O Lord, Hear My Cry
about this article
In this personal narrative, the author discusses how studying and praying the psalms changed her life. Basic background on the psalms is given, as well as how to use the psalms in prayer.
"I'm going for a walk," I declared, not caring if my husband actually heard me or not. I slammed the front door behind me and marched angrily out of our home, strutting down the walkway and into the street, oblivious to the sights and sounds around me.
With each step I took, I could feel my feelings sizzling as they played Ping-Pong within me. I was bitter and angry. I felt sad and betrayed. There was an ocean alienating me from the man I vowed to spend the rest of my life with. I felt deep anguish and a level of distress I had never experienced before. How did our marriage ever get to this point? Will there be a way out?
To family members on both sides, our marriage of seven years was a kind of testing ground. We were the only married adult children and felt a deep responsibility to witness to our siblings. Even then, we had not allowed the reality of our troubled relationship to demolish the symbol of marriage we knew they saw in us.
To the members of our faith community we must have seemed a paradox, a contradiction--and a mirror they would rather avoid. If they knew the real us, they would laugh at our situation, find it silly in some way. I didn't think anyone could possibly understand. And I had convinced myself that they were not interested in hearing any details. I even believed that our friends tried to avoid us, imagining their reaction as they met us as, "Oh, no. It's them. What will we say to them?"
After my walk that night I remember my intense feelings quieting down to a dull and silent pain. My husband and I didn't say much to each other as we put away our small children's things and prepared for bed. I knew we needed to really talk, but we instead agreed to give ourselves time and get some rest.
I have never felt so alone as I did during that period of my life. I have never cried and yelled at God as much as I did then, either. And I have never trusted in God's presence with the certainty of that time. As I sat down for prayer that night, my head and heart were full of words and feelings, but I was unable to put them together. I opened my Bible to Psalm 31 and there, in words written thousands of years before by an Israelite king, I found my prayer to God.
"In you, O Lord, I take refuge," I professed. "You are my rock and my fortress." "Incline your ear to me, make haste to deliver me! Be my rock of refuge," I demanded of my heavenly Father. "You will redeem me, O Lord, O faithful God." "Into your hands I commend my spirit," I cried with open hands, echoing the words of my Redeemer as he died on the cross (Ps. 31:2–6).
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I claimed the psalm's words as my own and was reminded of God's presence in the middle of my anguish. My words--through the psalm--were earthy and passionate. There was no philosophizing or rationalizing, simply raw and intimate communication with my Creator. In my desperate anguish I unveiled my inner self to God--with no pretenses or masks--and I felt myself becoming real with my Creator. In the words of the psalms, I found the ability to open myself to God as I am, not as I'd like to be. I allowed the poetic rhythms of these prayers to expose not only my feelings but my hopes as well. Slowly, in my quiet and on my walks, I empowered the voice of King David to say to God what I often didn't know how to say. And I learned to talk with God from the heart.
It takes both courage and surrender to acknowledge the anguish experienced at a time of suffering. But the words in Psalm 31 gave me--and continues to give me--the power to moan to my God: "Have pity on me, O Lord, for I am in distress; with sorrow my eye is consumed; my soul also, and my body. My strength has failed through affliction, and my bones are consumed" (31:9–10).
And I revealed an honest heart when I acknowledged to God how alone and forgotten I felt. Through its poetic, unpretentious images, Psalm 31 made my feelings tangible and concrete: "For all my foes I am an object of reproach, a laughingstock to my neighbors, and a dread to my friends; they who see me abroad flee from me. I am forgotten like the unremembered dead; I am like a dish that is broken" (31:11–12).
Also named the Psalter, this often-overlooked book of poetry has been called the "inspired hymnal of the Old Testament." It was, in fact, Israel's hymnbook. From the beginning, music had a large part in Israel's worship, with temple cantors and festivals of Yahweh celebrated with song and dance.
David, both a poet and musician, is regarded as the author of most of the 150 psalms, although many of the psalms are believed to have been written before David's reign (1012-972 b.c.). Regardless of the number of psalms actually written by David himself, the king who "sang the songs of Israel" is considered an essential part in the formation of the religious poetry of the Chosen People. David was the recognized national poet of the Hebrews and the promoter of liturgical chant. Tradition even credits him with organizing public worship, including the cantors.
The psalms record the history of the world from creation up to Israel's Babylonian captivity. But its dominant theme is the greatness of the one and only God, the Creator, the ruler, the King of Kings. It is a testament to their universality that the words of the Psalter were recited by Jesus himself, by the Virgin Mary, by the apostles, and by the early martyrs, and have been solace for many of the saints. Yet it is their personal nature that makes the psalms credible and convincing--it is what makes their voice sound so authentic and relevant, even in today's world.
Perhaps the most admirable thing about the psalms is that they are poetry, and as such, they portray in images what is right before our eyes yet our senses often miss. "Poetry's function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives," remarks Kathleen Norris in her literary journal The Cloister Walk. Far from idolizing, she notes, the psalms confront reality and they do so with hope. "The value of this great song book of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless."
The poetry of the psalms defeats our tendency to try to be holy without being human first, Norris remarks, and they make us uncomfortable "because they don't allow us to deny either the depth of our pain or the possibility of its transformation into praise. . . . The psalms reveal our most difficult conflicts and our deep desire, in Jungian terms, to run from the shadow. In them, the shadow speaks to us directly, in words that are painful to hear."
Saint Athanasius, a fourth-century father of the church and bishop of Alexandria, noted centuries ago the psalms' impressive power to become "a mirror to the person singing them." In my "singing" of the psalms, which at times is more of a moaning, I expose to God and to myself all of me--whether sad, angry, anguished, joyful, or frightened. And in so doing I become aware, I become real.
I look back on those three years when my husband and I struggled with each other, with our images of self and other, with the blaming and the condemnation, and I remain in awe that we were able to redefine our relationship and recommit to each other. Over the past nine years Michael and I have built on that experience of brokenness and have grown more intimate--and real--than we ever knew was possible. It is God's grace that carried us through the dark night, anointed our sacramental body, and led us to the light of Love. Like a fine guitar in dire need of restoration, it was the hand of the master musician who fixed and tuned our broken strings.
Although I did not know it at the time, our mutual families were, indeed, well aware of our marital strife. And even though they did not directly approach us with questions, over the years they have told us stories and shared with us the numerous ways that they sought to support us in love and prayers. And our community-of-faith friends, well aware of our need for affirmation in our sacramental love, gave us an astonishing gift. In the middle of the tempest we were asked by four different families to become godparents to their children. Our friends recognized and called out in hope to the God rooted deeply within our common being--especially when we could not see it ourselves.
I continue studying, proclaiming, and sitting quietly with the psalms. Like hundreds of monastic communities around the world who pray with the psalms daily, I have learned the gift of proclaiming both my joy and my anguish to my God. There is both freedom and gift in allowing myself to be real with the God who has known me before I was born.
Psalm 31 remains a cherished prayer, reminding me to acknowledge both personally and publicly that "my trust is in you, 0 Lord; I say, You are my God. In your hands is my destiny" (31:14–15). And as a family, it is with our whole hearts that my husband and I proclaim, "Once I said in my anguish, 'I am cut off from your sight'; Yet you heard the sound of my pleading when I cried out to you" (31:22). And "How great is your goodness, 0 Lord. Take courage and be stout-hearted, all you who hope in the Lord" (31:19,24).
acknowledgementsThis article first appeared in U.S. Catholic magazine and is reprinted here by permission of the author and U.S. Catholic. For more helpful articles from U.S.Catholic, visit their web site at http://www.uscatholic.org.
Published July 1, 1999.