In Praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton writes that “the Church loves the Psalms because in them she sings of her experience of God, of her union with the Incarnate Word, of her contemplation of God in the Mystery of Christ” (9). Thus, “the whole Psalter has always been regarded by the Church, in her liturgy, as though it were a summary and compendium of all that God has revealed” (8–9).
Merton notes that everything these days is praised: new products, new politicians, etc. The result, of course, is that nothing is praised. The Psalms therefore offer us a way to enter into praise that is both from and to God. As such, the Psalter is “a perfect form of prayer for the layman” (15). Merton says that the Psalms should take an important, perhaps primary, place in the life of family prayer. (He also claims that parents, who lead these prayers, should know the Psalter so well that they can turn to one to fit any situation ; oh for such familiarity.) For Merton, we must “enter” into the Psalms.
He stresses that the Psalms are “the ‘prayer of Christ’” (17) because they both affirm that which Christ promised and fulfilled as well as show forth his glory. The Pslams, then, allow us to enter more deeply into the Mystery of the Incarnation, making prayer through the Holy Spirit (who inspired these songs) and letting Jesus pray in us through meditating on the Psalms (18).
As we strive to enter the Psalms, Merton advises us to recite “them slowly and well” (22). For Merton, we need not collect multiple commentaries on the Psalms but simply meet the text where it leads us. As we pray, we will only require “occasional recourse” (25) to commentary on the text, when we meet something that perplexes us. Praying the Psalms will stir up in us a love for the law of God (cf. Psalm 1). Psalms, even the initially violent ones, “end in peace, or show us that the way to peace is in confidence in the Strong Living God.”
And so we arrive at Merton’s thesis; the Psalms “teach us: the peace that comes from submission to God’s will and from perfect confidence in Him.”
If we pray the Psalms looking for what we can get out of them, we will be disappointed (44–45); for the message of the Psalms is to enter into them, let them become our Psalms, and grow in selflessness. We pray the Psalms because they “will enable us to surrender ourselves to God” (26).
The final half of the book gives instruction for how to approach the Psalms. Merton advises special attention to the Gradual Psalms (Psalms 120–134), the ones which were sung on the way to the Jerusalem temple by pilgrims. Merton says that “St. Augustine calls them the Psalms of our journey to the heavenly Jerusalem” (31). He observes that the sorrowful Psalms give hope where there might otherwise be none (37). The praise of the Psalms, so Merton says, are displayed best in the outright praise Psalms (41). And he says that the most moving Psalms for Christians should be the “Messianic poems in which the sufferings and triumph of Christ are brought before the eyes of our soul with an incomparable vividness”; he cites Psalm 22 as an example, for it is the prayer Jesus prayed in the midst of his passion (42). Finally, the notes eschatological psalms which communicate the hope bestowed by the second coming (43).
In final analysis, “There is no aspect of the interior life, no kind of religious experience, no spiritual need of man that is not depicted and lived out in the Psalms. But we cannot lay hands on these riches unless we are willing to work for them” (44). Above all, if we make the effort to enter into the world of these Psalms, we will be echoing and growing in the interior life lived by Mary, who could accept the invitation of the angel. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to your word.”