Praying the psalms in the dark days of winter

Rosy Kandathil, OSBA Benedictine Sojourner's Journey, Living in Community, Monastic Life Leave a Comment

IMG_9005-X3 by Kent Sweitzer It has been an unusually cold January at the monastery. In the wake of a “polar vortex,” temperatures dropped well-below zero in the Madison area, forcing school and office closings. I know that for some the winter months are a delight, but the Wisconsin cold makes me feel a little trapped inside, like a kid desperate with cabin fever. I noticed that these feelings intensified as the monastery celebrated a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an international Christian ecumenical observance kept annually in late January. Each day we prayed for connections, relationships and appreciations to grow among our diverse faith communities. I thought often about my church family in NYC during this week, and churches throughout the world, as we reflected on our rich calling to be united to Christ and to one another. Perhaps it was a mixture of winter melancholy and these prayers that filled me with a sense of “home-sickness” as I gratefully remembered the many churches, pastors, teachers and small group communities that have shaped me. What is my calling in the midst of such tremendous diversity, such wonderful unity in God? How does my being a Benedictine Sojourner this year at Holy Wisdom now relate? Our faith formation classes led by Sister Lynne Smith helped me to channel my feelings, as we focused this month on growing in our understanding of praying the psalms. In a 5-week cycle, the community at Holy Wisdom Monastery prays through the psalmody together, singing and speaking words that are often troubling to hear. Take this example, from just this morning:

Stop rebuking me, O God, hold back your rage. Have pity for I am spent; heal me, hurt to the bone, wracked to the limit. God, how long? How long? (Psalm 6)

Imagine hearing these words sung aloud first thing in the morning, and you might see why we’d need a class to debrief afterward! The psalms invite a descent into the raw emotions of life—the frustration, pain, sadness, confusion and anger. To pray them aloud together is to stir up places within us that are hard to explore, hard to acknowledge, hard to express. But as I see it, particularly in community life, the psalms provide a safe space to vent “darker” feelings. The psalms normalize and give me permission to say out loud what I might not think acceptable in a faith setting. Although praying the psalms can often feel like a spiritual spelunking expedition, I know I’m tethered to a reliable rope that can lead me into the depths of a cave—while also pointing me back to God and community. One author calls the psalter “the songbook of the church,” a universal treasure trove of prayers for any occasion. There is something deeply heartening about engaging with the psalms now and recognizing them for the common ground they offer all people, as well as communities of faith that have experienced so much separation and violence. By reaching for the psalter, I remember that we have a common way. It binds us together in a shared language and history of reaching out to God and God to us, throughout time. It may not always look neat and pretty—in fact, it’s often quite ugly to pray through. But praying the psalms during our celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and into the dark days of winter, has challenged my vision for the kind of community that God intends. It gives me courage to pray from where I am, and just as I am.

Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts: Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey [photo by Kent Sweitzer]

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