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For the Lord is gracious

15 January 2016

Bruce Duncan considers guides to using psalms

Wisely, Pray the Psalms: A prayerful companion to reading the psalms
Ambrose Tinsley
The Columba Press £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


Deep Calls to Deep: Spiritual formation in the hard places of life
Tony Horsfall
BRF £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20


ISRAEL’s praise and lamentation. Jesus’ own prayer book. The heart of the Church’s daily office. The Book of Psalms has always had a special place in Christian worship and personal devotion.

Sadly, however, with the demise of matins and evensong in most parishes, the worshipping diet of many Anglicans is now restricted to a Common Worship Sunday eucharist, or maybe some rousing praise worship, neither of which is likely to include much, if any, psalmody. Knowledge of the psalter today is generally limited, and tends to be confined to a few favourites, such as Psalm 23.

Of course, not all psalms make comfortable reading, and the so-called imprecatory or cursing psalms (of which Psalm 109 is the prime example) are carefully bracketed out of the new lectionaries as offensive to today’s sensibilities. Neither book under review dodges this problem. Both authors help us recognise that expressions of outrageous anger, terrible vindictiveness, or profound doubt reflect the psalmist’s integrity, honesty, and overwhelming desire to stand up for God’s righteousness, justice, and steadfast love.

Ambrose Tinsley, who died in 2013, was an Irish Benedictine. Wisely, Pray the Psalms, first published in 1993, is the fruit of a life steeped in the daily monastic round of psalmody, and his book aims to offer "a prayerful companion to reading the psalms". Uncomplicated by any contemporary critical scholarly claims, it is intended as a companion for an individual retreat or personal reflection. Much of the book is devoted to the personalities whom we discover in the psalms, their moods and attitudes, and their God, all of which he views in the context of the Trinity. His style is homespun, conversational, and, above all, enthusiastic, as evidenced by his frequent use of exclamation marks!

Tony Horsfall’s book, also aimed at the general reader, is focused on the ways in which psalms may help us see how God is at work in "the hard places of life", longing to shape the mystery of our unfolding lives. Only when we are out of our depth, he claims, will we learn true dependency on God; and only when we have lost our way can we find the path of our own journey with God.

After three preliminary chapters to help the beginner understand psalms, the book of the psalms, and psalms of lament, Horsfall offers reflections on a selection of those psalms that contain the phrase "out of the depths". Interspersed are true personal stories that give a contemporary human face to the message of the book.

Deep Calls to Deep is a useful study book for individuals or groups. It ends with questions for discussion on each of the chapters, a classification of various psalms, and a helpful bibliography.


Canon Bruce Duncan, a retired priest, was the Founding Principal of Sarum College.

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