Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, began its psalm initiative at the behest of two famously jailed members. Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, imprisonedin Kabul on charges of Christian proselytizing, had managed to speak to a lawyer, and he had passed on a request: Could their home congregation pray Psalms 27 ("The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?") and 91 ("...You will not fear the terror of the night; nor thearrow that flies by day") for the captives?
Antioch could. It already had a 15x25-ft. "prayer room" with an unlocked private entrance for access at all hours, like an automatic teller vestibule. Ever since the two women had been arrested, a steady stream of worshippers had signed up and filed through 24 hours a day. Now that Heather's and Dayna's preferences were known, the prayers shifted heavily toward psalms. Not just Psalms 27 and 91, however, but 92, 46, and a host of others. Amy Gulley, who was responsible for posting an e-mail detailing prayer requests, personally preferred 34, which runs "The angel of the Lord encamps around those whofear him, and delivers them."
Gulley, 28, says, "I would picture myself in their situation, facing a mountain of fear. I loved that the psalm says God would deliver them and angels would surround them and rescue them." In addition, she says, almost everyone in the congregation prayed Psalm 18, because the Psalmist says of God, "'my cry to him reached His ears'...and everyone needed to hope that was exactly what was going on."
Meanwhile, in New York City, Judith Kaplan received her own call to the psaltery, which she knows as the tehillim. Kaplan, 19, is an observant Jew studying at Manhattan's Stern College for Women. Orthodox Jewish tradition requires that when someone dies the body be supervised by a watcher, or shomer, until the burial 24 hours later. The custom is called shmira. Shomers traditionally recite psalms to calm the departing souls. After the mass murder of September 11, Jewish leaders in New York organized a shmira at the New York Medical Examiner's office. With so many dead, yet unrecovered or unidentifiable for burial, it resembled no other shmira in history--although it did bear an unintentional likeness to the tag-team worship in Waco.
Once again, the devout reciters took over a small room--in this case a police department trailer outside the New York Medical Examiner's office, within sight of the refrigerated trucks filled with body parts. There is no24-hour time frame. Dozens of volunteer shomers from around New York alternate duty on the trailer's hard molded plastic chairs: Seven days a week, "every hour, every single second of the day," says Kaplan, adding, "It's beautiful." The shifts are four hours long. Kaplan's grandfather, who works at Morgan Stanley, avoided the carnage because he had a dentist appointment on the morning of September 11. His grandchild now returns to the coroner's office every Friday for the 12 A.M. to 4 A.M. shift--by now it is part of her Sabbath routine.
Most shomers run through groups of psalms or try to recite all 150. Kaplan, who is known to the police who share the trailer as "the singing girl," puts them to tunes of her own devising. Like several other shomers, she says she can feel the dead souls responding. "You spend hours there praying," she says, "and you feel that they're saying them with you. It's like they're saying 'thank you.'" Her favorite psalm is 27, one of those requested by the two Christian aid workers. The Lord is her light and her salvation. Whom should she fear?
Poised gracefully at the intersection of Jewish and Christian traditions--limpid, profound, accessible--the psalms include some of humankind's most ebullient and best-known expressions of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledgments of ourdeepest anguish. Written not in the voice of a teacher or historian but in the unguarded language of a solitary singer, they have served generation after generation as a doorway to personal spirituality over 3000 years. Jews pray psalms throughout the daily and Sabbath liturgy. A sung psalm is part of almost every Catholic Mass. Luther called the psalms "the Bible in miniature," and they have launched a thousand Protestant hymns, including his "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." (Islam recognizes King David as a prophet for having received the psalms from God, but does not feature them prominently.)
Despite this exposure, however, all psalms do not share equal billing. Theologian Walter Brueggemannoted in 1984 that among American Protestants, the most-quoted psalms, even by preachers, tend to be the mostreassuring and least challenging. Brueggeman attributed this to the status of American churchgoersas "...children of the Enlightenment seeking to go from strength to strength, victory to victory and ignoringdarkness and disorientation." This was a pity, he suggested, because life is not really like that, and the psalms, with their range from bitter to sweet, sometimes within one poem, are well-suited to guide us toward redemption in the midst of what he called the "untamed darkness" present in every life.
Brueggeman proved a prophet after untamed darkness came calling on September 11. The valley of the shadow of death opened like fault line along Wall Street and spread to Main Street, and the psalms were suddenly in popular play. George W. Bush, with his acute instinct for faith, incorporated Psalm 23 into his first short speech that day.
We soon learned that Todd Beamer, a passenger on United Flight 93, recited Psalm 23 before joining the heroic attack on its hijackers. That was just the beginning: thousands of memorials and sermons over the following months invoked the psalms. Mayors read them aloud at town meetings. Hundreds of e-mail chains featured them, and the Senate Chaplain recited from that body's floor. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw surprised colleagues on Fox Football when he extemporized, "For all believers, I pull out this Bible. For those of you looking for an answer, read Psalm 10 for help." That particular psalm expresses confidence that the Lord will strengthen the heart of the meek, as well as"break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer."