a lot, I found that giving myself permission to tell God that I felt people were against me often freed me (through His Spirit) to then see them as my brothers rather than my enemies. Especially if someone actually *was* setting themselves against me–it’s easier to love if we can speak the truth first, much like it’s easiest to forgive after we acknowledge that harm was done to us.

      • jean

        I have had a similar experience to this with praying the Psalms. I used to not know what to do with them, but through a particularly painful experience, was consoled to find that through them I was permitted to share my fears, anger and sadness over my situation with our loving Father. I try to pray them and use them as an opportunity to “pray from the heart”. I feel that they give me an opportunity to approach the Lord particulary in my weakness and futility. And, as Sarah said, to really acknowledge the pain of some wrong that either came my way or even that I perceived came my way. I began to see it this way after learning that forgiveness also includes feeling the fullness of the hurt.
        Hopefully I’ve understood other’s comments and am not putting words in anyones mouth, if so, I am sorry!

  7. Veronica Mitchell

    I’m going to respond while the kids are finishing up lunch, so this may be one-handed typing with interruptions. But here are some initial thoughts.

    The Psalms are the prayer book of Israel. As such, they are a person’s emotions and thoughts expressed to God; they are an example to us of the honesty we should have before God. Everyone will have feelings of rage against the unjust sometime. The point of the psalms (the kind of psalm you describe is often called “imprecatory,” psalms expressing longing for judgment against an enemy) is to bring those feelings to God and leave their conclusion up to him. If you are praying that God will judge the wicked, it is a declaration of trust in God’s justice. It also means you are leaving that judgment up to him, and not trying to take care of it personally.

    I personally use imprecatory psalms when I am angry or depressed at some great cruelty in the world. I read them out loud in private and put all the rage I feel into my reading. My understanding is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did something similar during his imprisonment. When I am done, I feel more hope than I did before, and, paradoxically, more free to love my enemy. My enemy (and we all have enemies; if we didn’t, Jesus could not have commanded us to love them) will face the judgment of God, just like everyone else (including me). Facing the holiness of God is not an easy thing. I can find compassion for someone who has to (which, as it turns out, is everyone).

    • Maria

      Veronica, this is great information! No wonder I fell in love with the Psalms many years ago when I was so down and out. It was so comforting to read and it gave me so much hope. I love Psalm 27 the best.

      Jen, I don’t really have any tips but I guess a prayer to the Holy Spirit before reading would help.

      May God bless you in your ongoing journey to the spiritual life. Don’t give up with the Liturgy of the Hours. The more you pray the regularly the more you will fall in love it. Just be patient.

  8. Sarah

    Here’s my way. I always think of much of the Old Testament as a physical picture of the spiritual life in Christ.

    So like the Exodus out of Egypt and the Passover was a physical picture of the spiritual truth found in Christ.

    So for the Psalms, where they seem relevant, I relate them to Christ’s life on the earth or my life in Christ. The physical enemies spoken of are the spiritual enemies of Christ and His Church. Where the author laments their sins I remember how I have hurt God. Where the author praises God I praise God with him. Where the author talks of shepherds, I think of Christ as my Shepherd. Where it talks of clean hands and a pure heart I think of how Christ purifies my heart.

    That’s how I approach the Psalms anyway.

  9. Anne @ Building my Catholic Home

    I am, like you, a convert, and relatively new at this, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

    When praying the Liturgy, I find it helpful to remember that it is greater than I am. I don’t have to understand every individual point. It is my duty rather, to read and pray with attention and devotion and allow the prayers of Holy Mother Church to form me.

    As to the enemy question (which comes up frequently in the psalms):
    Christ had enemies — there were people who sought to kill him.
    God has enemies — they are those who seek to separate us from Him, to drive religion from the public square, to force people of faith to violate their consciences (and therefore commit sins.) Some of these enemies are human, and some are the fallen angels. Certainly we should pray for protection against those enemies who seek the life of our soul.

  10. Bonnie

    Jen, I suggest you quiet yourself, turn off the inner dialogue, and just read the words. Don’t think about anyone else (the psalmist, the people you promised to pray for, your enemies) – in fact don’t think, at least at first. I love the Psalms because they say things I should say but am too self-absorbed to say on my own. I read them slowly and sometimes I don’t understand the poetic imagery but that doesn’t matter. They’re God’s words and I shall give them back to Him. When you do think, reflect on what the words say about God and only God. If a phrase speaks to how you feel (“out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice” always gets overly dramatic me) turn them to what they say about God’s relationship with you and ultimately God Himself.

    Also, it helps me to think that even if the particular Psalm doesn’t speak to me on a particular day there is someone, somewhere in the world who needs that prayer prayed for them. It then becomes an honor, not an obligation, to pray it.

