The language of prayer intimately reflects our hearts. Do we “say” our prayers, or do we pray in intimate communion and conversation with our greatest love? The former is like saying, “I said words to my husband,” while the latter compares with, “My husband and I had a wonderful evening together.” Prayer, when impersonal, reflects and perpetuates a distant relationship, and taken to its extreme, isn’t prayer at all, but only a string of words choking any real encounter with the living God.
So how can we make our prayer personal? Whose words should we use when we desire to truly communicate? Someone else’s—a psalmist’s, a saint’s, the Liturgy’s, or our own? The answer lies in all of the above. But there are pitfalls, whether the prayer is the kind we memorize and recite or of the spontaneous variety.
Jen Fulwiler, a convert from atheism, stumbled into such a trap, when she was trying to get the hang of praying the Divine Office. The recitation of Psalm 143, in particular, wasn’t working for her:
The enemy pursues my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead, long forgotten.
Therefore my spirit fails;
my heart is numb within me.
“I was having a great day and feeling strong in my faith. . . This is totally not speaking to me! I thought. . . And then I remembered something that a commenter named Jasmine said. . .
‘Remember that the ‘prayer of the Church’. . . is for the whole Church. You will not identify with every psalm at every moment, so when you pray them think of all of the people in the world praying with you who DO identify with the psalm. Pray for them and on their behalf.’
It all finally clicked. . . As I had yawned through the psalmist’s cry of anguish, someone out there could barely utter those same words through trembling lips and tear-stung eyes. I thought of all the people praying the Hours in that state, and for the first time was conscious of our deep connectedness as we prayed in unison as part of the mystical Body of Christ. . .
I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office —“But this psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!”— and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”
Still, praying with another’s words can take some getting used to, especially if we have come from Protestant backgrounds or circles and been warned of vain repetition. Yet repetition isn’t the problem, vanity is—the vanity of trying to beat down Almighty God to get him to heed our desires. Jesus, Our Savior, is not simply an idea, an ethereal principle, a distant God for whom we must act in particular ways to please and appease. He’s not the God who requires a rain dance with a special kind of jig, clothing, and rhythm in order to flatter him into a pliable temper. Unlike the false god of Baal, he doesn’t require fervent empty acts in exchange for favors: “I just said the magic formula. Now, please do what I ask.” This is not prayer.
Repetition from a surrendered heart is something different entirely. In the case of the prayers of the Rosary, for instance, repetition is meant to be a doorway into the deeper mysteries of the life of Jesus and his mother. Repeating the beautiful words of the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” is a communication beyond words for those who sense munificent love of those to whom they are praying, because after years of intimacy, the most important things have been already said.
Rote and written prayers can also refresh because they don’t rely on the shallow puddle of our own resources. They can lift us out of our own circumstances, express the depth and range of human experience, and draw our attention to the divine, or to a Church feast or season, relieving us of excessive subjectivism.
Besides, if we reject all second-hand prayers, we’re left with only the spontaneous kind, which can put us in a bind if we’re leading a meeting and don’t know what to say. Plus, the pressure to be continuously creative without the help of “pre-fabricated” prayers can drastically shorten our one-on-one time spent with God. After just five minutes, our spontaneity can dry up. Conjuring our own words may come easy when we’re overcome with euphoria or desperation, but most of life plays out somewhere in between. We’re tired, grouchy, drained of creative juice, but thank God, we can pray anyway, not only when we’re enjoying a peak psychological moment of expressive euphoria or conversely stewing in utterly cathartic misery.
But there are pitfalls here, too. We might feel obliged to pray words that we find off-putting—perhaps too flowery, complex, archaic, or casual for our taste. We might labor under the misconception that, since the St. Therese of Lisieux, “The Little Flower,” and St. Maximillian Kolbe were admirable saints, their prayers are somehow better than ours. And yet God wants us to become more fully ourselves through prayer, never someone else he never created us to be.
If we find that we aren’t truly being ourselves through the recitation of prayers, then it is time to put the printed word down and spontaneously tell God how we really feel, what we really want, what we really think. And then we need to really listen. God knows everything anyway. Hiding only means refusing to see ourselves, for we’ll never succeed in hiding from him.
Spontaneous prayers can have their pitfalls, as well, of course. Sometimes our words may try to pass themselves off as prayer. . . “I thank thee, O Lord, that I am not like other men. . .(Lk: 18:11)” isn’t a bad prayer. It’s just not prayer at all—neither are “Lord, grant me a mystical facelift,” or “Can you hurt her for me, please?”
Really, the question isn’t so much whose words we should use, anyway. As St. Teresa of Avila, the first female Doctor of the Church, said in her spiritual classic, The Interior Castle:
“. . .She who does not consider with whom she speaks, and what she asks, and who she is that asks, and of whom she asks, knows little of prayer, however much her lips may move. . . But whoever shall accustom himself to speak with the majesty of God, as he would talk with his slave, without considering whether he speaks properly or no, but who speaks only what comes first into his head, or what he may have learnt by heart by having repeated it at other times—this I do not consider to be prayer.” (The Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila, T. Jones; London, 1852, p. 5)
In other words, whether prayer is spontaneous, read, or rote is not the point, but whether we’re cognizant of who is talking to whom.
It’s a lesson for all of us. If we ourselves are prone to impersonal expressions, perhaps we are being called to address our own faith lives. Try this: Say the “Our Father,” and say it directly to the Father, imagining his full glorified presence before you, imagining him responding to your words. Remember, you are speaking to Someone. You may find, as I did, that you’ve never really prayed the Lord’s Prayer like this before.
There are other threats to intimate prayer, such as anger and blame, grief and resentment, self-pity and sin, shame and fear, little faith, hope, or love, believing in a demanding impersonal God, not really knowing who God. Any number of blocks can create a spiritual distance in our hearts. We are all capable of calling on God with our lips, spontaneously or by rote, while at the same time our heart is saying, “I don’t really want to talk to you.”
Sure, we may know our method, “say” our prayers, talk to God spontaneously, and show up faithfully (these are good things), but we may live a long distance from Jesus’ message in John 14: “If you abide in me, if you abide in my love, I will abide in you … and I will manifest myself to you.”
The goal of prayer is a union of love, a communion of mutual self-giving, in which we find a vulnerability, an intimacy, a knowing, and a belonging that rivals all earthly joys.
May we not only “say” our prayers, but exchange our happiness, our woes, and everything in between in a language of angelic intimacy. May we encounter the living God, not as that Someone we merely speak to, but as that Someone we love. . . and who loves us, specifically, personally, truly, always.
Copyright 2013 Christine Watkins