The Psalms are powerful prayers and often express the deepest desires of our heart.
One of the most beloved and deeply prayerful books of the Bible is the Psalter (the Book of Psalms), traditionally understood to be the personal prayers of King David.
It is generally recognized that David very likely did write many (but probably not all) of the psalms, and these prayer-poems reveal an interior life full of pain, doubt, hope, struggle and joy with such a richness that, these thousands of years later, they remain a perfect reflection of the human condition. No matter what you may be needing to express in prayer, as the saying goes, “there’s a psalm for that.”
The psalms are the basis of the Liturgy of the Hours (or the Divine Office), which the church encourages all Christians to learn and practice as much as possible, for the sake of the world, and for the enrichment of their personal relationship with God.
For centuries, monks and nuns used to memorize all the psalms by heart, mainly because scrolls and books were not easy to produce or come by. In particular the psalms of the nighttime offices of Matins and Compline would be consigned to memory in order to reduce the need for candles and fire. Clergy, religious, and many lay people still pray the office, or some part of it, every day.
The Church still recommends memorizing certain psalms for their use in prayer, particularly in times of distress or joy. These prayers are a peculiarly powerful means of touching the inner reaches of the heart and expressing desires and emotions beyond our ability to articulate.
Here are four psalms the Church encourages us to commit to memory.
Begin with the briefest of psalms, #117 (Laudate Dominum)
O praise the Lord, all you nations,
acclaim him all you peoples!
Strong is his love for us;
he is faithful for ever.
Psalm 130 (De Profundis)
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading.
If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you.
My soul is waiting for the Lord.
I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
(Let the watchman count on daybreak
and Israel on the Lord.)
Because with the Lord there is mercy
and fullness of redemption,
Israel indeed he will redeem
from all its iniquity.
Psalm 51 (The Miserere)
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.
My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.
That you may be justified when you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge,
O see, in guilt I was born,
a sinner was I conceived.
Indeed you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones you have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all my guilt.
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
nor deprive me of your holy spirit.
Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.
O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit,
a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.
In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar.
Psalm 23 Dominus regit me
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my
life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.