    • Alan Munday

      Yes, this thing of praying the Psalms as prayers on behalf of other people is a valuable point. Of course, we pray them on behalf of ourselves, but as members of the Body of Christ, and sharing in his royal priesthood, (yes, even those not formally ordained !), we have the wonderful privilege of being like Jesus Christ and praying with him, on behalf of others, even when some people may not be able to pray for themselves. This is all about being part of the wonderful fellowship of Christian love that we call the Communion of Saints.

  11. Professor Bo Bonner


    Hello, this is Bo from the Wichita State Newman Center. My suggestion in regards to those who are prone to over analyze the Psalms is this: pray them in Latin. This is especially the case if you do not know Latin. If you are reading too much of yourself into the Psalms, or thinking too much about them (I think this goes with any prayer), then find a way to read them where you cannot immediately analyze them, or at least have to do so slowly. People will often object “but I do not get anything out of the prayers then.” However, there are two things to respond to that. 1) What you mean is that your mind does not get anything out of the prayer, but that is okay, because our prayers are for God first and foremost, but 2) what we get out of prayer, according to St. Augustine, is “hearts enlarged to recieve the gifts of God.” (Letter to Proba) While this can come about through meditative prayer (lectio divina for example), no matter what form it comes in, it comes about first because God wills it to be so. All God is asking from us is our obedience. What better way, if the problem is distracted minds, to learn obedience than to do the humiliating thing, and pray in a language we do not comprehend. To be honest, this has helped me a whole lot. The easiest way to do this without spending money is the following: Go to newadvent.org, and click on the Psalms you are to prayer for that day. It has the English translation next to it, but a Latin version there as well. Thus, when Pslam 64 starts “Exaudi, Deus, orationem meam cum deprecor; a timore inimici eripe animam meam,” you may be less inclined to think about it, and more inclined to pray it. This will not work for everyone, but I figured you may feel up to giving it a shot! Blessings! Hope to hear from you soon.


    • Elizabeth

      I just wanted to add that there is also an amazing iPhone app, “Breviarium Meum,” which will load up all the hours of the traditional Office for you each day, in Latin (or in Latin with English translation next to it–or Hungarian!). I am a very recent convert and a rank beginner in prayer, but I love to say an Hour in Latin on the subway. It makes it so ridiculously easy! (I like to look at the side-by-side translation, which ties in also with Leah’s comment above). The sheer beauty and ancient grandeur of the Latin definitely contributes to my relationship with the text.

      What a great, honest post, and these comments are amazing! I have really benefited from this today.


  12. SusanE

    I was at a Benedictine monastery a few months ago, and praying the psalms with the community of monks lifted this form of prayer into a whole new realm for me. They chanted most of their prayers; hearing all of these individual voices blended into one beautiful sounds raised in prayer was a very sensual experience. Chanting forced me to slow down and be attentive. There were several article about praying the psalms left for guest of the monastery to read. One such article can be found on their website: http://christdesert.org/Visiting_Us/Liturgy/Praying_the_Psalms/index.html
    The psalms are prayers of raw, unfiltered human emotion written by an oppressed people. Thankfully, I have never experienced the pain and frustration and anger of oppression, but there are people all over the world who experience it daily. The psalms help put me in solidarity with their suffering.
    The psalms cover the whole range of emotions. I know when I feel lost, discouraged, alone or I’m feeling joyful, thankful, and cherished, I can find a psalm that speaks to me. Psalm 139 is my favorite; how can I not be reassured by the image of a God who knows me so intimately an cares for me so deeply?
    Many of my favorite liturgical hymns are based on the psalms. So I like to read the psalms with a hymnal by my side. Most hymnals have an index of scriptural references, so I find a hymn that goes with the psalm I’ve just prayed and I sing it. The psalms are after all songs. Every time I read Psalm 91, I can’t help but want to sing “On Eagles Wings.”
    Praying the psalms is something I’ve been doing intentionally for only about a year, but I’ve come to really love many of the psalms. They have become a treasured part of my prayer life.

  13. Amity

    You need to read Reflections on the Psalms by C S Lewis! One thing I learned from it is to think of my own sins when I see enemies mentioned in the Psalms. There’s also some interesting stuff about other ancient songs praising false gods and how some of the Psalms satirize them, and a lovely reflection about how death in the mind of the ancient Israelite was different than it is for the Christian, and why that should be so. Highly, highly recommended.
    Robert Alter’s commentary to his translation of the Psalms is also sometimes inspiring or enlightening.

  14. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Thanks for the Lewis recommendation. I just ordered it. There are some very cheap used copies on Amazon.

    • Todd Michaels

      Although the cited copy isn’t among them, there are free audiobooks for other Lewis (and Chesterton πŸ˜‰ ) easily googled.

  15. Melia

    Two things:

    (a) Read more poetry in general, and learn to appreciate the style, the sound of the poem, and the context within which the poet was writing (for example, the medieval and Elizabethan ideas and imagery found in Shakespeare’s works). Think about the psalmist in the same way.

