Wednesday 3 May 2023

Praying with words

There is an idea among some people that our prayer is meant to evolve with time. They think that while we all start with vocal prayer (made with words either aloud or silently), we are meant, as we grow up, to use fewer words, to move on to mental prayer or meditation, and eventually move beyond that and learn pure contemplative prayer, where we are silent both without and within. Some authors speak as if the silence of contemplation were the only true prayer. And yet one of the Church’s greatest mystics, St Theresa of Avila, spent her day, in between periods of contemplation, reciting the words of the psalms of the Divine Office with her fellow sisters. Mental and contemplative prayer are certainly forms of prayer we only learn about when we are older, but vocal prayer cannot be something that we are meant to grow out of. When the Apostles asked Our Lord to teach them to pray, he told them: ‘Pray like this: Our Father, who art in heaven…’ (Matthew 6:9) He taught them, in the first place, the words of a prayer.

Catholic interest in the Mass (which is certainly a good thing) also seems to have eclipsed our interest in other prayers, so that the only prayer book most people might own is a missal. And many other books of prayers have little space for other devotions, because so much space is given to the text of the Mass.

There haven’t been so many books of prayers printed in recent decades. When we look back a hundred years, we find a combination of factors led to a golden age of prayer books for ordinary people. I remember inheriting my grandfather’s prayer book from 1959, and feeling that I had discovered a hidden treasure. While freedom in choosing how to pray is essential, sometimes we do need someone to teach us, like Our Lord: ‘Pray like this. Say these prayers.’ And that’s what I found in that prayer book of my grandfather. Many of the prayers in our new prayer book (pretty much the entire collection of night prayers) come straight from that old prayer book. And many other collections have been plundered for their treasures too, together with a handful of newly adapted or translated texts.

But that is only meant to be a starting point. It is a wonderful thing to build up — committing to memory or even to paper — our own collection of favourite prayers: from the scriptures, from the writings of the saints, from the prayers of the Church. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh writes in School for Prayer:

Mark these passages that go deep into your heart, that move you deeply, that makes sense, that express something which is already within your experience, either of sin, or of bliss in God, or of struggle. Learn those passages, because one day when you are so completely low, so profoundly desperate that you cannot call out of your soul any spontaneous expression, any spontaneous wording, you will discover that these words come up and offer themselves to you as a gift of God, as a gift of the Church, as a gift of holiness, helping our simple lack of strength. And then you really need the prayers you have learnt and made a part of yourself.

We don’t always find time to think about the words of our prayers as much as we might like. Ideally, we would spend some time thinking about not just what our prayer says to God, but also what it says to us about him and about ourselves in relation to him. St Philip used to teach people to take the Our Father slowly, word by word, phrase by phrase, and draw out all the ideas it contains. We don’t have time to do that every time we say it though. And so when we do rush through it in a few seconds, we mean implicitly whatever it was Christ meant when he gave it to his disciples and asked them to hand it down to us. And we intend to say to God all the ideas that would come to mind, if we did have a bit more time to think about it.

Similarly, when our prayer has been composed by a saint, we can be confident that the thoughts those words express — even if we don’t always have time to explore them — led the author to an even closer union with God.

We might think that we can compose better prayers in our own words than some of these old prayers, and that might even be true. Some part of our time of prayer can and should involve speaking to God in our own words. But there is something special about joining in a prayer that has been in use even from before we were born, that has been sanctified by centuries of use. When we use a prayer that is shared with the rest of the Church, we are reminded that we don’t just pray by ourselves. We imply not only all those ideas we might find in it, but we attach to it also all those intentions that our brothers and sisters in the Church, throughout the world, throughout time, have meant and do mean and ever will mean in their use of the same prayer. And it is a comforting thought to imagine all the saints — past, present and future — praying with us and for us in those same words.

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