Many American Christians find the concept of formal, written prayers anathema, thinking that prayer should be spontaneous. The result is usually prayers involving bad theology and bad style, routinely invoking the Lord by involving the phrase “Jesus, we just…”
It’s true that God hears us graciously however we pray, and that simple, heartfelt prayers are entirely appropriate and, God being God, routinely effective — everyone should read the chapter on “Simple Prayer” in Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. (Everyone should read Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth as well, while we’re on the subject.) We are indeed like children who can speak like children, in simplicity, and honesty, and confidence, and expect our Heavenly Father to meet our needs, one way or another.
But formal, written prayers have a solid rationale. Above all, they’re biblical. What else is the book of Psalms but the prayer book of Israel and the Church, comprising 150 well-composed, substantive prayers? But there’s more than just Scriptural warrant. Theologically, practically, and traditionally, written prayers make good sense.
Spontaneous prayer comes from us, and if we are not well-formed, what we utter in prayer may be inaccurate. We may be speaking out of ourselves about ourselves and our wants and desires. As we are still tainted by sin, even with the aid of the Holy Spirit we may make mistakes.
Written prayers, by contrast, make for opportunities for reflection and correction. If we as priests, or ministers, or individuals are composing prayers, the very act of composition provides with an opportunity for spiritual reflection. Unless we are sloppy, we are required to think about Whom we are addressing, what we are saying to Him, and who we are in relation to Him (and indeed our relation and His relation to the Church and the world, when praying for the Church and the world.) If we as Christians — whether lay or ordained, religious or secular — pray and hear good prayers written by others, we are formed. Whether composing, praying, or hearing them, written, formal prayers shape us. Prayers teach.
Consider the collect used in Catholic Churches this past Sunday:
Guard your Church, we pray, O Lord, in your unceasing mercy,
and, since without you mortal humanity is sure to fall,
may we be kept by your constant helps from all harm
and directed to all that brings salvation.
It is theologically profound and beautiful. In the act of praying it we learn anew that God is our merciful guardian against that which threatens us, in spite of our frailty, and that God will bring his own to ultimate salvation. The language may sound a little archaic, but that’s OK, and the slight archaism is deliberate: it reminds us that the Church preceded us, that our own idiom and culture is not the only idiom and culture. Archaism helps us transcend our own time and place and roots us in our tradition. (For more on this collect, click here as Fr. Zuhlsdorf dives into the Latin and its translation.) If it seems complex, that’s OK too; good education, good pedagogy, should challenge people’s hearts and minds rather than constantly cater to them at their level and leaving them there.
Beyond that, there are of course multiple images of God in the Bible. To be sure, Jesus speaks of the care and closeness of our Heavenly Father for and to us in his Sermon on the Mount. But this picture must not be reduced to mere sentiment, for the same Father Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 is the same Father who may just treat us as the torturers treated the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21ff if we don’t forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart. The point is that God remains God, high, mighty, and holy; otherwise his Fatherhood wouldn’t mean much to us, and Jesus’ words regarding his Fatherhood would lose their radical force.
Jews and Christians have thus believed that God, being God, ought to be addressed properly, especially in corporate worship. It’s one thing for an individual in an intimate moment to address someone — or God — with familiar language. But in corporate worship it is entirely appropriate to address God in terms befitting his honor and dignity. An example: When I speak to my Doktorvater (that’s one’s “doctoral father”, the person who directs one’s dissertation) in person or email, I address him as “Richard.” But when we’re in more formal settings, such as academic conferences, I would never think of using anything else than “Dr. Hays.” To do otherwise would seem presumptuous and perhaps unctuous. Whenever we speak to a superior, we assume a certain attitude of respect issuing in a certain formality.
One thing that I found attractive about Catholicism when I was considering converting was precisely this: that prayers (the most supreme of which is the liturgy of the Mass itself) had been established over centuries to give me and the Church appropriate words to pray rightly. I didn’t have to constantly make it up, day in and day out. Whether in corporate worship or individual prayer, things are given, things that form and shape us as we’re enculturated ever more in to the Christian tradition.
And thus I’ve taken to using prayer books for my own private prayer, especially two which were gifts, the Manual of Prayers from the North American College and the late Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Prayer Book. Therein are found all sorts of well-composed prayers appropriate for various occasions. Of course I engage in spontaneous prayer, and informal prayer, as we all should. But I appreciate the beauty and wisdom of the prayers in these books and others as they help me pray rightly and become a better pray-er thereby.
Books referred to in this post: