Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Notes from the Dutch Spiritual Underground

How the Cursing Psalms Helped Schoolchildren During the Occupation of World War Two

Recently I had an enjoyable conversation with a director of music at a protestant seminary about the singing of the psalms. His parents had immigrated from the Netherlands after the Second World War, settling in Washington State, and he grew up in a Dutch Reformed Church in the US.

He told me a short story about his parents and how the psalms were used during the Nazi occupation of Holland. When his parents were young, in the Netherlands in the 1930s, schoolchildren prayed the psalms at school regularly. The school of his parents had a curriculum that required them to learn off-by-heart the opening stanza of all 150 psalms, and then be able to recite a select few in full from memory. When they learned the opening stanza of certain “cursing” psalms that express anger and the desire of suffering for enemies (for example, Psalms 58, 83, and 109), the teacher announced that they would not be praying the psalms in full or be praying even the first stanza again.

Then, in 1940, the Nazis invaded and occupied the Netherlands. The children were allowed by their occupiers to sing the psalms at school. Without explanation, the teacher told them to sing those cursing psalms. Thereafter they included them in their prayers.

Was the introduction of the imprecatory psalms good for the children and their teachers, or bad for them?

As it was told to me, it was good for his parents. They understood even as children that they were expressing anger towards their oppressors, but doing so in prayer (albeit through gritted teeth), allowed them simultaneously to bear that anger and process it by seeing that it didn’t diminish God’s love for them.

The Paul VI Psalter, published in 1970, which is used by most priests today, omitted the text from 23 imprecatory psalms. Imprecation means curse, not in the sense of foul language, but rather wishing extreme ill upon others. 

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours contains the following explanation for these omissions:
Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses; in the same way, some verses have been omitted from certain psalms, as noted at the head of each. The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty, even though the psalms of imprecation are in fact used as prayer in the New Testament, for example, Rv 6:10, and in no sense to encourage the use of curses.
The story I relate above suggests to me that perhaps the risk of ‘psychological difficulty’ that will occur by including these psalms is exaggerated. In fact, I would suggest that there is a greater risk of psychological difficulty incurred by omitting them. Here’s why…
Dangerous imprecations? Psalm 109 from the Coverdale Psalter, the Book of Common Prayer.
Several years ago, I wrote an article, entitled Where Have All the *!*?-ing Psalms Gone? suggesting that this was not a wise omission, and would have a detrimental impact on the psychology of those in the Church. At that time I wrote, in this regard: 
“In my opinion, this is short-changing the faithful. I wonder also how this has affected the psychology of members of the Church and therefore how it has affected the institutional Church as a whole? There are so many aspects to the psalms that make them the vehicle, par excellence, for praising and worshipping God in the liturgy. One way in which they speak to me very strongly is by engaging emotions and directing them towards God. I find they engage me by articulating exactly how I feel in response to everyday situation. They do this by describing very human and unsaintly thoughts and emotions. This is the Christian way. We do not detach or deny the reality of evil and suffering, we engage with it and through God's grace can move forward from it, or perhaps even through it, to something better. Once engaged, they are resolved healthily by working them out with the psalmist. Sometimes this is within a single psalm, sometimes it is when we place it in the context of all 150 psalms as a whole.

A 14th century French depiction of Apocalypse 6, 9-10, martyrs receiving the white robes at the breaking of the 5th seal.
The liturgy is the powerhouse of the Church. When individuals pray the liturgy, they are praying for and with the Church as part of the mystical body of Christ. This has a profound effect not only on the whole Church, including those who never, for example, pray the liturgy of the hours, but also on the whole world, for it makes Christ present here in a special way.

What effect, I wonder, does the denial of feels and anger towards enemies, which every person feels at some point in their lives - and which some will experience very strongly - have on the person, on the Church, on the world? It cannot be good, it seems to me. All of us must have a healthy outlet that resolves such feelings. This is more complex than simply expressing anger or resentment - which can be done either constructively or destructively. In the Church we are facing increasing hostility from secular forces and from those of other religions. We need people of virtue (virtue means strength in following what is good) and courage to face these challenges directly and the guidance to do so constructively. We need people whose passion for the good is strong, but know how to direct that passion with reason.”

If I am correct then removing this possibility of healthy outlet of resentment and anger will result in greater anger in more people. The opposite of the intended effect.

Apocalypse 6, 9-10, referred to above, reads in the Knox translation: “And when he broke the fifth seal, I saw there, beneath the altar, the souls of all who had been slain for love of God’s word and of the truth they held, crying out with a loud voice, Sovereign Lord, the holy, the true, how long now before thou wilt sit in judgement, and exact vengeance for our blood from all those who dwell on earth?”
El Greco, 16th century, martyrs receiving the white robes at the breaking of the 5th seal

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