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Book Review

David Durston   

A Light on my Path: Praying with the Psalms  in the Contemporary World

ISBN 1- 85311- 4626

Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2002, £12.99

(price at publication of review)

Reviewed May 2003; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

There have been encouraging signs in recent years of a recovery of interest in the Psalms as the staple diet of Jewish and Christian prayer – encouraging because the Psalms represent a pattern of praying that is light-years away from a consumerist society obsessed with choice and personal preference. Again and again, one is struck when reading and praying the Psalms by the fact that these are prayers that have emerged out of situations in which the person or community praying is not in control, not where they would like to be; and it is in their uncompromising rejection of any narrow religiosity, their insistence on drawing the whole of life into the perspective of our relationship with God, that these ancient prayer-poems continue to nourish and challenge us today.

David Durston is the Chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral; and his book clearly draws on his years of experience in praying the Psalms in one of the greatest centres of the English cathedral tradition. This has its limitations: the book is clearly addressed to Anglicans, and English Anglicans at that. But his style is clear and accessible, and he combines a good deal of useful information about the nature of the psalm-form with much helpful and pastoral wisdom about how each of the 150 Psalms might be prayed today. He has read his Bonhoeffer, and  Brueggemann’s seminal article on ‘the Costly Loss of Lament’ (1986, repr. in his The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 1995), which would have sharpened the political edge of his reflections on the significance of lament. But he is refreshingly direct in dealing with the ‘cursing’ psalms and in general the book may be warmly recommended for anyone seeking a guide on this subject.

Two comments are however worth offering. Durston draws attention to the ‘Seven Penitential Psalms’, but otherwise has little to say about the use of the Psalms in the spiritual traditions of Judaism or Christianity – doubtless exigencies of space prevented this. More serious is an undervaluing of the importance of the covenant-relationship with Yahweh in getting inside the spirituality of the Psalter. It is surely the case that both the baffled anger of the laments and the uninhibited enthusiasm of the psalms of praise derive their range and depth precisely from Israel’s deep sense of being unconditionally loved by her covenant partner.  Like the ‘mature child’ of D.W. Winnicott’s psychological schema, Israel feels able to bring all of her life, including her failures and her questions, into her relationship with God, because she has known what it is to be loved; and the terrible force of (say) Psalm 89 articulates the appalling sense of rejection experienced by the child that suddenly finds it can no longer take that love for granted. It is in their continued capacity to articulate the full force of such experiences that the Psalms remain of enduring relevance to today’s Church.

Gordon Mursell


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