Door 19: The Inhabited Psalter

By Jan Richardson

The Inhabited Psalter © Jan L. Richardson

This week, the lectionary gives us a psalm of heartbreak and hope. Crying out to God in the midst of desperate desolation, the writer of Psalm 80 pleads with the Holy One:

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Reading the psalmist’s song of gut-wrenching hope, I’ve been thinking about Edward.

I inherited Edward. He was a friend and colleague of my sister when she lived in Atlanta. When I moved to Atlanta to attend seminary, Sally had already moved to another part of the country. When she returned to Atlanta for a visit, I met Edward. He became a blessedly unlikely friend. Totally disconnected from the seminary community around which my life revolved, and with a bit of a wild hair, Edward provided a unique thread of connection to the world beyond.

I went to church with him sometimes. An active member of an Episcopal congregation, Edward introduced me to the riches of Anglican liturgy. One of my favorite memories of being at All Saints’ Church is connected to an evensong service for which Edward played the organ, his creative spirit at play in a way that I imagine he experienced less frequently in his day job in the business world.

One year, during the Advent season, Edward gave me a book in which he had inscribed these words:

Stir up thy power, O Lord,
and with great might come among us;
and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,
let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…

I was unfamiliar with the words, but from his inscription I learned that the words came from the Book of Common Prayer; they are part of the collect for the third Sunday of Advent. It is an old, old prayer that, in one version or another, goes back centuries. I have a Book of Common Prayer whose long-ago text renders it in these words:

O Lord, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us…

Zowie. I love that version.

With roots in this week’s psalm, this prayer links us to generations of those who have cried out for God’s saving power. For millennia the Psalter has served as a wellspring for prayer, both for those who have prayed its verses as well as for those who, as in this collect from the Book of Common Prayer, have woven the psalms into new prayers that echo with the ancient longings that we humans have carried throughout our history.

The Book of Psalms, perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, carries our collective memory as people who have sought the presence of God in every circumstance. The psalms give voice to the full range of human emotion. Desire, rage, hope, vindictiveness, love, despair: nearly everything we are capable of, both exalted and base, is at play in its pages. The psalmist incorporates it all, with no visible fear that he will be judged for bringing his emotions into the presence of God. It reminds me of one of the desert fathers, Abba Poemen, who wisely counseled us to “Teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.” The psalmist did. A lot.

Because he (they) did, and because these words were gathered together in a book, we are inheritors of this remarkable body of poetry that has been a central sacred text for the ages, not only for Christians but for Jews as well. As prayers for both public worship and for private contemplation, the Psalms link us with all those, Jewish and Christian alike, who have prayed these words in solitude and in community across generations.

When I open a book that contains the Psalms, it often stirs particular connections with others to whom I am linked by those words. When I open the Benedictine breviary that the community of St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery uses, and pray the psalms contained there, I am mindful that I do not pray alone. Though I may be in solitude, I am praying in community not only with my oblate sisters and brothers but with Benedictines and other monastics around the world and across the ages who have prayed these same psalms that are at the core of monastic life.

I have a Bible that belonged to a beloved great-aunt, and when I read the beautiful cadences of the Psalms in the King James Version, I am mindful that she once prayed these same prayers. Her open Bible becomes a thin place, a space where the veil between worlds becomes permeable.

During the graveside service held last week for a family friend who influenced me greatly, the pastor invited us to pray the 23rd Psalm together (King James, of course, the version inextricably and beautifully bound with that particular psalm). The collective voice of the community gave me shivers; it tapped into a deep well of memory, and the voices lifted by the grave of that beloved mentor, friend, mother, and wife were not just our voices alone.

The Psalms are haunted. Generation upon generation, in dozens of languages, in every circumstance, the people of God have turned to them, have sung them, have whispered them, have wailed them, have chanted them alone and in community. The Psalms are inhabited, filled with the presences of all who have prayed them.

Whom do you hear when you turn to the Psalms? Who inhabits their lines? Who prays them with you?

Today, as I ponder this week’s psalm, Edward is especially present with me. He died more than a decade ago, a few months after I moved from Atlanta. He was altogether too young. In this psalm’s lines of desolation and desire intertwined, I hear the echoes of Edward’s voice. As he journeyed throughout long and thieving months of illness, Edward, and the community that surrounded him, lived the psalmist’s rhythms of heartbreak and hope. And heartbreak. And hope.

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

O come to us. Come.

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One Response to “Door 19: The Inhabited Psalter”

  1. Phyllis Thomas Says:

    Each day is still delightful! I particularly like the image today, minimal yet powerful. I was also reminded as I read through the expressions of the Psalms and different versions of the Word and your thoughts about other resources we have available, how privileged we are. Especially when I just received an e-mail from friends in Kenya who work with Wycliffe
    Translators. They just celebrated the delivery of the first translation of the Bible for the Digo people. He has come to over 360,000 believers for the first time with God’s written Word in their hands. It sobered me to think how much I take for granted, and now the Digo people can join with those from generations past who inhabit scripture.

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