I like to blame my public school upbringing for many of my Catholic deficiencies. Yes, it is a weak excuse for my lax efforts, but nevertheless it is what comes to mind when I think about how little I know about the Psalms. Growing up, the Psalms were simply the neat little tune before the second reading at Mass. After years of participating in the responsorial, they became quite familiar to me. Still, in my typical ignorance, I didn’t know they came from a book in the Bible.
I never gave much thought to the Psalms. This year, at the Chicago deacon convocation, we were fortunate to have a talk from Bishop Mark Bartosic, an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Bishop Bartosic mentioned that in his work with prison ministry, inmates often looked for a reintroduction to Christianity. They wondered if they really could be forgiven. These prisoners struggle with their environment, with their actions and where the road will lead them next. The Bishop mentioned that during these emotional times, he often told the inmates to “start with the Psalms.” He reminded us that the Psalms are full of joy, fear, praise and anxiety in their prayer to God. He found that the emotions of the Psalms could provide a good connection to the emotions that the inmates were experiencing. Wow. That’s a bit more than simply being a neat little tune on Sundays!
I don’t know why this occurred to me while at Mass for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Something in me called to get in touch with the Psalms myself. The Psalm for that Sunday was “Lord, on the day I cried for help, you answered me.” (Psalm 138) After arriving home, I took out a Post-it note, folded it over, and on one side wrote “Psalm 138.” On the other, I wrote out the words to the Psalm. Throughout the week, I carried this Post-it note with me. Every time I reached into my pocket and came across this note I would stop and pray this Psalm. To my joy, I often realized at that moment how often the Lord had “answered me.” It was a great blessing to be reminded how active God is in our lives. Each time I prayed this Psalm, I reflected on this. I knew I was on to something good.
Sunday morning of the following weekend I woke up to an early morning alarm. “Oh no,” I thought to myself. “I don’t want it to be Monday. I’m not ready to go back to work.” It then occurred to me that it was Sunday morning. I could go back to sleep for a bit. I smiled to myself and said “Lord, on the day I cried for help, you answered me.” No, it wasn’t a miracle. It was a simple irony in which I happily started my day with.
It was now the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time and this became a new opportunity for me to move on to another Psalm. The Psalm for that weekend was Psalm 90 (# varies with reference): “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” The readings for that week focused on reminding us how silly we are to be focused on material possessions. The vice of greed. The Psalm reminded me how often, when I am caught up in the material world of my life, I tune out the needs of others. My heart “hardens” to their call. New week, new Post-it note.
My original plan was simply to focus solely on Psalm 90 for the week. The Spirit had other ideas as I found myself continuing to focus on Psalm 138 in addition to Psalm 90. “Cool,” I thought. “After half a century on this planet I now at least had two Psalms memorized….”
In hearing the Psalmist tell me not to “harden my heart” during the week helped me to recall the importance of focusing on God’s kingdom and not Greg’s. It reminded me of the times in my life where my wrong focus steered me away from being a better son, brother, husband, father, friend, coworker, deacon…. It is a rather painful reality, but one that each of us needs to confront. It is also a special time to remember that Jesus meets us where we are—today. Reflecting on yesterday reminds us to “repent” or change course so that we can be more fully alive—today. Specifically, it reminds me not only how silly it is to focus on “Greg’s kingdom” but how little freedom there is for me when I do so. I continually need to remind myself of the unhealthy addictions that I’m constantly being drawn into when I follow my path and not God’s. In this awakening, may I forever preach of the freedom that becomes available to all of us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In Psalm 90, I am again reminded that, when:
- we have time to spend with our families, harden not our hearts.
- we have time to speak with a friend, harden not our hearts.
- we can be there for a loved one, harden not our hearts.
- we come upon the needs of the poor, harden not our hearts.
- we hear the cry of an immigrant, harden not our hearts.
- we see our destruction of the environment, harden not our hearts.
- we hear the whisper of God, that we stop, listen, and harden not our hearts.
This coming week, join me in turning our Sunday “neat little tune before the Second Reading” into a new approach for contemplative prayer. Take the Psalm from Mass home with us. Write it down and keep this note where we will come across it often throughout our day. And, at those times when we encounter the Psalm, open ourselves to the message. Embrace it. Chew on it. Contemplate how this Psalm is speaking to us in our lives at that very moment. Honestly assess if our focus that day correlates to the prayer.
Know that praying the Psalms is an encounter with God who once again is drawing us to him in our lives. Notice the freedom. Amen!