“Bless the Lord, O my soul!”
Thus begins Psalm 102, one of the most well-known psalms in the entire Psalter. It is well-known in the Orthodox Church because of its prominent place as the first antiphon at the Divine Liturgy and also because it is one of the Six Psalms chanted at Matins/Orthros every morning. Most Orthodox Christians, in fact, might know it without knowing that they know it!
The first thing that I find really interesting about this Psalm is to whom it is addressed. The Psalms are, at root, sung prayers. Generally we sing hymns and prayers to God. Prayer is, after all, not so much talking about God but to God. Psalm 102, however, is not sung to God and, with perhaps one small exception, never addresses God at all. Strange psalm!
To whom is it addressed, then? “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” The psalmist is speaking, not to God, not to the community, but to his soul, commanding his soul - it is an imperative - “Bless the Lord!”
This all might sound rather peculiar, talking to your soul. But the strangeness of it should serve to draw our attention to a significant spiritual truth, which is this: before we can pray, really pray, we must return to ourselves. Much, if not most, of our life is spent with our minds, our attention, outside of ourselves. The Fathers often describe this as a condition of mental diffusion, our minds scattered, divided and fragmented, our thoughts running here one moment and there another, bouncing around like a pinball, never resting, never returning home. In this condition prayer is difficult at best. The lips might utter the words of prayer but the mind skips around, flitting about all over the place, seldom entering into the words.
It might be helpful, at this point, if we recall St Theophan’s elegantly succinct definition, or description, of prayer:
In the light of this description Psalm 102 begins to make more sense, for it speaks precisely of this movement of returning to the heart to stand before the Lord. Our mind, fragmented and scattered, must be gathered up.
We begin this gathering by taking charge of our mind with a command: “Bless the Lord!” If your child was wandering into the street you would not whisper a suggestion that she stop. You would command: Stop! You would seek to arrest her attention and bring her back to you, to safety. Likewise the soul, wandering about, oblivious to the danger of life without prayer - prayer is to the soul what oxygen is to the body - needs to be awakened from its dangerous ambling about and brought home to the heart.
It is significant that, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the turning point of the story is when the prodigal comes to himself (Luke 15.17). In the pigpen, starving and covered with filth, the prodigal suddenly remembers his Father and his Father’s house, and from that memory begins the journey home.
Psalm 102, likewise, is a call to come to ourselves, to say to my soul, “What are you doing? Why are you here, in this pigpen of thoughts, when you could be in the Father’s house?” Even its prominent place as the First Antiphon of the Divine Liturgy testifies, I believe, to this psalm’s power and purpose to bring us back to ourselves.
Contrary to what everyone says, then, it is okay to talk to yourself. Or at least it is good and proper to talk to your soul. Say to your soul, “Bless the Lord!” Get downright bossy with your mind when it starts to wander aimlessly and say “all that is within me, bless His holy Name!” Only by taking charge of our mind in this way can we begin, really and truly, to pray.
With love in Christ, Fr John
“Give me a word!”
It seems that nothing should be simpler and more natural for us than prayer and our hearts' striving for God. But in fact it is not always like this for everyone. One must awaken and strengthen a prayerful spirit in oneself, that is one must bring up a prayerful spirit.
+St Theophan the Recluse
There is an electric generator and in the room is a lamp. If, however, we don't flip the switch, we will remain in darkness. Similarly, there is Christ and there is our soul. If, however, we don't flip the switch of prayer, our soul will not see the light of Christ and will remain in the darkness of the devil.
+St Porphyrios of Kafsokalavia
If you want to grab God's attention so He'll hear you during prayer, turn the dial to humility, for God always works in this frequency; then humbly ask for His mercy.
+St Paisios of Mount Athos
Before temptation has the opportunity to draw the tempting thought into your mind, destroy it with the prayer. Don't let it be!
~Elder Joseph the Hesychast