Praying the Psalms is a time-tested spiritual discipline for developing a compassionate heart. St. Anthony said so. Evagrius Ponticus said so. Thomas Merton said so. Henri Nouwen said so. Thomas Green said so.
Not one has a good reason for why contemplative prayer develops compassion. But I think they just assume that praying the Psalms takes us deep into the heart of God. We gain the heart of God through the Psalms.
Now here’s some instruction about praying the Psalms. First, you should NOT begin with “an information quest.” Praying the Psalms IS NOT about gaining information or teaching. Yes, you will be instructed. More so, you will find yourself meditating (studying) on a phrase or word or concept in the Psalms.
We begin to pray the Psalms not for depth therefore, but for “volume.” It is the sheer volume or amount of the Psalms we are leveraging. This is quantity over quality. I know that sounds wrong in our head-driven Christianity that has been with us since the Reformation (16th century). But we pray the Psalms to bath our day with the words of God, inspired by God, given by God, prayed back to God by us, and then the prayers of God are sent back to us as a balm of God’s divine Presence. Uh huh, that’s right. Complicated yes. Why?
Praying the Psalms is mystical prayer. We are praying more with our gut than our mind. We are changing our heart – not through information – not through the head, but through our innermost being.
To understand this fully one must hang around a monastery and listen to Benedictine monks pray the Daily Office seven times a day. Do monks burn out on praying the Psalms? Yes! Perhaps for years! But this is the nature of a discipline. Keep at it even when you don’t feel like it. Do runners training for a marathon burn out on preparation? Sure. But they keep at it. The discipline has its desired outcome: ability to run a marathon. Praying the Psalms has its desired outcome: a compassionate heart, a heart that becomes still and ceases to judge another human being; a heart that sees its False Self for what it is: a deception, a lie that tells one they are stupid or worthless or witless, or shameful or confused, pitiable and sad and childish. The true self sees us as sinners saved by a loving gracious Father. The True Self is honest. It does not need to judge. It is at rest.
This is why contemplative prayer is the road to love: it brings judgment of self and others to an end. We must embrace this ancient Christian discipline for our contemporary lives. Otherwise we will not change much.
“The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or he will be nothing.” – Karl Rahner (theologian)
(Needful topics not addressed this time: a) how to schedule praying the Psalms b) the posture and bodily mode of praying the Psalms c) accompanying disciplines for leveraging the Psalms d) understanding the content of the Psalms in all their varied topics and themes.)