The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 28, 2016 - 3:50:54

On Prayer, Both Second-Hand and Spontaneous

Devra Torres, Aug 16, 2012

Whose words should we use when we pray? Someone else’s--a psalmist's, a saint's, the Liturgy's--or our own?  

All of the above.  But there are pitfulls, whether the prayer is the kind you memorize and recite

 or the spontaneous variety.  

Jen Fulwiler, a convert from atheism, was trying to get the hang of praying the Divine Office.  At first, it didn’t seem to be working for her—this recitation of someone else’s words. She was reading Psalm 143:

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.  As a convert from Protestantism, I had been warned repeatedly about vain repetition, and it was hard to conceive of, say, the 53 Hail Mary’s a rosary requires as anything but vain. 

But of course the repetition isn’t the problem—the vanity is.  It’s all too easy to approach rote prayer like a pagan trying to flatter a god into a pliable temper,

or, worse, like a trained Human Resources MBA employing his full battery of manipulative "tools ‘n techniques" to gain an employee’s cooperation with a minimum of personal interaction.

Another pitfall can crop up with rote prayer if we feel obliged to pray words that we find off-putting—maybe they’re too flowery,

 or too casual for our taste.

We might labor under the misconception that, since the Little Flower and Alphonsus Liguori were admirable saints, God must want us to ape them, style and all—instead of becoming who we are: fully ourselves.

Besides, if we reject all second-hand prayers, we’re left with just the spontaneous kind—which might seem synonymous with the genuinely personal kind.

But there are pitfalls here, too.

First of all, sometimes you’re not alone.  What if you’re called upon to wax “spontaneous” in public?  This is very hard.  You find yourself treating others, not God, as your audience.  In fact, once you’re thinking performer-audience, instead of I-Thou, you’ve already taken a wrong turn.

Second, thinking up your own words may come easy when you’re overcome with euphoria

or desperation,

but most of life plays out somewhere in between.  We’re sleepy, in a bad mood, not feeling creative—but thank God, we can pray anyway, not only when we’re enjoying peak psychological condition or sunk in utter misery.

And third, sometimes actions that may well be spontaneous but aren’t prayer at all try to pass themselves off as prayer.  “I thank thee, O Lord, that I am not like other men…” isn't a bad prayer: it’s not prayer at all.

Likewise, when my sister and I were little, my mother would sometimes sit us down to “pray,” only to have to listen to, “Oh, Lord, please help Abby stop making that noise,” and “Oh, Lord, please help Devra quit taking my comic books without asking.”  This isn’t even inferior prayer; it’s just something else.

Really, the question isn’t so much whose words we should use, anyway.  A recent article by Dan Burke quotes St. Teresa of Avila on “saying prayers”:

[S]he 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.

In other words, whether it’s spontaneous (“what comes first into his head”) or rote (“what he may have learnt by heart”) is not the point,  but whether we’re cognizant of who is talking to whom.

Finally, prayer is not merely conversation.  As one reader of Burke's articles ("Becky313") commented: like any other relationship, it includes

much non-verbal communication, a wink, a laugh, a hug, a caress, an understanding nod, thinking of the 'other' with love and devotion, being concerned and considerate of their needs and desires, planning little surprises for them, eagerly awaiting the time you have together, putting the other first, sitting quietly next to one another....head on a shoulder, simply enjoying the time spent in one another's presence.

Learning to rejoice in these kinds of dealings with the King of the Universe is not as simple as developing a knack for either memorization or spontaneous, reverent-sounding prattle.  But anyone from St. Teresa to Tim Tebow will tell you: it's worth it.