“…is there not a suggestion that every word of prayer must penetrate to a depth of the heart which can be reached only by unceasing repetition? And in the end not even in that way! Is that not an indication that prayer is not a matter of a unique pouring out of the human heart in need or joy, but an unbroken, indeed continuous, process of learning, appropriating and impressing God’s will in Jesus Christ on the mind?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 31.
Sometimes we can be so caught up in the grandeur of one understanding and perspective that our hyperbole dwarfs and even negates other perspectives – it may not be our intention, but it does happen; perhaps that is what we see in the above quotation. I think that Bonhoeffer’s own prayer life, right up until his final moment, was that of a son with his heavenly Father, pouring out his unique human heart in need and in joy; and yet at the same time it was also a unique heart learning to pray in the Heart of hearts and in so doing learning God’s will in Jesus Christ, God’s will for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and God’s will for His people.
There is vain repetition, but there is also the repetition that Bonhoeffer writes of on page 31, “In all our praying there remains only the prayer of Jesus Christ, which has the promise of fulfillment and frees us from the vain repetitions of the heathen. The more deeply we grow into the Psalms and the more often we ourselves have prayed them, the more simple and rewarding will our praying become.” Bonhoeffer uses Psalm 119 as an example of repetitiously praying on the same subject so that the subject matter and prayer enter deep within us. There is a sense in which we become the prayer and the prayer becomes us as we experience union in Christ. We become the psalms and the psalms become us in Christ – the incarnation continues.
We don’t think it unnecessary repetition to drink water and eat bread every day, and not just every day but throughout every day. Why should we recoil at praying the psalms throughout the day? Why should we shy away from meditating in the Word of our God day and night? The psalms are a feast spread before us by our heavenly Father, indeed, the Bible is a banquet prepared by God for us to partake of throughout each day, it is bread to share with others, sustenance to our souls; and like the bread which Jesus multiplied, we can break it and break it and break it and give it and give it and give it and there will always be an abundance so that we can give more. But we must break it and eat it and give it…lest our souls become hard and eating becomes difficult.
“Your statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (Psalm 119:54). God has given us two houses; our physical body and the body of Christ; our individual pilgrimage is merged with our collective pilgrimage; as individuals are called to be conformed to the image of His Son, so the people of God are called to grow up into Christ in all things as “one new man”. Our hearts and minds and voices are called to sing the statutes of our God, His commandments are not burdensome to those who love Him but rather liberating, they draw us to Him, freeing us from the bonds of sin and death and the gravitational pull of the age – drawing us into the age that is coming in which Christ is all in all.
Just as the priests of the ancient Temple were called to present sacrifices and offerings throughout each day to the True and Living God, so we are called to “…continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name (Hebrews 13:15). “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thanksgiving in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
Knowledge of the Word of God, offering up praise to God, teaching one another…these are no longer the exclusive purview of the few, but this is that to which all are called as a royal priesthood – life together means life in which all the members of the community participate, in which all the members live in the Word, in which all the members offer worship, in which all the members speak to one another and teach one another as all of the members learn what it is to live under the Word and in mutual subjection preferring others above themselves.
I heartily agree with Bonhoeffer and with the tradition and practice of our fathers that we should read, pray, meditate upon, and sing the Psalms daily. There are various approaches to this, and it is often wise to vary our approach from year to year, or from season of life to season of life – this helps us see and experience the psalms in fresh perspectives. I have had seasons of life in which I read five psalms a day, each psalm being in a different part of the book of Psalms, starting with 1, 31, 61, 91, and 121 – this brought me through the entire book in one month. During another season of life I meditated on each psalm for one week until I traveled through the entire book; while this was a good journey to take in one’s life, I would not do it again because I missed the psalms I was not reading regularly. Sometimes I will read the Psalms of Degrees at one sitting for it provides me with a certain perspective. However we may incorporate the Psalms into our lives, they are our ancient heritage from eternity and we would do well to live in them daily; as individuals, as husbands and wives, as families, as friends, and as the Church of Jesus Christ.