Like most people of a certain vintage, my mom loves to talk about how the world has changed over the course of her lifetime. One of her perennial observations involves the kinds of questions students are asked in school. In her day, it was “What did the book say?” In mine, it was “What do you think about the book?” And in our children’s classrooms, it was “How do you feel about the book?”
That’s a pretty accurate picture of how our society has changed over the past three generations. As a culture, we have shifted from objective comprehension and critical thinking to subjective emotional response. We have become a people who talk about how we feel, analyze how we feel, justify and validate how we feel, measure relationships by how they make us feel and generally focus the lion’s share of our attention on our emotions. All of that predisposes us to accept our emotionally driven behavior, or at the very least, to give our feelings more than they are actually due.
For all the emphasis we place on our feelings, we don’t seem any more expert at managing them than our parents or grandparents were. If they overlooked the importance of emotion, we tend to give it too much weight. Everyone is so emotional these days. Just scan the socials. We’re anxious, angry, offended, hurt, and outraged more than ever, about almost everything.
I know sometimes I, too, can be overly emotional. I wish I could say that I’ve lived out my own life and relationships with more rationality than drama, but that isn’t the case. However, I’ve discovered something that really helps: praying the psalter.
No matter what we’re feeling — sorrow, joy, fear, anger — there’s a psalm for it. In these prayerful poems, we can cry out from the depths, sing songs of deliverance, bemoan our suffering and our enemies; we can ask for help, recognize our sins, plead for mercy, offer thanks and marvel at God’s works.
The psalms don’t deny the importance of our emotions, but they don’t canonize them, either. They do help us give voice to the full range of human experience while bringing us — and whatever we are feeling — into the presence of the God who loves us.
And that is what changes everything.
Strong emotions have a way of isolating us. Knowing we aren’t alone, that God is with us no matter how we feel, means that our spiritual lives can be lived and shared honestly. We don’t have to fake it with God. We can express who we are, and where we are, without glossing over what’s raw. When we come to God, we can come as we are.
Perhaps that’s why ancient Israel and the early Church made the psalms the centerpiece of liturgical prayer, and why Jesus quoted the psalms more than any other book of the Bible.
They were prayers he himself prayed. And in his humanity, Christ experienced the surges of emotion that the psalms so vividly convey.
The psalms may not canonize our emotions, but they can help to sanctify them as we acknowledge and express how we feel. That is what the psalms offer us, especially as they are prayed throughout the Church in the Liturgy of the Hours.
The big books and ribbons of the Liturgy of the Hours can seem off-putting, and there is a bit of a learning curve when beginning to use them. But when the words of a psalm resonate with where I am, my emotions aren’t just gathered up in the prayer, they become an intimate part of the offering. And because I have expressed my feelings before God, I find it possible to leave them there with him rather than allowing them to spill over into every other aspect of my day.
There are, of course, times when I do not feel the anguish or gratitude a particular psalm voices as I recite it. But I know that someone else in the mystical body of Christ does, and so bringing the intensity of that emotion to God in prayer helps the whole Church stand before him in solidarity.
God wants all of us, even the sometimes roiling emotions that affect our body and soul, mind and heart. We don’t have to hide how we feel. We aren’t required to leave our anger or our joy at the door. In his presence, we learn to cry “glory” and allow his grace to sanctify even our messiest parts.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans.