How the Penitential Psalms Opened the Bible for Me

Getting to Know God, Part 4

LATELY, I’VE BEEN READING A LOT ABOUT THE BIBLE and the traditional manner of interpreting it; I’ve also been reading the Bible itself every day, more consistently and extensively than my previous practice of reading the selections for each day’s. One reason for all this recent attention to the Bible is that, over on my other blog, The Compleat Catholic Reader, I’m trying to conclude a series comparing ancient accounts of the Great Flood. The Bible, whose Author is God Himself, can’t be discussed simply as if it were just another piece of ancient literature, comparable to the Epic of Gilgamesh or Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the other two works with Great Flood stories, which I’ve already analyzed). A literary approach is sufficient to discern the literal meaning of Sacred Scripture but it can’t touch the theological truths which comprise the primary, spiritual significance of this sacred book.

This study of the literal versus the spiritual senses of Scripture has reminded me of my own process of gradually penetrating the Bible’s surface to learn why it is so vital to the Christian life. Although many people, including many Christians, think of the Bible as a collection of old stories, my gradual introduction to the Book that God Wrote did not begin with any Bible story, not even the Gospel accounts. While I knew the Gospel accounts and believed them to be true, they struck me as rather remote from the life I was living. The Bible didn’t really begin to speak to me until I discovered in the psalms words that articulated a cry that seemed to come from my own heart.

A (Literally) Closed Book

In an earlier post, I told about my earliest brushes with religion when I was still a young, unchurched child and my memory of a Protestant Bible that my mother kept as a keepsake of her childhood rather than as a sacred text. This Bible was zipped shut around the edge and gathered dust on the lower shelf of an end table in our seldom-used formal living room.

In my memory, this closed Bible stands in sharp contrast to the one I noticed in the living room of our Catholic neighbors across the street, a large family Bible that lay open on the coffee table in their family room, with generations inscribed in the family tree pages at the front of the volume. My only other early contact with the Bible was being told Bible stories illustrated on flannel boards at a Baptist Vacation Bible School I attended at about the same age (six or seven). When I think of those two Bibles, one zipped tight and the other open, integrated into the life of a family throughout generations, I feel again the tension in my own family that was not eased, but perhaps increased, when we entered the Church.

They say that faith is the key that unlocks the true meaning of the Bible, and I would like to be able to tell you that, as soon as I was baptized at age eleven, the Bible became an open book to me, but that is not the case. It’s true that I heard readings from the Bible each week at Mass. Also, we now had a “family Bible,” which my parents had been given by their godparents when they themselves were baptized. But this new Bible, much like the one my mother had owned since childhood, went onto a shelf, never to be opened. So, even though our home now had two Bibles, and even though I was an avid reader who would read anything with words printed on it, including most of my mother’s books, I never dared to just sit down and read either of our Bibles. Moreover, although I knew the Bible was filled with stories (true ones), I could not simply sit down and read it as a storybook. For quite a few years, the Bible remained a great mystery that I could not penetrate.

Pocket-sized Gideon New Testament
My pocket pal.

About the time that I entered the Church, or perhaps a few months before (fifth or the sixth grade), my teacher at school allowed a representative of the Gideon Society to distribute pocket-sized New Testaments with Psalms and Proverbs to any student who wanted one. (In those days, you could still do that in public schools.) Never one to refuse the offer of a free book, I gladly took one and tried to read it. But I was stymied. The language was strange to me (King James Version), and the typography was cramped (a real consideration for a myopic child who refused to wear her glasses). I loved it nonetheless, because it was small enough to hide in my pocket and carry around with me. This might sound like a strange thing to do but I guess I was a strange kid. I was, after all, a member of a strange family where the Bible was literally zipped closed, so maybe I thought that it was supposed to be kept secret. At any rate, I often carried the little volume in my shirt or dress pocket, and kept it for many years.

During the desert experience of my high school years, when my family fell away from the Church and dragged me down with them, I kept this little Gideon Bible as a kind of sacred relic of my happy days as a practicing Catholic. I kept it hidden in a cigar box of treasured items which included a small crucifix with the stations of the cross that I had been awarded for being the star pupil of my Confirmation class.

Cracking the Cover

Later, in college, finally free of the forced apostacy imposed at home, I was eager to get back in touch with Catholic faith and practice. Fortunately, my little liberal arts college had a Catholic chaplain and an “interfaith chapel” that we shared with the Protestant students (in separate services). Mass was celebrated on campus every Sunday morning (and Saturday evening) during the academic year, so I once again could hear portions of the Bible in the context of the Sacred Liturgy. Still, as a book that I could read on my own, the Bible remained closed to me–this despite the fact that I had bought my own Catholic Bible from our campus bookstore.

The Way, too groovy a Bible for me
Too groovy for me.

Well, I say it was a “Catholic Bible,” because that was the claim made on the cover, but in fact it was “The Way,” a special edition of The Living Bible, which itself is a “personal paraphrase” rather than a strict translation. (I doubt it had any official ecclesiastical approval.) This book was intended to make the Bible “accessible” to young, modern readers, much in the way that the “Good News for Modern Man” version of the Bible was intended to be accessible to people with limited reading skills. Being the prickly person that I was in those days, this “accessibility” was a condescension that I did not welcome, any more than the publisher’s attempt to make the Bible look “groovy” and “with it” (as we said in those days). To demonstrate that it was youth-oriented, the title of The Way was printed in a typeface that that seemed to have been borrowed from the posters of Peter Max, with the interiors of each trendy letter cut out to reveal pictures of happy-looking teens. The whole presentation seemed a bit over-eager to assert its “relevance” to modern youth, rather like a middle-aged high school teacher wearing bell-bottoms with his clip-on tie and bad comb-over. In other words, the very opposite of inviting. Unfortunately, The Way was the only Bible in the campus bookstore that purported to be a Catholic edition, so I bought it.

However, I did not read it. I tried, but the too-colloquial-sounding paraphrase and the dorky stick-figure illustrations put me off, making me feel that both my faith and my intelligence were being insulted. Thereafter, this tome gathered dust on my bookshelf for a few years until I gave it away.

Sad Songs from the Heart

One part of the Bible, however, did appeal to me—the psalms. At least, the penitential psalms, which seemed to cry out to God in a voice of near-despair; they echoed my own loneliness and frustration at that age. I’m not sure that I myself was “penitent,” which implies a greater knowledge of myself and of God than I possessed at the time, but I hurt inside. I realize now that my pain did, in fact, arise out of sin–my own and that so evident in the world–but at that time what struck me was that those psalms gave voice to my own pain.

How did I even become aware of these psalms? Through two rather different channels: a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Tenebrae service that substituted for the Holy Week liturgies of the Triduum at our campus chapel.

The Tenebrae service was offered jointly by the Protestant and the Catholic campus communities. Since the Catholic chapel group was not a parish, we were not allowed to celebrate the sacred Triduum, so only the Sunday Mass of Easter could celebrated to mark this holy week liturgically. Tenebrae was a sort of “paraliturgy” that skirted around that restriction. As I recall, this service involved a large candelabrum on which the candles were extinguished one by one, with penitential psalms and readings recited or sung in between the extinctions. The effect was very moving, suggesting that, as Christ died, the light of the world was being snuffed out. At the end of the service, the chapel was left in darkness and I, at least, found myself left in tears as other people gradually filtered out of the chapel into the night.

The poem that also drew my attention to the more plaintive psalms–so different from the rather happy-clappy psalms that we sang during Mass–was a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which began “Thou art, indeed, just Lord, if I contend with thee” and gives voice to the poet’s sense of spiritual frustration. For many years, I believed (erroneously) that the first line quoted a psalm but in fact it echoes a complaint of the prophet Jeremiah. (I knew nothing of prophets at the time.) At any rate, Hopkins’ poem resounded with my own experience in the way that many of the bleaker psalms did and it influenced my appreciation of those spiritual cris de cœur that we call the penitential psalms. As a result, I began to think of the psalms as songs of my own heart.

I memorized Hopkins’ sonnet and often recited it to myself in moments of spiritual frustration:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must

Disappointment all I endeavour end?

   Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust

Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

   Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes

Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes

   Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J.

As you can see, I was not really cut out for the “happy-clappy” sort of Christianity that predominated in the 1970s. So, it’s probably not surprising that my first really personal encounter with the Bible was poetic, penitential, and personal. It would be a few more years before I really got to know the Bible as a whole, yet my relationship with Sacred Scripture, through the psalms, was an important factor in my journey into the heart of the Christian faith.

I still had a lot to learn about God, but at least now I knew that it was okay to cry out to Him in pain, to tell Him that I needed Him and felt His absence. But I had not yet read enough of the Bible, or understood well enough the parts that I had read, to know that He allows us to thirst precisely because He desires to fill us with His living water. I was beginning to open my thirsty heart to Him so that He could fill it.

• • •

N. B. To read previous entries in this series, find them here in the Spiritual Autobiography category.

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