    (b) Like all things in the OT, read them in the light of Christ.

  16. so many things to love...

    Hi Jen, not this Lent but the one before I tried singing the psalms early in the morning and right before bed. I found it to be such a wonderful experience that I still fall back to it when praying. In the half-light, when I’m alone and chanting quietly, the psalms take on a breath of new life for me. On a less poetical note, singing also forces you to slow down and read each word more carefully, as well as giving auditory learners a little boost that comes from hearing a reading and not just seeing it.

  17. NY Mom

    Jen, I strongly recommend Jeff Cavin’s 10-week “Psalms” study. My husband and I did it this past winter and my eyes were opened to what I’d been missing. Completely missing, I might add. We were able to do it with a group from a local parish here and were ultimately humbled and awed by what we learned. The Psalms are deceptively simple, but don’t be fooled by their lack of relevance on any given day. You’ll find yourself standing on holy ground once you begin. (Consider leading a parish study! Amazing what you learn when you’ve got to teach…)

  18. Nancy

    A few ideas . . . if you don’t have one, purchase a study Bible. There are many, but I use the Life Application Bible.) It has footnotes that explain things about the culture, who wrote it and when (e.g. David wrote Psalm 51 after the prophet Nathan confronted him about Bathsheba, etc.), and the history of the Jewish people. The Psalms really come to life when considered in their contexts.

    Also, I don’t read lots of them at one sitting. Like other poetry, they should be savored and pondered, and it’s too easy to start skimming over really rich language if you try to read too many.

    I love the journey contained in the Psalms too. Often, an angry, veangeful, demanding tone changes until by the end, the writer is reminding himself about the truth of God’s love, His goodness, and His character. I also think the Psalms are vitally important in reminding us that feelings (even the “bad” ones) are okay, and it’s okay to express them . . . but then we need to turn a corner and remember what we know is true about God.

  19. Delanom

    There have been many good insights and suggestions already and I have no pearls of wisdom but I’ve been playing music in the Church for a while and there are many musical settings that I’ve come across that have resonated with me. So much so that in different points in my life I will remember the Psalm in that particular setting and it can be comforting. So, maybe another way to experience them is in the setting of music.
    On a similar note, one of the things we do with our children in homeschool is have them use the psalms for memory work so as they grow up they will have these to draw upon in times of need or praise.

  20. Jessica Snell

    Yes! Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s “Christ in the Psalms”! <–this made such a difference for me in praying the Psalms. I'll cheat a bit and say that the biggest thing I learned from this book is how prophetic the Psalms are – how they're all about Christ. The "righteous man" in the Psalms is often Jesus. And so we pray them through Him, if that makes sense, as the body of Christ.

    Anyway, Fr. Reardon says it all much better, but I couldn't see this question and not recommend that book!

  21. tune

    Have you tried reading: The School of Prayer: An Introduction to the Divine Office for All Christians, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814620280/ref=oh_details_o02_s00_i00? It’s a great introduction of what LOTH is and provides commentary line by line of all the psalms read in the morning, evening, and nigh prayer every day. Really great book to get into the prayer of the psalmists itself…

  22. S.Mary Roberta Viano

    Visit your nearest monastery or abbey and listen to the monks chant the Psalms. Great way to appreciate and memorize them!

  23. Ann

    St Therese of Lisieux used to read the Psalms until she found 1 that applied to something going on in her life currently. It was said she sometimes read 50 psalms before finding something. I know I can’t always do this, but many ideas here are helpful to me as well. Thx!

  24. Rachel

    Jen, love your lucid posts as always! My strategy when I hit Psalms like the one you quoted is to pray it for people who really are persecuted in various places around the world. I remember one day I read the horrifying Senate testimony of a Chinese woman who had concealed a forbidden pregnancy for eight months but then endured a forced abortion. After they had killed her baby, she lay on the table longing to die. Her story upset me so much. Then I prayed the Liturgy of the Hours and it had one of those vindicate-me-and-fight-my-enemies Psalms, and it was exactly the kind of prayer I needed for that woman. The language was certainly not too strong for her situation.

  25. Leanne Shawler

    lots of good suggestions in the comments. Here’s one more which may or may not work. Nan Merrill rewrote the psalms in a language of love and non-violence. The goal of her writing them, I think, was that enemies are what’s in the way of you being closer to God. With the psalms I’m more familiar with I was: “what the–what the–?” so you too might be thrown for a loop and they’re not direct translations. Might be worth a shot.

  26. suburbancorrespondent

    That’s easy, isn’t it? The reason reading psalms doesn’t work is the same reason reading song lyrics doesn’t work. Psalms were originally meant to be sung. You need the music.

  27. elizabethe

    You gotta sing ’em, baby, or, listen to them sung.

    It’s a song, not poetry.

  28. Catholic Nomad Girl

    Great post! I love the honesty. I appreciate so much someone who can wholeheartedly admit their flaws in life as well as the spiritual life! Maybe in doing that you understand more than you think πŸ™‚ Well done!

  29. Geoffrey

    No, you’re doing it right, Jennifer. Don’t worry about feeling righteous when you walk away–Scripture will often redirect the arrow at you in the next prayer to balance it out with some personal humility.

    There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that some people are enemies and being angry at them because of it. It is good to bring all of these emotions to God, a God who really does avenge the innocent, but ultimately his punishment has in view the repentance of the wicked who attack them.

  30. Thrift store mama

    I listen to the psalms set to music. Marty Hagen and David haas have a nice collection they’ve recorded.

  31. Catholic Lawyer

    See this is why I read your blog because I can relate. I tried to pray the Divine Office when I attempted to become a Third Order Carmelite but couldn’t keep up with the page turning and reading (much less understanding) all of the poetry. So I dropped it. I only read Psalms in the day’s readings and hold on to a line or two that I like. Our priest told us that during the day, we can use these as what used to be known as “ejaculations” or what he calls “spiritual darts” like when we’re in a bind we can call out “O Lord come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me.” Also, I’ve learned to memorize the Psalms by the beautiful psalm based songs that I listen to. (Homeschoolers know repeat tunes are great memory tricks, right?) Hope it helps.

  32. Meg Hunter-Kilmer

    I know everyone’s suggesting books, but I found Thomas Merton’s “Praying the Psalms” very helpful. It’s really short and not like a lot of his sketchier or drier stuff. Praying for you!

  33. Lucinda

    Jennifer – how about if you include your feelings? Such as
    Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint;
    protect my life from the threat of the enemy
    God – I need you to hear me – I’m full of complaints right now about_____ I’m frustrated, even afraid of what might come next (or however you feel). It feels like ________ is attacking me like an enemy – I feel threatened – insecure/etc.,

    I think God wants to hear our feelings/fears/frustrations and that’s what was actually happening in the Psalms. And maybe by trying to voice those feelings to God in prayer it won’t seem so much like whining.

  34. soulja

    I think the Holy Spirit is giving us therapy for times when we are attacked by other people.Through the psalmist the Holy Spirit is probably telling us,not to take revenge or such matters of retribution upon ourselves,actually no need to even think about it, (because obviously,[as He has already let you know] ,He is on that case).
    We can busy ourselves with being good to our enemies,praying for them,turning the other cheek,carrying their backpack for an extra mile even,being crucified for their mistakes etc… and read the psalm once more just to reassure ourselves that God will do justice and God is seeing all this.
    To see the error of our ways is actually a very humbling experience,probably those are the arrows (the arrows of guilt,awareness of sin) God will shoot at them and by remorse ‘they will be struck down’suddenly,when you least expect it :)…they too (like we once were)will be converted!Romans 12:20 is a case in point πŸ™‚
    πŸ™‚ great idea for a post Jen,God bless!

  35. Guillaume

    Always remember Psalms are the public prayer of the Church. It implies that the One fully and rightly praying them is Christ Himself. Thus, in Ps. 64, Jesus is the innocent One praying to his Father – we, when we sin, are the enemies. Jesus wants us to be associated to his prayer, through the grace of baptism. It is by him, with him and through him that we can rightly pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
    I don’t know if that’ll help but it helps me.

    Pardon my poor English : I’m a french priest.

    God bless you !

  36. Jared Dees

    I’m sad to say I’ve had a similar experience. I’ve tried to pray the Liturgy of the Hours both alone and in groups but I just can’t seem to get the same connection I do with other forms of prayer. I’m still exploring it, but I’ve found that it is ok to stick with what works most of the time and do a little exploring just every once in awhile.

    I love the advice in the comments of this post, especially the idea of listening to them being sung (which I suppose is why we do that at Mass!).

  37. Daria Sockey

    So many great comments here that there’s almost no need for me to repeat. I guess the overarching principle is, that although on any given day the psalms and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours seem to speak directly to us, on the whole, It’s Not About You! We pray the Liturgy of the Hours on behalf of the Church. So we are praying Psalm 64 thinking about the never ending attacks of Satan, trying to bring the Church down through any means he can: scandals, political means, anti-catholic media,etc. We may also pray it for all suffering and persecuted Christians throughout the world. Of course, Jen, you are among these in a small way (although persecution through commboxes isn’t up there with imprisonment and martrydom, it’s still suffering), so you are included in this more “global” intention.
    And although you can’t hate the people who attack you, you can hate Satan as manifested in them. Or as he is manisfested by Planned Parenthood,, etc.
    And yes, the other enemies you are free to hate are your own sinful inclinations.
    One more thing, which my quick scan of other comments hasn’t found yet. The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of Christ, both in history (all Jews prayed the psalms) in theology (the psalms are packed with messianic types) and now, today, as He prays them with us, His body. So imagine Jesus praying this one while standing trial before the Sanhedrin or before Pilate. Think about how He was understanding those words. They apply to Him better than to anyone.
    My blog, Coffee&Canticles, is all about the Liturgy of the Hours. We talk about this kind of stuff regularly. Here’s one post on this general subject:

  38. Sharla


    I think you read it as the psalmist intended…I mean you felt what he felt. I would just say that you should ask yourself, “What does this Psalm reveal about the nature of God?” I think we are to leave this particular Psalm asking, “What has God done for me, and who have I told about it?”

