Merton – On the Psalms

The Old Testament Book of Psalms (the Psalter) is a hymn book that was finalized between 500 – 390 BCE.  The Psalms are a collection of religious poems of Israel that were used during liturgical ceremonies originally in the Temple in Jerusalem and in Jewish synagogues.  Thousands of psalms were written but only 150 found their way into the Psalter.  The Psalms represent the work of numerous poets; 83 of these poems bear King David’s name.

The Psalms describe God as the Holy One who dwells in the fullness of life and power.  In Psalm 99, verse 8, for example, the poet declares: “Extol the Lord our God and bow in worship before God’s holy mountain, for the Lord our God is Holy.”   The Psalms also depict God as the Eternal One.  Psalm 90, verse 2, states: “Before the mountains were created or You had formed the earth and its surface, from eternity to eternity You are God.”  God who is eternal is a refuge in times of need..  In Psalm 91, verses 1 and 2, we read: “You who dwell in the shelter of God most High, abide in the shadow of the Almighty, say to the Lord, my refuge, my fortress in whom I trust.”  Additionally, the Psalter claims God as redeemer.  In Psalm 31, verses 2 – 5, the poet prays: “Into your hands I commend my spirit, You who have redeemed me, Lord, faithful God.”

As a Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton chanted his way through the entire Psalter every week of the year.  Merton prayed the Psalms so frequently that their words took up residence in his heart and resounded in his being. The Psalms were Merton’s daily spiritual sustenance.  They were bread for his pilgrimage through life.

Merton wrote several books about the Psalms: Praying the Psalms and Bread in the Wilderness.  In these texts, Merton contends that the Psalms are perhaps the most significant and influential religious collection of poems ever written.  He notes that the Psalms encompass various facets of the human experience of the Divine, including: delight in God’s Law and peace in God’s will (Psalm 1); confidence in God (Psalms 119 – 133); mystical joy (Psalm 41); sorrow for offending God (Psalm 129); and joyful praise and adoration of God (Psalm 117).

When praying the Psalms, one raises one’s mind and heart to God and brings the substance of his or her life to the experience. Merton notes:  “We bring to the Psalms the raw material of our poor, isolated persons, with our own individual conflicts, sufferings and trials.”[i] Merton recommends that one read or recite the Psalms slowly, savoring them, meditating on their meaning, and allowing their life lessons to penetrate one’s being.  Additionally, Merton reflects that “There is … no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of a person that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms.”[ii] Merton adds that “God will give Godself to us through the Psalter if we give ourselves to God without reserve in our recitation of the Psalms.”[iii]

The Psalter is canticum novum, the song of those reborn as new creation.  Those who pray these poems glorify God.  The Psalms build a bridge between earth and heaven, for, as Merton declares:  “To chant the Psalms … is to join in the Liturgy of heaven.  It is to praise God with something of the same love with which God is praised by the blessed spirits.” [iv] who are enjoying life in eternity with God who is Love.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[i] Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (New York: New Directions, 2014) 118.

[ii] Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1956) 44.

[iii] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 64.

[iv] Merton, Bread in the Wilderness, 136.

Where Does Your Loyalty Reside?

Do you truly love God with your whole heart, soul and mind? Or do you place your own agenda first and God’s second? Would you stand by God at all costs, or would you be more likely to give in to temporal needs and pleasure?

In today’s first reading from Daniel, we hear of an interchange between King Nebuchadnezzar and three gentlemen named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These three men refuse to worship the King’s man-made statue, because they know the One, true God and worship Him alone. These three men are willing to put their full faith and trust in God claiming,

If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue that you set up (Daniel 3:17-18).

Did you catch that one phrase, “But even if he will not…?”  These men know that their fate Shadrach%2c Meshach%2c and Abednegotruly rests in God’s hands and not the King’s hands. If it be God’s will they will be spared. However, if God chooses to let the King’s deeds be carried out, then so be it; for these three men place God’s will first, rather than their own. The King decides to throw them into a fiery furnace. There they meet a fourth figure, a man looking like the son of God.

Unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, how often do we put conditions on God; seeking our own will rather than God’s will for our temporal comfort and pleasure? Do you realize that when we do so, we are actually breaking the First Commandment? Anything that comes between us and God to satisfy our wants and desires means that we place prominence on such things over God, and thus break the First Commandment.  It could be fame, fortune, sex, or even personal security. However, when a person can truly put God first, loving Him with one’s whole heart, soul and mind, as did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, then nothing can enslave the person; not even the threat against one’s life. That is what Jesus tries to teach in today’s Gospel reading.

Where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego believed that the God of Israel deserved their full faith and trust, Jesus now lays claim to that loyalty in the fulfillment of His mission when He states, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32), where the “truth” is salvation through Jesus and “freedom” is freedom from death caused by sin. Jesus is telling the people that the way to the God of Israel is through Him. However, the Jews are skeptical. For millennia, they have placed their loyalty in the God of Israel. Who was this Jesus, that He should now lay such a claim? Because of their suspicions, the Jews plotted to kill Jesus. All along, Jesus knew what they were doing and why. He closes this teaching with a powerful punch:

Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and am here; I did not come on my own, but he sent me” (John 8:42).  For the Jews to be plotting to kill Jesus, these thoughts of murder go against the Fifth Commandment given to the Israelites by the God of Israel: “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13). By Jesus’ statement of “If God were your Father…” He is stating that the God of Israel would never condone such evil, and therefore, they do not follow the precepts of the God of Israel, as they so claim. Such thoughts of murder could only come from the evil one. Therefore, the Jews of Jesus’ era were placing their loyalty elsewhere, and not with the God of Israel.

So, here is the big question: Are you like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, yet with the full knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God, and you love Him with your whole heart, soul and mind? Or, are you placing something of temporal value between you and God? Think carefully before you answer this question, and don’t deceive yourself. Then, during this Lenten season, make it to the Confessional and ask Jesus for a heart like that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. Her new children’s book Finding Patience was recently published (and makes a great Easter gift!). She blogs at www.virginialieto.com.