David taught me how to pray.
Well, not exactly. I learned to pray using words attributed to David—the psalms. And over the past five decades, the psalms have not only shaped my prayer; they have shaped my understanding of God and of life.
I bumped into David when I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Duquesne University. I had accepted the invitation of a friend to join her and several other students and teachers for early morning prayer. They introduced me to a layperson’s version of the Liturgy of the Hours. That’s where I met David. During that year his songs captivated my heart, and I have prayed with them ever since.
Finding the One True God. The psalms showed me who God is and what he is like. They flooded my mind with images that revealed his greatness. I prayed to the God who “counts out the number of the stars, and gives each one of them a name” (Psalm 147:4). I conversed with the God whose thoughts, if I had an eternity to count them, would total more than all the grains of sand on every shore (139:18). Psalm 103 and others like it declared why God deserved my praise and thanks, and gave me the words to do it:
Yahweh is tenderness and pity,
slow to anger and rich in faithful love;
his indignation does not last for ever,
nor his resentment remain for all time;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve,
nor repay us as befits our offences.
As the height of heaven above earth,
so strong is his faithful love for those who fear him.
As the distance of east from west,
so far from us does he put our faults. (Psalm 103:8–12)
Praying with the psalms has helped me thwart a temptation described in C. S. Lewis’s wonderful book, The Screwtape Letters. This little story showed me how Satan is always tempting me to make God into someone he isn’t—and in so doing, keep me from God.
In the book, the master devil, Screwtape, instructs a demon trainee to tempt his victim to pray to a god that he imagines in his own mind and thus not to God at all. Screwtape says that this kind of temptation will have the effect of separating the victim from God’s presence.
Screwtape warns his apprentice devil that if the victim ever consciously directs his prayers to God as he reveals himself instead of this imagined god, then all their efforts will become nearly impossible: “Once all his [incorrect] thoughts and images have been flung aside . . . and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room . . . then the incalculable may occur.” And what is “the incalculable”? It’s that the man actually meets the Lord and finds his life changed by God’s love.
So praying the psalms has prevented me from worshiping a god that I might have created in my imagination—perhaps a cruel, vengeful god or a distant, uncaring one. Immersing myself in the psalms causes me to worship God as he is. They invite me every day to spend time adoring the true God, who is eternal, infinite, and almighty: “Come, let us . . . kneel before Yahweh who made us” (Psalm 95:6).
Praying with David. David’s songs have also taught me how to respond to God, who initiates all prayer. They trained me in dispositions of thanksgiving, repentance, and intercession.
Thanksgiving. Praying the psalms has made giving thanks a theme of my prayer. “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving,” says Psalm 95, “acclaim him with music”(Psalm 95:2). When I come across verses like this one, I stop midpsalm to spend time expressing gratitude for all the Lord has done for me. I thank him for creating me; for giving me a human nature; for Christ’s passion, death and resurrection; for the sacraments; for granting me a share in his divine life; for Mary Lou, my wife, and our children; for my friends; for providing all my material needs; and, most of all, for forgiving my many sins. This spirit of thankfulness has kept my prayer fresh and lively.
Repentance. Psalm 51, David’s prayer of repentance, holds a high place among my favorite psalms. I pray it often because, as you might guess, I sin often. It helps me ask forgiveness for such things as fits of irritability when things cross me and speaking unkindly to my wife. I take comfort in verses like these:
Have mercy on me, O God,
in your faithful love,
in your great tenderness wipe
away my offences;
wash me clean from my guilt,
purify me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1–2)
This Psalm also helps me fight temptation. Frequently throughout the day I find myself praying,
God, create in me a clean heart,
renew within me a resolute
I have no way of telling for sure, but I think this little practice may keep me from indulging in some of my bad inclinations.
Intercession. The psalms have given me a heart for intercession because they encourage me to expect God to answer my prayers. For example, Psalm 145 declares that God
fulfils the desires of all
who fear him,
he hears their cry and he saves
them. (Psalm 145:19)
Notice the condition that the Lord only listens to intercessors who “fear” him, that is, those who surrender their lives to him. Submission to God’s will does not guarantee his yes to a request, but it is a good ground to stand on when asking him for something. I intercede for a long list of relatives and friends at my morning prayer time. And I trust the Lord for his best answer, which may be “Yes,” “Wait,” or “I’ve got something better.”
A Remedy for All My Cares. For more than fifty years, David’s songs have encouraged and strengthened me. Even in hard times, praying the psalms has lifted my heart and kept me on an even keel. For example, I have prayed Psalm 116 so often that these reassuring verses are locked in my memory:
My heart, be at peace once again,
for Yahweh has treated you generously.
He has rescued me from death, my eyes from tears,
and my feet from stumbling.
I shall pass my life in the presence of Yahweh,
in the land of the living. (Psalm 116:7–9)
St. Basil the Great (329–379) describes the Book of Psalms as the complete prayer book, proclaiming all truth, directing every aspect of life, and meeting every need:
The Holy Spirit composed the Scriptures so that in them, as in a pharmacy open to all souls, we might each of us be able to find the medicine suited to our own particular illness. . . . But the Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behavior to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cares. (Homily on Psalm 1)
That’s what praying with David’s songs does for me.
Bert Ghezzi’s most recent book is The Power of Daily Prayer (The Word Among Us Press). He and Mary Lou, his wife, pray the psalms at their home in Winter Park, Florida. Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.