On Tuesday evenings, several of us in the local chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society get together for prayer, including the ancient monastic rite of Compline. Because of the liturgy we use for Compline, we always pray Psalm 91.

I don’t like Psalm 91.

Psalm 91, for me, is so upbeat as to be out of touch with reality. It includes verses like these:

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,

and the Most High your habitation,

There shall no evil happen to you,

neither shall any plague come near your dwelling….

[His angels] shall bear you in their hands,

lest you dash your foot against a stone.

I pray these words as my inner realist chimes in with “Yeah, right.” But I do pray them. That puts me in good company: people across faith traditions have prayed sacred texts for millennia. I’m sure most, if not all, have recited a text that did not fit their mood or mindset that day. Sometimes they’ve prayed texts that chafed against their whole outlook on life, as Psalm 91 chafes against mine.

So why even bother praying this way? Because it does so much good. Among other things, it orients us toward dialogue.

The key is what happens inside us as we pray words we don’t like. In this prayer, we allow the deepest part of ourselves to encounter wisdom outside ourselves, and the conflict between the two stirs up all sorts of things: 

  • For one thing, the conflict awakens us to the fact that we—our feelings, our concerns, our schedules—are not all there is. We recall, instead, that we are part of a larger flow, which allows us to put our place in the universe in the proper perspective. In other words, the praying of sacred texts fosters humility.
  • For another thing, the conflict with a sacred text confronts us with the disturbing possibility that God, life, other people, the universe are not exactly the way we understand them. This brings us to the mindset of I don’t know. The more I realize what I don’t know, the more curious I become about what you know, because together we might understand more clearly.

That curiosity, that realization of our own incomplete knowledge, drives us into dialogue with one another.

Have you prayed sacred texts as part of your practice? How have they changed you? Use the Comments function below to share your experiences.