One of the great breakthroughs in our understanding of the art of contemplative prayer in our own time came when Father Thomas Keating recognized that when we do deep, contemplative prayer for long periods of time--whether using centering prayer or some other method--we begin to get into some patches of rough sea, which he calls "the unloading of the unconscious."

As we sit in the silence, buried memories, pain, undigested emotional trauma, and physical trauma can and do begin to surface.

In centering prayer intensive retreats, trained staff members are available so that as this unloading of the unconscious begins for the participants, the material can come up in a safe place and be processed, embraced, and released.

I believe this is exactly the role played by psalmody. In their various moods and their amazingly shrewd insights into the human condition, the psalms carry within them all the feelings of which human nature is capable. In the course of the 150 psalms that make up the Psalter, you run through the whole gamut of moods and emotions, from the heights of exaltation to the depths of desolation.

Two psalms sung back-to-back at St. Benedict's Monastery in Colorado on successive mornings make this point only too well. On the first day: "I said, in my good fortune, nothing could ever disturb me." On the next: "I said in my alarm, no one can be trusted." These two psalms reflect different places in life, and I'll bet you recognize both those places.

Or consider the deep spiritual yearning expressed in Psalm 63: "Oh God, for you my soul is thirsting, my flesh is longing like a dry, weary land without water." Or the deep cry of agony in Psalm 27: "Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will sustain me."

The psalms become a kind of transpersonal container, allowing us to acknowledge our feelings fully without getting stuck in them.

Or the anger in a line such as, "Destroy all those who oppress me, for you are my savior, oh Lord" (Psalm 143). Or the exaltation in "I will lift up my eyes to the hills" (Psalm 121). All these moods are like a vast cornucopia of human experience, with all the joy, despair, agony, and hope we're capable of. It's all right there in the psalms.

And if we manage, as St. Benedict prescribed, to get through the whole Psalter in a week, we've gone through just about every psychological place on the spiritual journey known to man, woman, and child.

What the psalms do, I believe, when we introduce them into both our consciousness and our unconscious through the practice of contemplative psalmody is to begin to form a safe spiritual container for recognizing and processing those dark shadows within ourselves, those places we'd prefer not to acknowledge and yet are there. And what do we do with them? Perhaps we're not terribly pleased with ourselves when we find ourselves praying, "Destroy all my enemies, oh Lord." But most of us have felt that way.

There are times in the journey when anger is a real part of it, just as jealousy, abandonment, helplessness, rage, and terror are also real parts of our life. All these emotions are in us, and they're all in the psalms. And as we chant the psalms as part of a daily spiritual practice, it's almost as if we're preparing a place deep within ourselves, a spiritual sanctuary that will help us to receive, recognize, and pass through those violent inner emotions unscathed. The psalms become a kind of transpersonal container, allowing us to acknowledge our feelings fully without getting stuck in them. And because they belong to the liturgy, the great language of worship and prayer, they also serve as a kind of confessional, allowing us to place our shadow side on the altar of prayer and there find our release.

The process went on even for Jesus. Remember how in those last harrowing minutes on the cross, he cried out, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" Those words spoken in his agony are from Psalm 22, which in the synagogue tradition (which Jesus would have known) was the psalm sung at the hour of death. From the depths of his own suffering, he intuitively found his way to this psalm in the last breath of his life.

When we combine contemplative prayer with contemplative psalmody, we begin to see that what comes up out of our unconscious is not overwhelming or isolating, because others have walked this way before; they have experienced these same emotions. People have been singing these psalms for 3,000 years. As we join in this great stream of psalm singers, our own pain takes on a more universal context.

And because the path is sanctified, because holding up these emotions, even the deep and dark and shadowy ones, is a way of lifting up before God all that we are, we can allow our personal woundedness to become the very marrow of our prayer. Psalmody, the intentional recognizing and accepting and being present to the content of human feeling, is the place of healing, the place of the holiness in the spiritual journey.

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