Contemplative Spiritual Disciplines: Praying the Psalms

Glacier National Park; photo by Thomas Robinson. See

I write this post on March 23, in response to the devotional entry for March 23 in Cloud Devotion: Through the Year with The Cloud of Unknowing, where the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing invites us: “Try not only to understand but also to practice contemplative spiritual disciplines. They are of greater worth than all other forms of exercise you undertake by God’s grace, whether physical or spiritual” (Cloud Devotion; Paraclete Press; 2020; 66). A friend asked me this past week what are the classic contemplative spiritual disciplines.

Contemplative spiritual disciplines are habits of the heart that draw us closer to God. We see them in the life of Jesus who shows us how to live life close to God’s heart. Across the centuries, great heroes and saints of faith have shown in their lives and in their writings how to practice contemplative spiritual disciplines.

I offer, in the upcoming seven weeks in this blog, seven contemplative spiritual disciplines as basic ways of living life with God that will, when practiced faithfully, draw your spirit close to God’s Spirit. 1) Praying the Psalms; 2) Lectio Divina; 3) Praying “The Jesus Prayer”; 4) Silence and Solitude; 5) Spiritual Direction; 6) Practice the Presence of God; and 7) Fasting. First, let us explore the contemplative spiritual discipline of Praying the Psalms.


Jesus knew the psalms by heart, and prayed at least two of the psalms for memory as he was dying on the cross, including Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), and Psalm 31 (“Into your hands, I commend my spirit”). Jesus quotes from the Psalms more than any other book in the Old Testament.

The contemplative spiritual discipline of praying the Psalms involves opening the Book of Psalms, and praying these prayers daily, as a central part of our daily prayer life. Jewish people have been praying the Psalms for three thousand years. The Church, throughout her history, has turned to the Psalms as a centerpiece of our devotional life with God. We are wise to regularly open to a Psalm and pray the words of a Psalm as our own prayer to God, offering to God the words of the prayers found in God’s Word. When we do so, we are also praying the prayers Jesus prayed over us in his life and in his death.

St. Benedict encouraged us in The Rule of St. Benedict to daily pray the Psalms. To this day, Benedictine monks pray all 150 Psalms together in their daily “liturgy of the hours” as the centerpiece of their worship, praying the entire Book of Psalms every two weeks.

I like to open to one or more of Psalms according to the day of the month. For example, on the 23rd of the month, I pray Psalm 23, Psalm 53, Psalm 83, Psalm 113, or Psalm 143. I like to call this approach to prayer, “the five friends method,” viewing these five psalms every day as friends who walk alongside my life, teaching me to pray as Jesus prayed.

When we pray according to the day of the month, we stretch our prayer life out, and begin to pray through the entire Book of Psalms, the prayerbook of the Bible, including praying Psalms we may not know very well. Rather than just choosing my favorites every time I pray the Psalms, we discipline our prayer life by praying more deeply into the pain of human struggles.

When we pray the Psalms, we enter into the heart of Jesus who prays for a hurting, broken, troubled world that is full of enemies, hardship, and suffering. We pray as the broken Body of Christ, for the persecuted Church around the world today, asking for God to arise, and come to the aid of God’s people in times of need.

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