Psalms: Personal or Communal?
By Br Thomas Thérèse Mannion | Much is still unknown about the origin of the psalms. How were they read? What are their origins? Who were their audiences and authors? Not only how were they read but how should they be read?In the 19th Century scholars tried to answer some of these questions and formed various schools. Two diverging approaches can be seen within Judaism itself with the the Carites and Rabbanites.
Much is still unknown about the origin of the psalms. How were they read? What are their origins? Who were their audiences and authors? Not only how were they read but how should they be read?In the 19th Century scholars tried to answer some of these questions and formed various schools. Two diverging approaches can be seen within Judaism itself with the the Carites and Rabbanites.
The Carites believed the psalms are a book of prayers, possibly used polemically against rabbinic prayer traditions. The Rabbanites however believed the psalms are inspired literature teachings in a sort of poetic form rather than prayers. The Rabbanites by in large have lost the debate but perhaps the truth is in medio via. It may depend on the psalm.
The psalms are sources of comfort, strength, advice and teaching. Many of these prayers are incredibly personal. The ‘I/Thou’ relationship is strong thematically throughout the psalms. This leads some to suggest the psalms are primarily intended for personal or devotional prayer rather than liturgical action, but I would ask why liturgy should not be considered both personal as well as communal, particularly in the light of the covenantal relationship we enjoy which prizes communion with the human and divine.
In Psalm 22 we hear ‘Why have you forsaken me?’, as the psalmist turns his problem into God’s problem. Psalm 88 says ‘Friend and neighbour you have taken away from me, my one companion is darkness’. Individually, I am sure we all have moments we can sincerely pray this psalm, but this can also be prayed by Israel collectively, by the Church collectively, by humanity collectively. This language breaks down barriers and speaks in a common tongue with those of all religions and none; it is a language of abandonment and loneliness. The unity we have as Israel, as a Church, in our Humanity, allows us to pray in the first person even when the suffering is personally experienced by another, because in the words of John Donne ‘no man is an island.’ Your problems are my problems – we are brothers.
In Psalm 90 we see the another side of the coin with an ‘Us/Them/You’ distinction. ‘You turn us back to dust… You sweep them away like a dream’. Even when using plural language the story is incredibly personal and provocative. Beginning with the nature of God and action with all his splendour and wholly otherness, it moves into a stark contrast of the human condition beseeching God for his participation in our endeavours. The psalmist is involved personally and invested communally.
The next time we pray the psalms we should spare a thought for its dynamism, its themes and motifs. How has this psalm been prayed? How was it intended to be prayed? The immediate context, message, relationship and structure matter as much as the intention we bring to the prayer – our prayer is not merely for ourselves it is both personal and communal.