After praying the divine office for about a year, I still could not truly enter into the Psalms. It was hard to understand what the Psalms were describing and I lacked any biblical context to explain it. All I knew was that the Psalms were written by King David.
Then our seminary rector highly recommended that we pick-up C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms. After reading one of my favorite authors explain the context and deep meaning behind the Psalms, the divine office became something I looked forward to and it breathed new life into my prayers.
C.S. Lewis wrote the book not so much as a scholarly treatise that is full of biblical jargon, but as a fellow traveler seeking to “compare notes” with a classmate. He makes this evident in the first few pages of the introduction:
“This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself….In this book, then, I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained, when reading the Psalms, with the hope that this might at any rate interest, and sometimes even help, other inexpert readers. I am ‘comparing notes,’ not presuming to instruct” (1-2).
It is an honest book, one that has all of C.S. Lewis’ wit and humor interspersed with his deep spiritual reflections. It is beneficial precisely because it is not written for scholars, but for the average man or woman.
At the same time, while he claims not to be a Hebraist, C.S. Lewis has a vast knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish culture and the context in which the Psalms were written. In other words, while he may be a “schoolboy,” he is the classmate that knows about as much as the teacher and can explain a complex subject in much simpler terms.
One of the most helpful parts of C.S. Lewis’ reflections is his insistence that the Psalms be read as they were intended to be: poetry that is meant to be sung. This is in accord with how Catholics should read the bible, with respect to the literary genre that the books were written:
Catechism of the Catholic Church 110 In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.”
The Psalms were not meant to be an historical retelling of events, nor were they designed to be a theological treatise. Often the Psalms are simply the struggles of the human heart, as the Catechism explains:
2588 The Psalter’s many forms of prayer take shape both in the liturgy of the Temple and in the human heart. Whether hymns or prayers of lamentation or thanksgiving, whether individual or communal, whether royal chants, songs of pilgrimage or wisdom meditations, the Psalms are a mirror of God’s marvelous deeds in the history of his people, as well as reflections of the human experiences of the Psalmist. Though a given psalm may reflect an event of the past, it still possesses such direct simplicity that it can be prayed in truth by men of all times and conditions.
In his reflections, C.S. Lewis goes through different themes of the Psalms and explains their context. An extremely helpful chapter goes through the “cursing” Psalms. I always found it shocking how forceful the Psalmist could be when talking about his enemies. Often you will see the Psalmist say words like, “O that thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God” (139:19). Or the most peculiar passage where we see the Psalmist encourage the killing of babies:
“Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)
Taken out of context, it would appear that God condones the killing of innocent babies! Obviously that is not the case, so why is it in sacred scripture? Here is C.S. Lewis’ take:
“At the outset I felt sure, and I feel sure still, that we must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious…The first thing that helped me…[was to see] a feeling we all know only too well…[and to turn] my attention to the same thing in my own heart….most of us can recognise something we have met in ourselves (22-24).”
Additionally, C.S. Lewis points out that the Jews had such strong feelings towards their enemies because of the great injustices that were forced upon them and because of their evil deeds. They felt strongly against them and in a similar way, God feels as strongly as they did when it comes to our sins.
While God does not “delight in the death of a sinner,” He fiercely desires the death of sin. This makes the above passage make more sense when you see in the verse before how the “little ones” the Psalmist is talking about are in reference to the “daughter of Babylon.” Babylon is often seen throughout the bible as associated with Satan and so we can firmly believe that God seeks the destruction of Satan’s influence on us. If there is an enemy in this world that we should desire to see destroyed, it should be the devil and his demons.
That is just one small way that C.S. Lewis opened up the Psalms for me and helped me see them in a new light. He is a firm believer in the inspired nature of sacred scripture, and reads them much like a Catholic reads scripture. When brought before difficulties in the Psalms, C.S. Lewis seeks to struggle with them and discover the hidden meanings. He does not dismiss the difficult passages, but wrestles with them.
He gives a great example to us and I heartily recommend his reflections and hope they can open up the Psalms as they did for me:
Read the Entire Series:
- An Introduction to the Four Volume Breviary
- Beginner’s Guide to Praying the Liturgy of the Hours
- Physical Breviary vs. iBreviary: How is a Person to Pray?
- The Digital Breviary: A Guide to Praying the Divine Office in a Digital World
- 5 Reasons to Pray the Divine Office Daily
- 5 Practical Ways to Prepare for Mass
- How to Actively Participate in Mass
- 3 Ways to Imitate Jesus’ Vocal Prayer
- How to Pray Like Jesus: The Ultimate Checklist