The psalms are the quintessential Christian prayers as they were the prayers of Jesus himself. We do have to acknowledge that fundamentally the psalms are Jewish prayers and have been adopted and adapted for prayer by Christians. The context in which the psalms were originally composed, sung and prayed is not the context of most contemporary Christians. It must be acknowledged though, that the deep human themes they evoke are as present in our world as in the world of King David to whom many of the psalms were ascribed, with a great deal of poetic licence.
The Psalms in a Post-Modern World
Formal Catholic Prayer today
While the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium) called for reform of the liturgy, recent liturgical reform has been based on a return to the Latin origins of our Mass prayers. In the world of children and of catechesis a number of questions arise. The Directory for Masses with Children, published in 1974, encouraged a way of praying with children that took into account their capacities and emerging ability to relate to, and participate in, what is essentially an adult centred liturgy. These same principles form a foundation for praying the psalms with children in liturgical and catechetical contexts.
Context of Children today
If we compare the context of Jesus’ childhood and the manner in which he learnt to pray the psalms and the context of children today we find profound differences. It is of course possible to teach children prayer forms that engage their hearts and minds and much good work has gone into developing songs and prayers that are age and stage of faith appropriate. I have an image of a line of reception (first year) students wholeheartedly singing “Mary said yes, yes, yes…” (Michael Mangan) with energetic head bobbing that would have caused grave bodily discomfort to the elderly priest present if he had been called to model and participate in the singing and action.
Psalm 23, the good shepherd psalm, is perhaps one of the best known and loved psalms. It has deep resonances with the Jewish tradition of King David who was called from following the sheep to be the shepherd king of Israel. In Jesus’ preaching we find similar images.
The principle image is that of shepherd and sheep. In Australia sheep farming has been an important dimension of the history of this country. At one time the country rode on the sheep’s back financially; the export of wool was the most significant source of foreign income. Those days are long past but the tradition of sheep farming and the rise of trade unions from the shearers' unions are all part of Australian history, art and mythology. This is a very different story from the shepherding stories of Israel. In Australia sheep are found in large mobs of hundreds at a time, all practically indistinguishable from one another for the non-farmer. These sheep are managed with sheep dogs driven from place to place by a certain level of fear and at times ferocious barking. What is the image and reality for the sheep and shepherd of Jesus' time? Imagine a picture of the shepherd walking out of the village in the morning with fifteen or twenty sheep following in single file behind him. Because the shepherd spent all day out on the hillsides with the sheep, he would know each one individually and actually relate to them as we relate to our pets. The connection for Jesus and for first century shepherds is one of intimacy and constant presence. How different from the huge anonymous and commercial heart of the relationship between the Australian sheep farmer and his sheep. Almost all the language of the psalms needs similar recontextualising for us as twenty first century teachers and catechists.
How do young people view the world?
Ivy Beckwith, writing out of the context of North American Sunday school practice, has described and summarised the qualities of post-modern young people:
The millennials are cyberliterate and technology dependent. These kids were exposed to computers and high-tech gadgets from their earliest days. The internet culture exposes these children to life around the globe. They can easily communicate with a child from Japan or get information on the Middle East. Exposure to more than a million websites reinforces the concept that truth is what one chooses to believe, not some objective standard that stands outside of us. (Beckwith, 2004, p. 30)
How are we to relate the ancient Jewish texts to the young people who live in this world? Psalm 23 is a reflection on God’s care for us, with some introduction to the underlying metaphor based on a first century understanding of the relationship between the shepherd and sheep we may have a beginning point. Other psalms have very different central ideas. The narrative world of young people can be related to the underlying narrative of the psalms. This calls on the creativity of the catechist. Recently in a children’s Liturgy of the Word based on the transfiguration on Mount Tabor the young people ended with a lively discussion about riding their bikes down the winding road from the top of Tabor. Surely the mountains themselves would rejoice with delight. “Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.” (Ps 89:12)
Themes from the Psalms
In the Gospel of Matthew (27:45-46) Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” as he is dying. What are the moments of real loss and suffering all people experience and we are reminded of daily on television news in Afghanistan, in parts of Africa and other places of war and civil destruction?
The historical psalms remind us of God’s enduring love. “O Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Ps 107:1). Where in our time and place do we experience love and care that can awaken us to God’s continuing providential care spelled out in the events of history?
The glories of creation are celebrated in many psalms. “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps 121:2). “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8:3-4).There are many links to make here with current ecological concerns and care for the earth in practical ways.
Bringing the Psalms to our world
Phrases from the psalms can capture our imagination and function as mantras and slogans. We could incorporate these into school headlines in the way the religious orders’ founding saints’ words are sometimes used as sources of inspiration? However, as we bring the psalms to our life and world today, there will need to be some acknowledgement of our different ways of seeing the world from a scientific, post-modern perspective; and a deep and full appreciation of the way young people construct meaning. Our religious heritage and the practice of Jesus encourage us to bring these ever ancient and ever new psalms into meaning and life for us today, with an open heart and a willingness to work with young people to explore a contemporary Catholic Christian narrative reflective of their lives.
Beckwith, Ivy. (2004). Postmodern children’s ministry: ministry to children in the 21st century. Michigan: Zondervan.
Congregation for Divine Worship. (1974). Directory for Masses with children.
Mary said yes, from CD: Sing your joy by Michael Mangan (2007).
Second Vatican Council’s document. (1963).The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), viewed 21 March 2013. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html>