How to ruin the perfect prayer (Psalm 63)

The perfect prayer would focus on God. It would praise God. It would praise God by naming God’s attributes: power, and glory, and, above all, steadfast lovingkindness. God would fill that prayer so completely that my own presence in it, as the one doing the praying, would be barely detectable, if at all. I would be there, but only as the purest-hearted worshiper, the humblest of suppliants, the perfect penitent. Thirst and longing for God would be expressed with utter clarity, untainted by any specific description of either the flaws and failures or the merits of the actual person doing the thirsting or longing, the blessing and thanking, the meditating and singing.

The perfect prayer might look something like this:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Something like that. But, though this is pretty good, could it not be even better? Is it even necessary that the pronouns “I” and “me” and “my” be used at all? If ordinary speech requires a subject for every verb, could we not use a more elevated syntax that would run on nouns and gerunds? Something like this:

God, and God alone!
God, the object of seeking, of thirsting, of longing!
God, the river of life,
the radiant presence!

And so on. No need to intrude “my soul,” and certainly not “my flesh”! What is my flesh doing in a prayer? I’m afraid that “my soul” and “my flesh” open a crack through which all manner of mischief might sneak in to spoil the perfect prayer. And then—what is this “fat and rich food”? OK, so it’s a metaphor for something my soul might receive, as flesh receives food, but it is a dangerous metaphor. The camel’s nose pokes further into the tent. Should not have allowed the I/me/my in at all! And sure enough, this psalm, which at first seemed so nearly perfect, goes on to start complaining about other people who are out to get me, and to predict their doom, even to fantasize about their bodies being torn and eaten by wild dogs!

But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword;
they shall be a portion for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

So by the end we have the ultimate failure of Christian charity, or rather of serene, holy obliviousness to the nastiness of the surrounding world: an unseemly acknowledgment of the existence of lies and liars, and even a suggestion that stopping the mouths of liars is God’s own work, in which we should rejoice and even (such meanness, rejoicing in the downfall of another!) exult.

Nor is Psalm 63 is the only Psalm ruined by the intrusion of unworthy concerns, crassly physical needs, fears bordering on paranoia, bitterness exploding into obscene vindictiveness. Psalm 137 is the worst offender (“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”), but by no means the only one. Can we not find someone holy enough to edit this mess into a complete set of perfect prayers?

No. No. No. The testimony of Israel’s Book of Praises is that the perfect prayer is the prayer into which the praying subject enters completely and honestly. We can trust that the rapturous, sublime moments in this book are not faked because we see also the pained, even anguished and contorted moments as well. We do not presume to edit out  the stopping of the mouths of liars, and the feeding of their carcasses to jackals, or even the smashing of heads and even infants across the earth. Perhaps as sanctification progresses, through years of practice in prayer and service, we will come to be as repulsed by even mild expressions of Schadenfreude as I hope we all already are by Psalms 137:9. Perhaps we will learn to cross ourselves and interject “God forbid!” when we recite such verses. But we don’t delete them.

The perfect prayer may need to include a bit of exorcism. To exorcise the demon, you might have to call it by name.

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