Verses for May 4, 2022, Responsorial Psalm:
Shout joyfully to God, all the earth,
sing praise to the glory of his name;
proclaim his glorious praise.
Say to God, How tremendous are your deeds!”
“Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you,
sing praise to your name!”
Come and see the works of God,
his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.
He has changed the sea into dry land;
through the river they passed on foot;
therefore let us rejoice in him.
He rules by his might forever.
Today’s psalm presents a strange and interesting juxtaposition to the first reading, from Acts 8:1b-8. In that first reading, we hear of “severe persecution” of the fledgling Church after Steven is martyred by stoning. We hear of Saul (not yet Paul) persecuting the church and personally handing over men and women to imprisonment for their belief in Jesus Christ.
The reading from Acts also reaches into the heart of the psalm, though, reporting that in the midst of the persecution, disciples escaped and carried their preaching far and wide. They were not scattered like leftover scraps; rather, they were scattered like seeds, to take root and grow in new places. For this, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!”
I don’t know that the earth, or the people on it, spend enough time or even very much time crying out to God with joy, or proclaiming “his glorious praise.” I don’t see us, the people God created for His own, answering the invitation to “Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.”
No, we are much better at complaining about the sea that impedes us, rather than praising God for giving us the dry land in its midst to walk on. We are far more willing to pick at what we see wrong in our lives and our world and ask God to fix it, change it, take it out of our way, than we are to seek an understanding of how God wants to make us stronger so that we can walk amidst these obstacles with courage.
The verses from Psalm 66 are a lesson in prayer, a call to communicate with God in a different way than we are accustomed to do.
Growing up as a cradle Catholic, I experienced prayer as a series of prescribed words and forms. My mother taught me the basic prayers of our faith – the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Guardian Angel prayer, and Apostle’s Creed. In Catechism class I learned others – Hail, Holy Queen, Memorare, Nicene Creed. The Mass, back then, was prayed in Latin with minimal participation from the laity in the pews. The Rosary was prayed often, and not uncommonly in silence while Mass was being offered in a language we neither understood well nor spoke. We said those certain prayers at certain times, and they rounded out our weekly and daily ritual. Our priests offered Mass on our behalf, and we understood the Mass and those prayers we recited to be beneficial to our souls simply by virtue of being said. We were, if not actively discouraged from it, certainly not encouraged to read the Bible. The priest would provide what we needed to know of scripture.
That was the Church I left in 1967. When I returned in 2012, I returned to a Church that encouraged individual and group Bible study. I returned to a Church where Mass was almost exclusively prayed in the vernacular of the congregation and where praying the Mass “ad orientam” (the priest’s back to the congregation) was viewed with suspicion by many, and while permitted, not encouraged.
While the vernacular Mass had become prevalent just before I left the Church, I had not had time to get used to it, and it made for an amazing experience when I returned. But what I found even more amazing, and sometimes disconcerting and even vaguely disturbing, was the prevalence of what I thought of as “ad lib” or spontaneous prayer. I’d heard plenty of this kind of prayer in my years attending Protestant churches, and I had come to think of it as the province of Protestants, for after all, we Catholics had our own prayers that covered everything, right?
The biggest discomfort, then, in my return to the Church, was not my first confession in 45 years. It wasn’t wondering if I’d get it right when I received Holy Communion in the hand for the first time. It wasn’t getting used to the fullness of participation in the Mass.
My biggest discomfort was getting used to, and learning, this wellspring of spontaneous prayer that I saw everywhere around me. And one of the great blessings of those early days of my return was my attendance at a group study which outlined ways to pray spontaneously, to communicate with God individually about our own wants and needs and to build our own personal relationship with Him in this way.
It was no longer as simple as saying an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be as bedtime prayer. And although the Rosary was still regarded as a beautiful centerpiece of Catholic prayer, the reflections and meditations took on a new flavor; there were even five new Mysteries to pray!
I had, of course, had some experience with this sort of “direct” prayer as I had often prayed during my husband’s final illness, carrying on a sort of conversation with God about what I wanted from Him in that time.
Still, it was a new experience to have group meetings and Bible studies and all kinds of gatherings, both formal and informal, begin and end with the leader’s spontaneous prayers. Just as I began to discern a pattern in those prayers, I attended that group study, which offered a guide to keeping our spontaneous prayers, our conversations with God, on track. And this guide involved first giving thanks, praise, or adoration to God; then acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness; then asking God for those things we wanted from Him; and finally, placing ourselves in acceptance of and obedience to His will. It seemed that you could assign an acronym to your chosen prayer formula as an aid to remembering and staying on track with it.
I’d like to say that what I learned about prayer in that study group changed my prayer life instantly and forever, but it didn’t. Instead, this new approach took quite some getting used to. Still, as my relationship with God developed along new and unexpected paths, so did my prayer life. And when I learned, a few years ago, that I had been given a charism of intercessory prayer, that brought a new awareness of the importance of this aspect of my relationship with the Lord.
All of this is leading up to an admission: To this day, the “praise and adoration” part of prayer – what the Psalmist is talking about here in these verses from Ps. 66 – is the most challenging part of prayer for me. When I begin to pray, I have no trouble finding things to express gratitude for. My life is truly full of such things.
But what am I meant to praise God for? And why? My praise for the things He has done don’t make those things any greater, nor do they make God greater. What does He want from me, then, in this call to praise Him and adore Him?
Psalm 66 offers a hint: “Say to God, ‘How tremendous are your deeds!’” When I begin to think about His deeds – beginning with the Creation, culminating in the Redemption of mankind, and everything that goes on in the world, really – it gives greater meaning to the line, “Come and see the works of God….” And I begin to think about ways that I can start to view the world as the works of God, and something begins to dawn in my mind.
When I think of all that surrounds me as works of God, that draws me away from dwelling on my own role in it. When I see everything as coming from God, Who is good, I see everything in a different light. And when I offer my words of praise to God, He doesn’t see that as silly or useless. He sees it, I think, as my turning to Him rather than relying on myself and other human invention and intervention. When God sees me focused on Him, I think He has me right where He wants me.
In opening my prayers, indeed in beginning all of my days and all of my enterprises, with thanks and praise to God who created me and everything I will encounter and use in my day, I am recognizing Who God is, and in turn recognizing who I am to Him: His beloved creation whose love in return He desires.
When I praise God for the wonders of His creation, for His own glory, and for all of the great things He has done for His people, I am not telling Him anything that He does not know. Rather, I am reminding myself of Who it is that I worship and serve.
Prayer becomes more than a ritual or a rote exercise. It becomes an active way of participating in my relationship with God. Prayer becomes a response to the gift of faith God has given me.
To praise God is to claim my place as His creation. To praise and give thanks to Him is to put myself where I belong – not as the master of all I survey, but as the beloved child and servant of the God who made all I survey.
Indeed, I can live with that.