  39. jen a

    What I found helpful in deepening my appreciation for the Psalms was reading what other people who have grown great affection for the Psalms have written. Kathleen Norris devotes a wonderful chapter in her book Cloister Walk to the Psalms. I also really was helped by Thomas Merton’s meditations on the Psalms in his book Praying the Psalms. It’s probably no coincidence that both Norris and Merton came to regular praying of the Psalms through Benedictine spirituality. I was influenced enough by them that when I took my Psalms course in Graduate School, I wrote my final paper on the Rule of St. Benedict.

  40. Liz S.

    Ohmygosh! Are people really that mean to you? That’s awful. I’m making my “URGGHH” face right now! πŸ˜‰

    I’m afraid that I am no master at prayer, so I will not even think to offer you advice, but I will offer a prayer for all your suffering at the hands of mean trolls. God bless you, Jen, and your beautiful family! — Liz

  41. Cat von Hassel-Davies

    Hey wait Jennifer, are nearby that you hear me when I read Psalms. OMG way too funny.


  42. Laura

    I adore you and your blog! I wanted to share a book that has really helped me with the Psalms.

    It’s called LEARNING TO PRAY THROUGH THE PSALMS by James W. Sire. It has been amazing for me personally. The book goes through the importance of reading and re-reading a psalm (in the same sitting), quieting our inner dialogue, understanding the structure of each particular Psalm, understanding the psalmists own complex relationship to God, and finally adapting the psalmists words to our own situation.

    I just made it sound like the MOST BORING BOOK on the planet, and it’s honestly one of the best I’ve read EVER. Very practical. It has helped me dive into the Psalms with joy … something I was never able to do before.

  43. Vincent

    Hi Jen,

    I found this discussion on Psalms 4. It’s by Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister of Redeemer Church in New York. He’s very detailed, a very clear speaker, and he examines the Bible with a great deal of historical context.


    Though since he’s talking about fears, you might find it distressing. I hope not, and that his approach helps you to read the Psalms.

  44. Hevel

    I’m quite late with my reply, but I just wanted to share with you how I fell in love with the Psalms. Jewish liturgy is heavily dependend on Psalms. We recite and pray them frequently. I didn’t really like them, till I realized that Psalms is the one book of the Tanakh that is about me. Me and my relationship with G-d. Me and my struggle with G-d. Me and my desire for G-d. Me and my desire to understand Him, to commune with Him, to love Him better and yes, about me and my doubts.

    Psalms is the most human book in the Bible, too. Because it’s about all those. Psalm 64, to me, is about begging G-d to protect me from those evil doers and from becoming one of them. Every single one of those psalms contains something that is all about the human experience.

    And maybe it helps that we can really sing them in Hebrew.

  45. Marchelle

    I’m no scholar either, let that be stated first; all the same, I feel compelled to add my thoughts.
    I’ve read many of the comments here, and with the exception of a few, most have not emphasized the fact that the Psalms are Living Word, able to be passed from generation to generation, each connecting with it in a different way. Though, obviously, your aforementioned connection is more comical than serious as you imagine your enemies being smited (which I believe we’ve all been guilty of at some point), what is wrong with the personal connection to the Psalms? Why are there so many people’s comments here referring to remaining disconnected from the Living Word? Will someone enlighten me, please? I see nothing wrong with you connecting your heart (your life’s issues, relationship with God, emotional state, etc.) and mind (what you know about the Psalmist, history, God’s Design, etc.) while you’re praying the Psalms.
    Only words of advice I’d offer: perhaps, to be fair, turning the table and considering yourself as someone else’s “enemy” and how your words/actions could have hurt that person. (sidenote: I’m not specifically referring to the mean and nasty that have persecuted you unprovoked. Best to not spend too much thought on them. πŸ™‚

  46. St. Michael

    The righteous man is Jesus. He is letting you, his little blogging daughter, read the prayers that were on His lips and in His heart when he walked amongst us before His Glorious Crucifixion and Resurrection.

    The Father in Heaven does indeed give the Son all that he asks, including the Nations as His Inheritance. On that Great Day of Judgement and Wrath, Jesus will sit in judgement over all.

    Due to sin, we are all enemies of Christ Jesus. But, out of love, he also has sent the Holy Ghost. By the power of the Holy Ghost (for it is impossible for man alone) we are able to repent of our sin, cease our enmity, and become friends and servants of the Son (to whom the Father has given all things).

    The Son does not know when the Father wills judgement to occur. Because He does not regard equality with God the Father as something to be grasped at, He does not yet sit in general judgement (for it is not yet the appointed hour) even though all judgement has been given to Him.

    When praying this Psalm, perhaps it would be fruitful to consider, “How am I an enemy of Christ Jesus?”, to repent of that emnity, to beg for mercy, and to thank God for His Great Glory and Love. Lest, at that final hour, we be judged as an enemy of The Lord.

    You may find praying the Traditional (1962) Latin Breviary (in English) more spiritually enriching and easier to enter into. The interweaving of the Psalms, the prayers, and the other texts is sublimely beautiful. I don’t wish to derail this meaningful discussion by pointing out that the change from the Breviary to the Liturgy of the Hours (and the ICEL translations) was conducted with the same care, love, faithfulness, and theology as the creation of the Novus Ordo– same persons, same fruits.

    I highly recommend Breviarium Meum (a website and phone app). In fact, I would even challenge you to try it for a month πŸ™‚

  47. Bridget

    I feel your pain!

    I read all enemies in the Psalms as members of Screwtape’s crew: demons. If tempted to insert an actual person/offender I turn again to the enemies who are lurking to take me down (and into whose traps I so often fall).

    THAT is how I keep myself from naming names and getting all high and mighty on my own self when praying the Hours with these particular Psalms…

    Bet someone in the first 50 comments already suggested this, but I don’t have time to read all the comments…
    Forgive duplication!

  48. Cheryl Cloyd

    There is an excellent book written by a theologian and a psychologist about the Psalms called The Cry of the Soul : How our emotions reveal our deepest questions about God, by Dr. Dan B. Allender and Dr. Tremper Longman III. They’re protestants, so you may not find the prayer advice you’re looking for, but I learned a lot about the psalms and about allowing Him to use, speak through and work on my own emotions…

  49. sarahblake

    I’m really new to this as well. I don’t think it even occurred to me to think of the psalms as poetry at first. I think most of the translations are rather prosaic, to the point of being irritating. My solution is to say them in Latin (my copy has an English translation next to them) and to use plain chant. I would also suggest using the King James version: now,that is poetry.

  50. Tara

    I love this. I can relate so much, plus it just made me laugh out loud and has now started a great discussion between me and my hubby about how to pray the Psalms properly, since it has always mistiiued me as well.

  51. Vincent

    One more from Tim Keller, Jen.


    I don’t know from experience if this is so. Maybe you know. But if so, I would find it encouraging. Here you go, in case you still need it.

  52. Todd Michaels

    Gregorian Chant/Monastic renderings with one caveat. Confidence is high that it will ruin you for any other way. There are, of course, downloads but I highly recommend participating at a monastery.

  53. Todd Michaels

    PS: As you seem very thoroughgoing, you would likely get a much greater appreciation by starting with the Desert Fathers and proceeding from there if you’ve not already done so.

  54. Todd Michaels

    PPS. Lest we forget the elusive obvious, “Oh God, come to my assistance … “

  55. Amy

    Have you tried praying with them in the context of spiritual warfare? Or vices?

    Also the Psalms, all of Scripture really, needs to be memorized in order to be incorporated into our daily life and our prayer. While you may find the whole psalm to be a bit much for your 21st century self, you may find a line taken out of textual context and remembered during the messiness of life brings great comfort. I think that Ann Voskamp has been writing about scriptural memorization lately. The St Augustine also recommends memorization before attempting any interpretation.(You might also like his rules of Faith and Charity in interpretation in his Essay “On Christian Doctrine.”)

    • Todd Michaels

      Memorization is definitely a step. This only reiterates the Church’s emphasis on gregorian chant, which is definitely a baby throw out with the alleged ‘bathwater’ of the Novus Ordo. Also, monastics and the like, can and do pray unceasingly, in some instances, even whilst sleeping. You will find that, much like a song sticks in your head, the liturgy continues after it is ‘over’. This really does help lead to unceasing prayer. Cannot recommend highly enough.

  56. Allison Welch

    I recently read Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and in it he said that we never read the Psalms alone, that Jesus always prays them with us. Isn’t that beautiful? It’s changed the way I think about reading them. We always hear about the Word becoming flesh, but the idea that in reading Scripture we enter into relationship with God… Alleluia. “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” Martin Luther

  57. John

    Hi — first time commenter, but long time reader! Love your blog!

    BTW, I am studying for the California Bar Exam right now and would really appreciate your prayers!!

    A great priest once told me that the psalms are the prayers of Jesus Christ — mystically like the Old Testament reveals the New, Christ is present in the Psalms. So I always think of Christ “retreating into the hills to pray” when I pray the psalms. I imagine that the words I’m praying are ones he prayed in his intimate prayer with the Father.

    Anyway — thanks for writing a great blog!

  58. R.C.


    I have the same problem.

    And, for what it’s worth, I have it a lot, because I have a system.

    Chekkitout: There are 150 Psalms, and 30 days each month on average, right?

    So that’s 5 a day.

    Which 5?

    Well, you take the day of the month, and to that day, you add 0, 30, 60, 90, and 120:

    First Psalm Of The Day: add 0
    Second Psalm Of The Day: add 30
    Third Psalm Of The Day: add 60
    Fourth Psalm Of The Day: add 90
    Fifth Psalm Of The Day: add 120

    For example, on the 16th, you read and pray Psalm 16, Psalm 46, Psalm 76, Psalm 106, and Psalm 136.


    Psalm 119 is too darned huge. It is to the other Psalms what “American Pie” or “Stairway to Heaven” or maybe even Yes’ “Tales From Topographic Oceans” is to a typical radio-cut pop song. Worse, it comes on a day where the other Psalms are huge, too.

    So 119 gets skipped on the 29th, and is placed on its own day; namely, the 31st.

    By the way, the Proverbs line up nicely with days of the month, too.

    There you go. Now you can systematically pray the Psalms wrong.

    You’re so welcome.

    • Todd Michaels

      Just to double tap, you are tracking that the Church has an extant system right?

      • R.C.

        Oh, sure.

        But, here’s the thing: I had to invent this in the absence of any computer, book, or anything that could tell me what that system was.

        If you just have a Bible sitting in front of you, which Psalms do you read? Without always gravitating to your favorites or reading the same one every time, I mean?

        That’s how my system came to be.

        (BTW, Todd, why “double tap?” I’m not familiar with the expression except as an instruction to fire twice at the same target before switching to your next target…and I don’t think you were shooting at me.)

        • Todd Michaels

          No need to explain. Simply put, I just wanted to make sure that you were aware. Through Him with and all that.

          The “double tap” phrase does come from that arena, in this sense used to denote attention to detail, thoroughness, or finishing off a subject such. In this particular ‘systems’, not (sister? Just a guess)

  59. LPatter

    just reading all this…all I can say is, I’m humbled that I’m in such holy company as one among your many readers. There is some really incredible stuff here – what fruitful reading. Thanks & Pax Vobiscum

  60. Jane Jeanor

    I love the book of Psalms because it has messages that uplift me whenever I feel like giving up.

  61. WSquared

    Ha ha! I hear you on that one, in that I do take comfort in the idea of God smiting our enemies– or, in the words of the Magnificat from St. Luke’s Gospel– casting down the mighty from their thrones. And then the reality sets in: “er, what if those “mighty” who get cast down is me and has been me? Crap!” Certainly, it’s already happened and has been true in many ways.

    You may or may not kill me for this suggestion, but I’ll suggest it, anyway: pray the Rosary, if you aren’t, already.

    With each decade– and mystery– you actually ask for a virtue (and reality, not just for yourself, but also everyone in general). Some of those big ones are humility and purity (of heart and mind, and not just body).

    Why I find this helpful in any and all other prayers is:

    1) It draws me into a steady rhythm– one that is not just good for meditation, but if you’re trying to fight the problem of trying to make prayer all about you, then the fact that the rhythm of the Rosary belongs not to us, but to Our Lady, does indeed remind and impress upon us that prayer is not All About Us. It is repetitive prayer, yes. Because it is meant to be persistent. The prayers that make up the Rosary are those that the Church gives us.

    2) All Scripture, as you know, is to be read in light of Christ. So same goes for the Psalms. The Rosary is ultimately about praying through Mary, asking the only creature in perfect Communion with Jesus to help us love her Son better. We are asking the only creature who is pure– indeed immaculate– of heart (for they shall see God) to help us see Christ with her own perfect faith. And Mary, as we know, stored up all of these things and pondered them in her heart. She’s the very model of the Catholic theologian for that reason, and the study and love of theology should always involve constant prayer. Mary, for one, is the type of the Church, and this really does come out in the Rosary.

    3) Allow yourself to connect the dots between the many facets of your spiritual life, particularly when it comes to prayer– lectio divina, liturgy of the Hours, any devotions you might have, the MASS.

    4) Also, don’t forget to ask God for help, and to be patient (yeah, when you pray the Rosary, you get to pray for that, too).

    God bless!

  62. AnneG

    Jenn, I converted from the Episcopal Church years ago. Our parish priests are Friars of the Atonement and we have Morning Prayer where we pray the Psalms. Chanting or praying them responds orally in a group really helps, too. I see St Louis the King parish in Austin has sung Compline. Probably doesn’t fit with family bed times, but it is an idea, as is Anglican use. I know I’m really late, but just a thought.

