The poems and songs of King David and his school of song-writers—the Psalms—have been held up by scholars and saints alike for their literary power and theological depth. Who could read Psalm 23, about the Good Shepherd who guides us in all our needs and distress, and not be moved? Christians from the earliest centuries after Christ have taken the Psalms not merely as Jewish relics, but as their own. Even Christ prayed the Psalms—he recites a portion of Psalm 22 from the cross (rf. Mathew 27:46, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?).
Newman offers an encouragement and a challenge as he considers the power of the Psalms; his sermon “The Condition of the Members of the Christian Empire” suggests that we will not appreciate or understand the full power of the Psalms if we are not acquainted with suffering, setbacks, and persecution in our Christian walk. Yet it is precisely here that the Psalms also offer us solace as the Church and Her individual members continue to give themselves over to God’s will in times of distress, calamity, and crises, corporate and personal.
Newman echoes a deep tradition found in St. Athanasius’ “Letter to Marcellinus,” which encourages reading the Psalms as related to Christ, and of comfort to the Christian in various kinds of sufferings. Athanasius writes,
So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered… in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.
Like Athanasius, Newman also stresses that it is only in finding how the Psalms relate to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that they can have meaning for the Christian. There is no real continuity between the “Christian and Jewish Church,” unless there is a continuation in their religious devotions. The “sacrifice of a broken spirit” the Psalmist offers in Psalm 50 is not merely dejection, but becomes the cry of the Suffering Servant in his agonies and persecutions, carrying his cross to become the sacrifice by which we are all forgiven, made new, and brought to life. The whole drama of redemption in Christ is played out in the Psalms, in a way that becomes the voice of the Church made in Christ’s likeness beseeching the Father for mercy.
Newman calls the Psalms the “voice” of the Church, the “very language which is natural to her” as the “Kingdom of heaven upon earth.” No wonder the Church has supplied the Psalms as the substance of the Church’s prayer not only in the Liturgy of the Word, but also in her perpetual prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, prayed 7 times a day by monks, at least five times a day by clergy and religious, by many more lay faithful as they are able. To pray the Psalms with the Church is to join into what the Church is always doing–offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father, speaking in and as Christ.
But to truly understand the language of the Psalms, which is often one of agony, supplication, and even misery, Newman suggests that one must be able to enter into the real sufferings of the Church throughout time, even if one’s own time and place is not particularly painful. “The age of the Martyrs, indeed, is well nigh over; but scarce a Saint, but has been in his place and degree a Confessor.” Even if “fierce barbarians” no longer pour over the face of the Church, one must be able to enter into the Psalmists’ understanding of persecution and trial to read the Psalms profitably.
Newman cautions us that we cannot use the Psalter properly, and may even abuse it, if we are “too happy and secure,” if “we are friends with the world” and love our faith only for the benefits it brings rather than for love of God. He fears that no doctrinal corruption is as great as the “practical corruption” which creeps into the Church in all eras: “seeking God for the sake of mammon; loving religion from love of the world.”
One might love the Church, but love worldly prosperity more, mistaking the material or social or practical benefits of Christianity as the end or highest good. He does not deny the good of these benefits–of order, obedience, charity, defense of human dignity and private property, of generosity and healing and beauty; but they are not “the special benefits of Christ’s kingdom.” If one endured the trials, persecutions, and temptations of the Psalmist, or the Martyrs, or Christ Himself, and was deprived of all material, visible benefit, would he still care for “the unseen and spiritual blessings which are [the Church’s] true and proper gifts”?
This is matter for examination of conscience, not over-scrupulosity; we may rightly enjoy the benefits that accrue to our faith, while also discerning if our attachment to faith is secure enough to withstand the withdrawal of those benefits. Stories and poems, hymns and the Psalms can help us cultivate such examination, imagining ourselves in trial, praying for the Church persecuted elsewhere, coming to know our own frailty and weakness while learning to depend entirely on God.
Thus, let us go to the Psalms to learn detachment, to learn that “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12), and to increase our devotion to God as the world about us grows darker. Let us use the Psalms to truly become the Body of Christ together, the great family across the world and time and extending to the eternity of Saints who are blessed not because of “earthly law, or human countenance, or civil station,” but because we are “poor in spirit, mourners, meek, thirsters for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.”