It’s probably clear from the responsorial psalms of the Mass that Christian faith and prayer brings a particular slant, a particular interpretation to the psalms. I always remind people that a Jewish perspective on the psalms will bring us closer to how Jesus prayed and quoted the psalms than if we just interpret the texts on face value from our own experience. But Christians have been praying the psalms for centuries now and have uncovered other layers of interpretation from these same texts.
Two books by scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann tackle this phenomenon. Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg Publkishing House, Minneapolis, 1984; 176 pages plus notes) is a good introduction to the psalms. He analyzes the Psalter in three categories: Psalms of Orientation; Psalms of Disorientation; and Psalms of New Orientation. Brueggemann is the sort of exegete who both gets below the surface and engages the reader’s point of view. As such, these three categories not only describe the psalms but suggest as developmental model of the spiritual life. On that level, it is a key to why some psalms speak to me at this time of my life and others can’t yet be heard by me. His second book is very different. Praying the Psalms (St. Mary’s Press, Winona, 1984; 79 pages plus the entire Psalter) addresses the problems and questions that can arise when Christians attempt to pray Jewish Prayers, among other topics. He seriously engages the phenomenon of prayer and that it is not the same thing as studying the psalms as ancient literature or analyzing them theologically.
John E. Craghan’s Psalms for All Seasons (Liturgical Press, 1993; 170 pages) builds on Brueggemann’s insights. As Craghan considers fifty-five psalms in some detail, he mulls over what sort of God is decribed by the psalms and what is our relationship to that Deity? How are the psalms prayer? What do they tell us about ourselves and our worshipping community? How do we develop through a life-time of praying? How does praying the psalms deepen our appreciation of the psalms?
Of course, monks and nuns should have some insight into the psalms. I recommend Songs of Freedom: The Psalter as a School of Prayer (Dimension Books, 1986; 151 pages) by Fr. Charles Cummings. With helpful insight, Fr. Charles considers the psalms as decriptive of human experience in the spiritual life and guides the reader through the peculiarities of the psalms poetic form and expression, their imagery, and what they reveral of the God they address. Mother Maureen McCabe’s Inside the Psalms:Reflections for Novices (Liturgical Press, 2005) considers the language and expression in the psalms for beginners and, especially, how these songs can be suitable expression for our own prayer.
Refelcting the monastic tradition is a book compiled and edited by Johanna Manley, Grace For Grace: the Psalter and the Holy Fathers (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, 2003; 674 pages). For each of the one hundred and fifty psalms (plus the seven “Odes” celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy) relevant comments from fathers of the Church help the reader to understand the psalms and their Christological interpretation as employed in the liturgy and theological speculation. This isn’t a book I’d read cover-to-cover, but one I dip into as my attention is drawn to deepening my appreciation of a particular psalm.