  63. Todd Michaels

    No doubt. This is a cocktail of disappointment and encouragement. Chant, spec. Gregorian is supposed to have primacy and yet contemporary cacophony is the effective rule. If this were otherwise this question wouldn’t exist.

  64. Jason

    If you have access to the 4-volume Liturgy of the Hours .. Take a look at the second reading for Saturday.

    • Jason

      Pardon me .. This past Saturday, June 16.

  65. Todd Michaels

    I’m just a dude in the pews. If there are (highly probable) those more learned, please correct.

    Pouring out. This is what comes to me regarding the psalms. Christ pours out for us. The priest as Christ pours out for us. David, the lover, the poet, the musician, the audacious youth pours out his heart. He is a man after Gods own heart. He is a mad man in the best possible way. Christ pours his heart out quite literally, and David follows suit. David seems pretty honest as well. Even in his sins, he readily takes correction straight to heart. He offers all his heart to God, pleasant, and unpleasant, good and bad, without hesitation, like the best jazz. He offers God all, both good and bad, what is in his heart, for he knows, that He knows anyway. There is an implicit and profound trust here. He doesn’t hide the body like Adam, or Cain, who seems to have learned that trick from the real first murderer, his father.

    Don’t forget Jonathan either. Don’t forget David’s perseverance and ‘stupid’ ‘blind’ ‘unwarranted’ loyal to a man who was after his blood.

    David is a madman, he loves God with abandon. He doesn’t keep himself, to himself.

    Perhaps I’m way off the rez here, but this is ‘right seeming’ to me, and makes much sense of the psalms.


  66. Todd Michaels

    PS: This perspective on David, this love with abandon, this offering up all that you are, good and bad, to God, makes the monastic life, all the way back to the sand, much more comprehensible as well.

  67. Ryan Ellis

    I pray the old-old (pre Ex Form) Divine Office every day. All the hours. That means that I hit all 150 psalms every week (putting the “little office” of the LOTH to shame).

    I say that not to brag (exclusively), but to point out that I have a lot of experience with the psalms, more than even most priests my age. I’m 34 and am a busy father with a job and a side small business.

    Here is my advice:

    1. The psalms are a gift of the Holy Spirit. Like all the gifts of the frustrating friend, they don’t come on our terms or timetable all the time. Let the grace of the psalms work on you on God’s time. Your duty is to be faithful and persistent. God will make it work.

    2. Use the old-old Divine Office more. No, it doesn’t have to be in Latin, provided you’re not clergy or religious. You can find the old (and old-old) Divine Office on http://www.divinumofficium.com.

    3. In particular, I recommend from the old-old Office

    a. the Sunday Matins readings (before they were cut down in 1961). Ditto for the homiletic patristic readings on major feasts
    b. the Sunday Lauds psalms. You will not be able to wait to go to Mass after praying these Sunday morning
    c. Sunday Vespers. These just reek of Sunday late afternoon after awhile
    d. Sunday Compline. The traditional Night Prayer psalms. What St. Benedict created
    e. The Lauds and Vespers psalms of Thursday and Friday. These are keyed off of the themes of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and serve as a reminder in your week of Holy Week’s most important days
    f. The Matins hymns of Friday and Saturday. These are really cool. The Friday ones talk about the betrayal of the anointed one. The Saturday Matins psalms are some of my favorite, as they focus on the entire early Hebrew liberation story (great for the Sabbath).

    Over time, these things work on you again and again. This is to say nothing of the following great psalms:

    1. Ps 95, the invitiatory psalm. Is there a better way to start the day?
    2. Ps 51, the Miserere psalm. Say it often, especially before Confession
    3. The gradual psalms (for a pilgrimage or when there is a long ride to Mass)
    4. The seven penitential psalms (great for Lent, great for Confession-heavy retreats)
    5. The “Laudate” psalms (147-150). Great morning prayer by themselves
    6. The traditional psalms prayed before Mass (found in the Baronius EF Missal and others, but great for any Mass)

    I use the Anglican Breviary (with Latin taped inserts) combined with DO.com. This truly is a fruit of the Second Vatican Council–a layman praying the office, in the vernacular. The LOTH is not great.

  68. tabulyogang

    just found your blog and i have fun reading. I also feel the same thing while reading the Psalms! I am sometimes pretty much taken aback by how psalmists hate their enemies too much that they want them dead. But i just think that they are going to war while they were composing this, especially King David. And the enemies are the Devil themselves trying to fulfill their plans by using humans. Lol. that is why you really have to like abhor and really hate all enemies and pray for their destruction to stop the wicked things they do. The psalm is like being in a great war for me. It’s like battle of Good and Evil. hehe.

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