What is a believer to do with the “shadow material” in the Psalms? I’m referring to those passages that lash out in anger, asking God to destroy one’s enemies—often described in graphic cruelty. The notorious lines from Psalm 137:8-9 are a perfect example of this sort of material:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Passages like this, and Psalm 137 is but one of many that might have been offered as an example, are a stumbling block for many who might otherwise be drawn to the Psalms. That such passages exist, and what to do with them, is the focus of the fourth chapter of Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault, titled “The Psalms as Psychological Tools.”
She begins by observing that the easy “fix” of concluding that the vindictive, warlike God of the Old Testament is incompatible with Christian faith is precisely the heresy of Marcion. Christian tradition has affirmed a continuity between the Testaments, although the consequences of this affirmation continue to play themselves out.
The first key point Bourgeault makes is to draw a distinction between “public” and “contemplative” psalmody. The first involves the singing or recitation of the Psalms during regular worship. As such, it is meant for a broader audience, many of whom will be hearing the Psalms and other Scripture with little frame of reference for incorporating the difficult passages into a mature Christian worldview. In this setting, Bourgeault states,
there is little excuse for parading forth the darkest and most violent passages in the psalms. It is inappropriate, even flat-out abusive, to indulge in the gratuitous violence of, say, that verse from Psalm 137 in a congregation where little ones are present or to engage the congregation in long diatribes from the “cursing psalms,” particularly if there will be no follow-up in the sermon (40).
On the other hand, this dark material has an important purpose when the Psalms are used in contemplative prayer. In that setting, the Psalter’s “shadow material” makes it possible to talk about the pain and darkness humans carry with them, and even provides a means of letting go of it. In one of the more quotable passages of the book, Bourgeault reflects on the “divine therapy” the Psalms afford:
What I believe happens when we introduce the psalms into our consciousness—and even more so into our unconscious—through the practice of contemplative psalmody is that they begin to create a safe spiritual container for recognizing and processing those dark shadows within ourselves, those places we’d prefer not to think about. There are times in the spiritual journey when anger is a very real part of our live, just as jealousy, abandonment, helplessness, rage, and terror are. All of these emotions are in us, and they’re all in the psalms. Perhaps we’re not terribly pleased with ourselves when we find ourselves praying, “Destroy all those who oppress me, O Lord,” but most of us have felt that way. (43)
The Psalms, then, confront us with the darker portions of our own beings so we can process them on the way to spiritual transformation. According to Bourgeault, psalmody provides two aspects of a graceful way of moving on. First, the collective nature of the Psalms can teach us that these feelings are not simply all about us. Others have felt the same exact feelings, have have done so for thousands of years. This helps put our personal darkness in some sort of perspective.
Second, a regular pattern of psalmody exposes the contemplative to the whole gamut of human emotion, and in a way that has nothing to do with one’s current private emotional state. For example, one may find oneself chanting about feelings of despair or abandonment when personally cheerful, or exulting in the goodness of God while struggling mightily on the inside to believe in God at all. This process eventually builds in a certain detachment from one’s own emotional ups and downs: “You begin to see that all emotions are ultimately just energy events in time and will come and go of their own accord if you don’t strain too much to hold on to them” (45).
In the past, I have found Bourgeault’s approach to be a helpful jumping-off point for teaching mature Christians about the imprecatory psalms. The key for me is to identify accurately the “enemy” one is asking God to destroy. Relying on the traditional triad, “the world,” “the flesh,” and “the devil,” I tend to see three possible ways to redeem these psalms for Christian use:
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Emotional Catharsis (the enemy = the world). This is the model Bourgeault develops in this chapter.
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Self-Mortification (the enemy = the flesh). Bourgeault alludes briefly to this model at the end of the chapter, where someone explains understanding these psalms as prayers for God to destroy in oneself those sinful attitudes that prevent spiritual growth and holiness.
- The Psalms as Vehicles for Spiritual Warfare (the enemy = the devil). I believe this was also suggested by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who of course understood themselves to be “soldiers of Christ” doing battle with the forces of evil in the wilderness.
The imprecatory or “cursing” psalms are difficult, to be sure. But they remain a part of the Bible for both Jews and Christians. Therefore it is important for us to find ways to navigate their turbulent content and come out for the better on the other side of them.
Next: Part 6