How the Psalms Teach Us to Pray

In my reading today, I came across this quotation from Walter Brueggemann and it’s too good to not reproduce in its entirety. He captures what it means to be a people of the book. In this case, that book is the Book of Psalms, and our action is prayer. Brueggemann teases out the implications of learning to pray the Psalms. They give us words to pray as well as show us how to create prayers using our own words. (Text in italics is Brueggemann’s emphasis, text in bold is mine.)

The psalms function both as acts of prayer themselves and as invitations to other prayers beyond these words. As an act of prayer, the psalms witness to the ways in which this community has always prayed, from its first “belief-ful” utterance until our own practice of the same speech as an act of prayer. The community uses, reuses, and reuses these same words because the words are known to be adequate and because we have no better words to utter. The initial speakers of these words understood that prayer cannot be thought, but must be spoken. At the source of this prayer tradition, the community found a particular, peculiar spokenness that we still speak: a spokenness that is daring and subversive, attuned to the reality of human hurt, to the splendor of holy power, to the seriousness of moral coherence, and to the possibility of cosmic and personal transformation. The community has found these words and modes of speech faithful, adequate, and satisfying because the original articulations of prayer have—in our judgement, in our faith, and in our experience—gotten it right. We boldly reuse their speaking in our speaking.

The psalms function not only as discipline and instruction about how to pray but also as invitation and authorization to speak imaginatively beyond these words themselves. These words in the psalms initiate a trajectory of dangerous speech that we can continue. We not only reiterate these prayers in their timeless words now found timely but are authorized and nourished by these words to find our words, fresh words that are more resonant to our own experience, more congruent with our own life, more crucial for our own faith. Thus our best speech of praise requires our best inventiveness. Our most candid speech of lament permits words that live close to our deepest hurt and our most intimate groan. We pray in our own time and place, from our own experience, and out of our own faith, and therefore in our own words. The psalms both permit and generate such inventiveness.

The inventiveness of our own prayer, however, stands always in an odd relation to the norm of the psalms themselves. The very psalms that invite our inventiveness also expose much of our inventiveness as trivial and trite, unworthy for this awesome conversation. We then move back and forth between these classic acts of prayer and our own inventiveness. We find in the psalms both models and permits. We stand under their discipline, and we are authorized by their freedom. In this movement out of the psalms and then back into them, we are speakers for ourselves. We are at the same time speakers through the countless generations, continuing the prayers and the speech begun for us long before us. (“The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 33-34)