If you do enough reading about Christian spiritual practices, you will inevitably come across writers waxing rapturous about about the daily discipline of reading and praying the Psalms. I’d been skeptical. There were some psalms, it was true, that resonated with me. Psalm 42 has been a favorite for decades. More than once I had turned to the Psalms in times of danger and found comfort there. But it was hard for me to imagine praying these often strange songs day-in and day-out.
I can’t remember what prompted me, but I finally decided to give it a try, reading 5 psalms each day for a month; there are 150 Psalms, so if you read 5 each day, you cycle through them all in a 30-day period. Much to my surprise, I kept to this practice for several months. In doing so, I discovered several aspects of this practice helped me connect best to this ancient prayer book.
First: I read them aloud. The Psalms are songs, written for public worship and expressive reading or singing. Reading a psalm to myself in my head was not easy to focus on, and I would feel my attention slipping, but reading them aloud highlighted the poetry and vibrancy of the language. It forced me to slow down, to contemplate the words, to let them find a place in the world. Sometimes my voice was barely a whisper, but the simple act of breathing the words gave them life.
Second: volume matters. I read 5 psalms every night before I went to bed. I didn’t get to skip any of them (not even the interminably long Psalm 119). Reading a greater number of psalms each day took the pressure off each chapter or verse; I knew that I would be moving through various emotions and experiences in each reading, and it was highly unlikely I would empathize with them all. So I stopped worrying about their emotional resonance and knew that, at some point, I would come across a phrase that felt like an earnest prayer. The rest didn’t have to be my prayer.
Which leads me to my third lesson: praying from the margins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, when praying the Psalms, we can think of ourselves as joining our prayers to Christ, who prays them, too. I also imagined joining my voice to those who are in distress. When I was in Sierra Leone for several weeks as a teenager, a neighbor began trying to peek into our windows at night, and it was was terrifying. I remember sitting under my mosquito net one night, trying to calm my breathing, reading psalms about deliverance from enemies that I had never really connected to before. Outside this experience, I haven’t felt I needed those enemy psalms. However, when I began my Psalm-reading practice, it was month or so into President Trump’s new administration, and harm against immigrants was ramping up every week. So I imagined frightened families on the border calling out to God for rescue, and I tied my reading to their prayers. So many of these psalms suddenly became relevant, words I knew siblings across the globe were crying out in some way. Praying the Psalms was not about me. It was a way pray with God’s children pushed to the edges of world.
Fourth: repeat the cycle. By starting over again at Psalm 1 when I finished Psalm 150, my prayers took on the shape of a circle rather than a line. My evening prayers were not about reaching a particular destination but about relating to God and to the communion of saints in widely varying circumstances: praise, confusion, assurance, fear, hope. And then coming back to those places again, knowing that each was a part of the human experience. The Psalms and their language became familiar. I would sometimes find myself structuring my spontaneous prayer throughout the day in very psalm-y ways. These songs became a part of me, not simply words I read. Sometimes now I will read through just one psalm before going to bed, and it feels like the entirety of the collection is then invoked in me.
I continue to be surprised by how much this practice has changed my relationship to the Book of Psalms, to scripture in general, and to prayer itself. Perhaps you, too, have felt curious about praying the Psalms – if so, take whatever from these observations feels helpful and discover what your own practice looks like.