Why you should write a psalm of your own

There are only 150 psalms in the Hebrew Bible. If you wrote the 151st, what would it say?

Decades ago, when I was an English major, I imagined myself a poet. This was in part because I won a national poetry contest in high school that guaranteed me admittance to the college of my choice. Being a person of limited resources, I nonetheless attended a local state college and was grateful to be there.

During those privileged years studying literature, I continued to write poems. Some of them weren’t too bad. None of them were ever published. I like to think this is because I never allowed anyone but a few family members and friends to read them.

Being a poet in my own mind does not make me an expert on poetry. It gives me little authority when it comes to opining on the psalms, canticles, and other formal verses of the Bible. The best I can say is that I am a pray-er of biblical poems—which likely puts you in the same category and endows you with the same expertise. Biblical poetry is an invitation to pray, and prayer is something we can all do.

The humblest attempt at prayer has its own brilliance, really. “May God have mercy on me, a sinner” is a sterling example of getting everything perfectly right in the context of prayer. It’s eight simple words borrowed from a fictional biblical tax collector, but boy, that plea says it all.


A priest recently told me about a season when he felt unable to pray. His heart seemed dried up, and the words just didn’t come. In that grueling time, he trained himself to say to God daily: “I love you. I trust you. I believe in you.” Then he would add: “You love me. You trust me. You believe in me.”

I find the second half of that priest’s litany particularly compelling. When loving, trusting, and believing comes haltingly to us—and there are surely hours when that’s true—in those hours we may still be willing to admit that God, at least, is very good at doing these things. After all, it’s God’s faith in us that holds us and our world in place. Little depends on our faith, of which only a mustard seed is apparently required.

Prayer is a vital component in the life of faith. It’s our conversation with God, and without such communication, relationships dry up. Often our conversations with the people in our lives are not much more than placeholders. We may not have a lot to communicate while we work, play, or hang out together. Yet even a lazy exchange of words becomes a way to acknowledge the reality of the other. We’re here together. We’re sharing this space and this moment. Whether we’re cooking or weeding, stamping paperwork or sharing files, swallowing a quick lunch or sharing a leisurely beer after work, the passage of words and ideas back and forth paves the passage for more and deeper communion when the need arises.

The same is true for our relationship with God. For days or even years, our conversation with God may seem like a superficial exchange. We may lean heavily on rituals and liturgies, chanted psalms, or speedily recited rosaries. We may casually note a pretty sky with a word of praise or send up a brief ask for patience or help in finding a lost item. We may share leaden silences too, facing off in a chapel or prayer corner with a pregnant pause steeped in meaning. This is not “bad” prayer. This is actually how normal relationships often go.


In my neighborhood, we have communal mailboxes clustered in a single spot midway down the street. I walk down to that cluster of boxes six days a week, greeting folks along the way with a nod, smile, or hello. Some of them are working on their cars in the driveway, digging in their yards, or calling their children to supper. They may return my greeting in a variety of perfunctory ways or not at all. But with each acknowledgment, we create an avenue of familiarity that makes future encounters possible. When the elderly man around the corner comes to my door needing advice or the girl across the way wants to sell some candy bars for a school fundraiser, we are no longer strangers but neighbors.

This is why praying the psalms daily is a fruitful and friendly habit to adopt. I use a monthly prayer journal that supplies psalms for the morning and evening. Sometimes the psalm is urgent when I’m feeling placid or celebratory when I’m grim. It doesn’t matter. Long ago it occurred to me that somewhere in the world someone could use this psalm, and I’m glad to lift it up for their sake. Psalms are generous in this way: They invite me to pray larger, wider, deeper than myself and my mood. It’s good to get out of my head and my narrow circumstance and practice being church with the whole church.

Psalms can be pretty violent. Enemies, foes, liars, and betrayers are featured a great deal more frequently in these prayers than in the course of my days, I’m happy to say. Maybe I’m just lucky to be able to say so. I recognize the ancient world was a more savage and uncertain place than 21st-century suburban America is. Still, there are locales in this country where residents feel unsafe, unwelcome, and constantly wary. It’s possible that some folks in my own town experience a far different reality than I do. The foes and the liars may live under their own roofs. I’m glad to pray for them and with them for rescue.

I often hear from people who’ve tried praying the psalms that these prayers are just too turbulent, too alien for them to use in their dialogue with the Divine. The God depicted in the psalms can seem wild, demanding, or just plain unattractive as the original psalmist experienced that partnership. I get that. My suggestion is that we write our own psalms about the things we think are prayer-worthy with the divine conversation partner to whom we feel more connected.


This isn’t a far-fetched idea. Modern mystic Nan Merrill rewrites the Psalter in her book Psalms for Praying, restyling the conversation between God and us as less combative, more cooperative and creative. My friend Patricia Stevenson paraphrased many psalms in her little volume Psalms and Other Songs from a Pierced Heart. I’m greatly taken by Stevenson’s easy-yet-poignant exchange with God. And Eugene Peterson’s folksy take on the psalms in The Message Bible—which now has a Catholic edition including our extra texts—really puts these prayers into coffee-table Christianity mode.

If the traditional wording of the Psalter gets on your nerves when you pray, please try one of these alternatives and see if it helps. But don’t lose track of the idea of composing your own psalms. What would you psalm about if the themes of these prayers were up to you? Because, in truth, they are.

Don’t worry if you’re not a poet. The psalms don’t rhyme, and they have no recognizable beat or rhythm. They only have to reveal the cry of your heart, the things you need and hope for, the thanks and praise you want to render. There are 150 psalms in the common Psalter. You get to write Psalm 151.

This article also appears in the March 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 3, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.


Image: iStock/Zuraisham Salleh


About the author

Alice Camille

Alice Camille is the author of Working Toward Sainthood (Twenty-Third Publications) and other titles available at

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