Last year, I opened up my prayer journal to a fresh new page and numbered 150 lines, one line for each chapter in the Book of Psalms. Almost every day since then, I’ve prayed through a psalm and jotted down a phrase, concept or even just a word that struck me during prayer.
The Book of Psalms isn’t just a book of the Bible, though. Inside, you’ll find hymns, poems and prayers that were written and prayed with over many years by various psalmists. There are psalms of praise that glorify God, psalms of lament that are prayed to God in times of sorrow, and psalms of wisdom that give advice for how to live in right relationship with God, others and ourselves.
The message of each psalm is unique, but each one richly describes the entire spectrum of human emotion, from joy to sorrow, fear to trust.
Want more Radiant? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!
After praying with the psalms for the past six months, I’ve started to notice shifts in the way that I think about Scripture, how I pray with others, and how I navigate challenging times in my own life. Here are some things that I’ve learned as I’ve journeyed closer to Christ through the words of the psalmists, as well as some practical tips if you’d like to dive deeper into a specific part of Scripture but aren’t sure how to start.
I’ve grown in my awareness of how Scripture is living and active
I used to think that the psalms were just a collection of songs that David wrote to the Lord, but that perspective honestly made it a bit awkward to pray with. At first, it felt like I was third-wheeling or eavesdropping on intimate conversations.
But as I continued to pray through the psalms, I realized that while they are the words of the psalmists, they’ve become my words, too. These passages were written by a specific person during a specific time in history, but the psalms are also Scripture, which means they are living and active in my life today. “The most valuable thing the psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance,” writes C.S. Lewis in his “Reflections on the Psalms.”
I don’t know what specific incident caused the psalmist to write Psalm 46, which opens proclaiming that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in distress.” But I do know that those are exactly the words that I needed as I prayed with the Lord about anxiety I was experiencing during a job loss. And revisiting the more well-known Psalm 23 when struggling with comparing myself to others, the words of the psalm reminded me that there is “nothing I lack” (v. 1). The words of the psalmists, inspired by the Holy Spirit, impact my daily life centuries after they were written.
If you’re starting to pray with specific passages of Scripture in a deeper way, ask the Holy Spirit what he is trying to speak to you today.
I’m not at a loss for words when it comes to praying for (and with) others
Praying with the psalms has not only impacted the way that I converse with God about what I’m experiencing, thinking and feeling. It has also changed the way that I pray for and with those I know and love.
A few weeks into this journey through the psalms, a friend reached out with a prayer request. When I was texting her back to let her know that I was praying for her, I realized that the psalm I’d just prayed that day gave me the exact words I was searching for to offer her reassurance of God’s faithfulness.
Then in February, Psalm 29 reminds me that God’s voice is full of majesty and that he “sits enthroned over the flood … The Lord reigns as king forever” (v.10). This is a passage I’ve turned to as I intercede for people in Ukraine and Russia.
When you begin to pray with a particular passage of Scripture, notice if the verse that you’re praying inspires you to offer your own prayers that give glory to God, intercede for specific people you know and love, or inspire you to listen for his wisdom speaking to you through his word.
I’m more connected to Christ and the Catholic Church
Christ and the Church he founded place special emphasis on the importance of the psalms when it comes to giving voice to our longings in conversation with the Lord.
The words of the psalms echo throughout Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. The people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday praise him with the words of Psalm 118, crying out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (v. 26). Then, Christ sings the psalms of Passover with his disciples as they walk to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus will experience his agony in the garden (cf. Mt 26:30). The words of Psalm 22 are some of the last words uttered by Christ before he dies on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (v. 2).
Following in this tradition of praying the psalms, the Catholic Church prays the Liturgy of the Hours, which is also called the Divine Office. It’s a series of daily prayers prayed in the morning, daytime, evening and nighttime, as well as a prayer called the Office of Readings. Priests and religious pray these prayers daily, but all of the Church is invited to join.
“In this ‘public prayer of the Church,’ the faithful (clergy, religious, and lay people) exercise the royal priesthood of the baptized,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Celebrated in ‘the form approved’ by the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to her Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body addresses to the Father” (No. 1174).
If you don’t know where to begin but want to pray daily with Scripture, try praying one of the hours of the Divine Office. My favorite prayer is night prayer, which is a great place to start if you’ve never prayed the Divine Office before.
I’m embracing the ups and downs of my interior life with more grace
We experience many ups and downs in our lives as Catholic women. There are some moments of consolation, when God feels close and his will is clear. Other times, we’re left in the dark when it comes to God’s plans and confidence in his presence wanes.
It only took a few days praying the Psalms to realize that these movements of the heart are regularly wrestled with by the psalmist. And in moments of darkness, the psalmist’s constant reminder to hope and wait for the Lord has been an incredible source of encouragement for my own interior life.
In Psalm 13, the psalmist writes, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (v. 2). Then, the same Psalm concludes with: “But I trust in your mercy. Grant my heart joy in your salvation, I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me!” (v. 6).
Each of these psalms of lament — prayers expressing feelings of abandonment, frustration, or sorrow — contain a similar structure. Each begins with the psalmist remembering times where the Lord has been faithful in the past. Then, after sharing the specific complaint and request for God, there is a break in the psalm where the psalmist hears the response of the Lord. This usually isn’t written in the psalm itself. But the psalms of lament always end with a vow of the psalmist to be faithful and trust in the Lord. Encountering this structure in the psalms has reminded me over and over the importance of remembering God’s faithfulness even in those dark times, and being steadfast in my trust of the Lord and his goodness.
If you’ve found yourself overwhelmed by difficulties and conflicts in your own personal life and in the world at large, take some inspiration from Dorothy Day: “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms. If you are rushed for time, sow time and you will reap time. Go to church and spend a quiet hour in prayer. You will have more time than ever and your work will get done.”