The Cursing Psalms

We are currently re-reading St Benedict’s chapters on the Divine office, often called the Liturgical Code, which may explain why I am keen to advocate having a good curse from time to time. I don’t mean profanity, but the praying of the so-called cursing psalms, e.g. Psalm 108 (109), which cheerfully asks the Lord to ensure that our adversary’s life should be short, his children wanderers and beggars and his wife a widow, or Psalm 57 (58) which has the splendid prayer, ‘O God, break the teeth in their mouths!’ Why, you may ask, should a normally mild-mannered nun be recommending that I pray such horribly vengeful prayers? It isn’t nice.

My answer is that we aren’t nice ourselves. We can kid ourselves that we are nicer than we are if we don’t own up to the darker, still unredeemed side that we harbour within until our dying breath. We pray the cursing psalms, but not against our enemy, real or imagined, but against all that is violent and troubled within us. We take the un-nice bits of ourselves to God, knowing that he alone can transform them by his grace. I think this is important, especially when we look at the violence convulsing Syria and other parts of the world. We know that for there to be peace outside, there must be peace inside; and we shall never attain that inner peace unless we first acknowledge, then renounce, everything that makes for war and violence in our own hearts. Praying the cursing psalms which, as Christians, we do in union with Christ, is a very good place to start. But there is more, for how could Christ pray those psalms save in union with us? Doesn’t that give pause for thought? Do we dare to be ‘nicer’ than he?


5 thoughts on “The Cursing Psalms”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about the ‘cursing psalms’. It was a mistake to suppress them from the Divine Office Psalter. One reason why the Psalter has been the church’s prayer book right from the start must surely be because it takes us as we are. It doesn’t repress violent feelings ; it doesn’t drive them underground ; it brings them out into the light. Our spiritual health depends on this. (And in any case, we read each psalm in the context of the 149 others.)

  2. The Imprecatory Psalms are a constant reminder of our fallen nature and our ever-present human failings. A salutary reminder indeed…

  3. How does cursing our enemy sit with Christ’s teaching on loving our enemy and doing good to those who hate us? I
    couldn’t agree more, we are not nice, and we must recognise and acknowledge that, but I still feel that
    being gentle with those dark parts of ourselves is more
    helpful than cursing them.

    • I may not have explained myself clearly enough. We are not cursing our enemies or ourselves when we pray the cursing psalms. We pray the psalter in union with Christ (who himself prayed the psalms when he was on earth) and do so in acknowledgement of all the violence and negativity within us. We take ourselves to God as we are, not as we would like to be, and ask him to have mercy on us. Praying the cursing psalms is a powerful reminder that we are not yet saints. So, for example, when I pray ‘O God, break their teeth in their mouths’, I am admitting to God that I have violent feelings and know that only he can change me. I am not praying against my enemies, nor am I condemning myself; the psalms give me the words for something I should otherwise have great difficulty articulating.

      • I have been thinking about your insight into the psalms, and would appreciate your reflections in the future on the way we pray the psalms and respect their literary form. Thanks for helping me look at the psalms in this way.

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