Beginning on page 27, after quoting Ephesians 5:19, “Speak to one another with psalms,” and Colossians 3:16, “Teach and admonish one another…and…sing psalms,” Bonhoeffer explores what it means to pray the Psalter. He begins by pointing out difficulties in praying the Psalms as our own prayers – there are places where what we read just doesn’t fit with who we are – the psalms of innocence are an example, when I arrive at verses that speak of my own innocence I cannot pray them directly for, as they are written, I am not innocent. Then there are psalms of vengeance – and I sense that I ought not to touch them as they are written, that they are above me; and then there are the psalms of suffering…while I may identify with some of them, I cannot identify with many of them. What to do? How to pray them? They are God’s Word so I am called to pray and sing them, but they are not me so how can I speak them?
Bonhoeffer’s answer to this dilemma is the answer that Christians down through the centuries have given – these are the prayers of Jesus Christ; he writes, “The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter, and now it has become his prayer for all time…The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his congregation” (Page 28). [See Patrick Henry Reardon’s, Christ in the Psalms, for a wonderful treatment of this subject.]
According to Bonhoeffer there are three reasons to pray the Psalter: 1) It teaches us to pray as Jesus Christ prays; 2) we learn what we should pray; 3) we learn to pray as a community. On page 28 he writes, “Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ – the body of Christ – on earth continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs not to the individual member, but to the whole body of Christ.”
We have at least three difficulties encountering Bonhoeffer’s text; the first is that few people in the West appear to set aside daily dedicated time for prayer and praise; the second is that congregational prayer has mostly become like congregational Bible reading, something to quickly get through on Sunday mornings; and the third is that in the West, even in our Eucharistic churches, we have become so individualized that we do not think in terms of the Body of Christ, either locally, globally, or transcending time and space.
The Psalter is not a soft drink that is to be gulped and guzzled; but rather wine aged through suffering, joy, perseverance, thanksgiving, despair, hope, and the holiness and majesty of God. The Psalter is complex, spanning ages and generations and reaching from heaven to earth, and from earth to heaven. There is always someone somewhere praying and living each psalm, whether verbatim or in the crucible or euphoria of experience – we are invited to the fellowship, the communion, of the psalms. The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice of Psalms; to hear His voice we must be listen, even as we read aloud the words we must listen – whose voice is it that we hear? Is it our voice? Is it our voices? Is it Christ joined with us? Is it us being joined to Christ by Christ? Can we hear the voice of Christ in His Body through the ages?
In an age of distraction we are called to mediation, contemplation, antiphonal reading and praying and singing, sustained engagement; in an earth-bound world we are called to enter His courts with His words on our lips, His images on our minds, beholding Him and entering into His glory. We come not just individually, but we come as His people, His flock…we come as we experience life together.