IN PASTORAL COUNSELLING or spiritual direction sessions, I often suggest the psalms as a way to pray. The language of a psalm can release unexpected emotions, newly opening us to God and his healing.

Often people who come for help with painful issues have an idealized concept of prayer. They desire to bring their best selves to God but not the untidy, angry and hurt self. So the psalms help make prayer real for them.

The psalms are full of intensity: “With a loud voice I cry out to the Lord. … My complaint I pour out before him” (142). It doesn’t take much imagination to see Psalm 142 as an honest prayer, a scream of frustration and helplessness that one could identify with in times of confusion and hurt.

The rage of Psalm 58 against unjust judges – “Theirs is poison like a serpent’s, like that of a stubborn snake that stops its ears. … O God, smash their teeth in their mouths” – is beyond acceptable behaviour and makes us remember our own volatile anger.

Psalm 31 has memorable lines of distress and depression: “For my life is spent with grief and my years with sighing. … I am forgotten like the unremembered dead; I am like a dish that is broken.”

These emotions do not have to keep us from prayer.

There is movement in these personal and intimate psalms. When we make them our own we reopen our own wounded heart to God. We speak our truth and dependence on God, thereby giving space for the living God to enter our lives and transform us.

Most of the psalms show this movement to dependence after anguish is spent. Psalm 31, for example, shows the psalmist remembering other actions of God in his life and becoming more confident: “But my trust is in you, O Lord; I say you are my God. … Take courage and be stouthearted, all you who hope in the Lord.”

Reading the psalms aloud in a much exaggerated voice helps us to internalize them and release our emotions.

At a recent workshop for lectors the leader suggested the same exaggeration in practice so that when the psalm was read to the congregation, the memory of the emotion was better communicated.

Another helpful tool is to rewrite a particular psalm with your own specifics: the hurt, the anger, the despair, the dependence on God, the awareness of God in your life.

The process becomes a message for others and healing for all. -By Jean Sweeney