Every year I ask my freshmen students to attend evening prayer and supper with the Sisters as one of their high-stake assignments. They turn in interesting reflection papers about their experience. One area of our prayer life about which my students reflect results in questions along these lines: How can you pray that your enemies’ children be dashed against the rocks? How can you pray for children to be orphaned? How can you pray for someone’s soul to be cursed? Doesn’t praying for bad things to happen to people – even your enemies – go against Christian teaching? How can you pray a cursing psalm and then pray for the death penalty of a murderer to be commuted? These are excellent questions.
Our community prays the entire psalter of 150 psalms, which includes the so-called “cursing” or imprecatory psalms. What does the psalmist really mean by statements such as “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” (Psalm 58:6) or “Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol” (Psalm 55:15)? It may be that the psalmist was stating the punishment that he expected would be meted out by God for the offences committed, as required by justice. This was not a reflection of personal revenge, however. If the psalms are read carefully, we can typically see that the psalmist is either experiencing righteous anger at some evil being performed, or is in personal danger and pleading for help from God.
So what is our purpose today in praying the “cursing” psalms? I think I can safely say we are not actually wishing for harm to come to our enemies. We all have a dark side, however, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that we do not. Praying a cursing psalm puts us in touch with this dark side, and allows us to be open to God’s grace in effecting our transformation into kinder and more peaceful selves. It also helps us to identify our external demons, our temptations, all those things with which we struggle – these are our enemies – and allows us to invite God into our struggle to overcome what we do not want to do but do anyways. We cannot offer peace to the world until we are peaceful within ourselves.
There are people in the world who are angry enough and experiencing enough pain, to wish harm to their enemies. Praying the “cursing” psalms, in my opinion, also allows us, to a certain extent, to step into the shoes of people who find themselves in this situation. We can, in this way, develop empathy for individuals whose behavior is so extreme (e.g., terrorists, suicide-bombers, murderers) that we would otherwise be unable to begin to comprehend their motivation, let alone pray for them.
And so we come full circle, for it is precisely because we pray the “cursing” psalms that we can pray for the souls on death row with empathy and sincerity. It is because we pray the “cursing” psalms that we can have and offer hope.
Sister Paule Pierre Barbeau
Sister Paule Pierre Barbeau is a Benedictine Sister at Saint Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota. Originally from Quebec, Canada, she lived in the Southeastern United States for 16 years before coming to Duluth. She did research in the field of exercise physiology for over years, and more recently completed a graduate degree in theology, while volunteering in parishes, giving workshops and retreats.