De-coding the Psalms for everyday, First World life

"King David Playing a Psaltery" by Fra Angelico (c. 1430)
“King David Playing a Psaltery” by Fra Angelico (c. 1430)

My husband and I attempt to pray Evening Prayer together daily. (Learn about the Liturgy of the Hours.) A large chunk of that prayer is the Psalms. While I love the idea of praying and knowing the Psalms, they’re at times difficult to relate to my modern-day, big-city life. For example:

You shall not fear the terror of the night
nor the arrow that flies by day
Nor the pestilence that roams in the darkness,
nor the plague that ravages at noon.

See, I understand all those images easily enough. But they’re almost speaking a different language. When it comes time for me to pray them, I often find myself saying them vs. praying them.

Today, I gained insight thanks to the Holy Spirit — during a retreat directed by Carmelite Fr. Gregory Ross, OCD, of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower (St. Therese of Lisieux). As my penance, Father Gregory had me reflect on Psalm 91.

It’s funny how unexpected and helpful this reflection was; recently, my life has felt like a daily struggle. Whether I’m fighting impatience with myself, household chores, problems at work, etc., I’ve felt like I’ve been fighting battles, and it’s been quite exhausting. (Can’t you relate?)

Using battle imagery, Psalm 91 recalls the security of those who trust in God. After reflecting on this Psalm, I’d like to share some thoughts that you might find helpful.

1. Rid myself of emotional walls.

You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress,
my God in whom I trust.”

After experiencing feelings of betrayal, trauma and manipulation, I’ve discovered in therapy sessions how easily I put up emotional walls to prevent myself from being hurt. Distancing myself from others is much easier than risking woundedness — and it’s a natural, understandable reaction. Yet, if I rely on my emotional walls, I can just as easily lose out on the opportunities God gives me to love the people in my life. I can miss opportunities to give hope, insight, and presence to my friends and family. Psalm 91 reminds me not to crawl inside myself in every circumstance, but to let God be my shelter. To be sure, we must exercise prudence and not set aside all thoughts of our physical/emotional/spiritual safety. At the same time, we must balance our caution with a strong trust in the Lord’s loving protection.

2. Trust in God’s eternal gaze.

No evil shall befall you,
no affliction come near your tent.
For God commands the angels
to guard you in all your ways.

Does this literally mean that our trust in God will be rewarded with zero suffering in this life? No way! If Jesus suffered, then surely his followers can expect suffering, “for no servant is greater than his Master” (Matthew 10:24). What does this mean, then? From my reflection, it means to trust that whatever comes my way is God’s will. Recently, I heard someone tell a favorite story of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, about a missionary priest whose typhoid fever brought him into the camp of some cannibals, which ultimately resulted in a member of the tribe going to seminary and becoming a Catholic priest. Wow! That missionary priest probably could not have dreamt up a better result of his suffering from typhoid. But God did. The Lord sees past, present, and future all at once; for God, there is no time! So, when I experience some suffering, I have to trust that it’s for the best, and that God’s angels are with me. I should seek God in every circumstance.

3. Enemies and problems are no cause for worry.

You shall tread upon the asp and the viper
trample the lion and the dragon.

I’ve never come across venomous snakes in my path (besides a couple of rattlesnakes), but I would never dream of simply stepping on them as I walk along. Neither do I regularly encounter lions (or dragons!), but would I trample them underfoot?!? No, my problems — though they come in different shapes — are just as ugly, frightening, and seemingly-powerful as the Psalmist’s creatures: constant stressors, chronic pain, traumatic memories, fragile economy/job market, self-doubt, etc. The point of this passage is to recall that our problems are nothing our Creator can’t handle. So, why should we let ourselves be overcome with fear, worry, anxiety, stress? No, we should take shelter in the Lord. By his grace, we will tread those problems and trample those obstacles.

Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

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