Breathe Life into the Divine Office with C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms

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.

King David Playing the Harp – Gerard van Honthorst

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:

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  • DeaconTrahan

    As a (self-assessed) beginner to the Breviary It seems that you are reading the Psalms from the wrong perspective. You seem to be reading them as an academic study wherein you try to understand what the Psalmist means. The proper perspective is to allow the Psalms to tell you what the Psalmist means (or more so, what God means) rather than trying to tell the Psalmist what he meant. This of course requires an open, relaxed reading heart; one that is opened to what God wants to say to you (the reader.) No doubt the Breviary is not an easy read, but my point is that it is not “a read” at all, it is a prayer.

    In formation, as I began to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on a daily (morning and evening) basis, I soon realized that I had gone through three phases. (1) Getting accustomed to the complexity of the format, then (2) trying to figure out what the Psalms (+ the Patristics and Psalm Prayers) were saying to me (not necessarily what they mean,) and finally (3) realizing that it is a prayer in which we pray for others, particularly the poor and afflicted whom we encounter in our life (be it in person or on the evening news.) In this phase I also realized that it is a prayer of thanksgiving to God the Father, and in many of the psalms, it is a prayer of Christ himself praying to the Father or the Father speaking to me (the reader/pray-er) about His Son, my Savior and King.

    My advise is to try not to “study” the Breviary/Psalms, but pray them and allow God to open it up to your heart; and it will become the vast and multifaceted, “ever ancient, ever new, prayer that it is. This is why Sacred Scripture is referred to as the “living Word,” because each time we read it, the same passage today will offer a new meaning at another reading.

    “Oh God Come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.”
    Dcn. Peter

    • Philip Kosloski

      True indeed, the Psalms are a prayer and praying them should not be an academic exercise.

      However, at the same time Sacred Scripture should be read according to the five senses of scripture that Holy Mother Church lays out for us in the Catechism:

      “115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

      116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

      117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

      1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

      2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85

      3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.”

      So yes, we should pray the Psalms, but the Church says that “all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.” Therefore it is helpful to know the “literal” sense of what the sacred author intended when they were written and can help deepen someone’s personal prayer.

      In the end, we are all unique and often God will work in us in different ways according to the “season” of life we are in.

      • DeaconTrahan

        I understand and teach these five senses, but praying the Breviary is not the same as reading scripture. For instance, would you say that Lectio Divina is to be done by considering the five senses. If you say yes, then it is obvious that you don’t understand the difference between reading scripture and praying scripture.

        • Philip Kosloski

          I agree that praying the Breviary is not the same as reading scripture, however, it does share some similarities and some techniques can be helpful to some people. Maybe not all people, but some may find it helpful. In any case, please pray for me.