Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Prayer in the Church

I've taken these comments to 'On Mary' and posted my response here because it was so long...

As to why I think Catholics devalue the prayers of earthly people I have two thoughts. First, it seems that if you thought YOUR prayers were of value why would you spend all that time asking Mary or another saint in heaven to pray for you? Why don't you just approach God yourself instead of asking the saint to do it?

Second, in my admittedly limited experience, I've only heard Catholics pray from a book. Maybe I've forgotten something but what I remember of any Mass I've been to is that all the prayers were read as opposed to what I would call "prayers of the heart". That would seem to give the hearers the impression that the only prayers worthy of God's attention were those with perfect grammar, beautiful phrases and quotes from a Saint. How would the average person be able to match that?

This isn't meant to be critical, but an honest question. Are Catholics taught how to pray from their heart, or do they always have to get out a book and read someone else's prayer or say a memorized prayer? In other words, do the priests, or whoever prays in public, ever NOT use a book, do they model prayers from the heart?

my response:
Why would I ‘spend all that time asking Mary of another saint in heaven to pray’ for me? Because I’d like to have as many people praying for me as possible, and because it’s extremely easy to ask a saint to pray for me, whereas to ask you to pray for me I have to get a hold of you by phone or email. Why do we ask anyone to pray for us when we can just pray to God ourselves? Imagine this: what if you were in a bad situation where no one knew where you were-say your car had gone off a cliff and you were trapped in it. Of course you would pray to God, but would it not also feel good to ask a saint to pray for you as well, and to know that a (former) human being was praying for you at that very moment and knew exactly what had happened? Or think of a martyr in prison, alone and staring death in the face. I think it would be extremely comforting to invoke the names of the saints, especially the ones who had also been martyred. It would make me feel far from alone, I would be far from alone. And this is not an either/or situation – I don’t ask a saint to pray for me OR pray to God myself, I can do both.

I don’t think you really mean to say that written prayers are not ‘prayers from the heart’, but I know what you mean – the first time I went to Mass in high school it seemed wooden and fake because it all came from a book. But this is not how it is- I was wrong. Think of how personally prayerful reading an ancient prayer in Psalms can be – how someone says something that is so stunning and true about God, and you realize it is your own prayer as well. ‘Beautiful phrases’ should be included in our collective worship times.

And on book prayers: As far as hearing goes, weekend Mass prayers said out loud are all from a book. During the week, priests usually invite unscripted prayer from the parishioners during one portion of the Mass. I’m not sure why prayer is mostly written. Perhaps it is because the Church is wrapped up in beauty, and written prayers are beautiful, perhaps it is because there was no gap of hundreds or thousands of years b/t Judaism and Catholic Christianity (I’m guessing Jews read a lot of prayers at temple). Most likely, Mass is a collective experience, and praying the same prayers emphasizes the unity of the Church – 1 billion Catholics the world over are united by praying the same prayers. But as far as praying on the whole, Mass is full of both kinds of prayer,- ‘prayer from the heart’ as you call it and ‘book prayers’. Mass is intensely prayerful. I could tell this immediately the second time I went to Mass. I’m confident I have never prayed as many ‘from the heart’ prayers during any Protestant church service as I regularly do during Mass. Visualize what you would see before Mass begins – people kneeling in personal prayer. Visualize what you would see while the Eucharist is being distributed, and after – the same. Receiving Jesus in the Eucharist requires much self-reflection, and inspires much adoration before, during, and after. While a priest does not neccesarily model unscripted prayer, you cannot help but say your own words to God at Mass.

You speak of the imbalance of Catholics preferring written prayers, this may be true, and may need correcting (apart from Mass). But we need both types of prayers, and I could easily criticize Protestants for not praying enough written prayers. If you never pray written prayers, you are missing out. Reading prayers is not just ‘reading’ them – it’s praying them! Written prayers are hands down the best antidotes to two common problems when it comes to personal prayer; mind wandering and spiritual dryness. What if you are bored with prayer? What if you feel you have nothing to say to God? Praying a written prayer will give you something to say, and will remind you that there is always something to say to God. I like what Peter Kreeft has to say about formal prayer:

“It is as natural to pray others’ prayers as to sing others’ songs. For when we do, 1we make them our own. We should not merely recite these prayers; we pray them. We do not “say our prayers”; we pray. We need others’ prayers for the same reason we needed the help of walking when we were infants learning to walk. We are only spiritual infants. “Religion is a crutch” indeed, and we need it because we are cripples. Others’ beautiful prayers are beautiful crutches to help us walk.” (Catholic Christianity, 2001 Ignatius Press, p384)


Melanie B said...

I really liked your response to this question.

Another thing I'd add from my personal experience of praying "written prayers": is that it takes you out of yourself and helps you to identify as a part of the Body of Christ.

For the last five or six years I've been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the prayer of the whole church; but is especially known as what monks, nuns, and priests say. Morning and Evening prayer consist mostly of readings from the Bible: in the morning you pray two psalms and one old testament canticle and there is a short reading from the old testament, then you pray the canticle of Zechariah ("Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel...") and a list of petitions, an Our Father, and finally a closing prayer. In the evening it is similar except you say two psalms, a New Testament canticle, the Magnificat.

There are also shorter groups for middle of the day prayers and for night prayer.

There is a cycle of psalms you complete in the course of a four week period.

The thing that really struck me after doing this for a while is that there are times when you are sad and the psalms are psalms of praise: you are reminded to praise God always, not only when you feel like it, to thank him for all the blessings he has bestowed on you, even when you don't feel particularly thankful. Or you are happy and the psalms are ones of mourning and distress. At these times, you are reminded to pray for those who are sorrowing, to meditate on Christ's passion.

Of course there are other times when the psalms express exactly what I feel and are even better than any words I could compose on my own. After all, by praying these prayers which are the word of God, I am allowing the Holy Spirit to pray through me. It is an act of humility to set aside my own words, my own needs, to pray the words the Church has given me to pray.

Which is not to say that I never engage in spontaneous from the heart prayer. Rather, I think my spontaneous prayers when they happen are better for my careful habit of praying words that are not my own. The Liturgy of the Hours is often called the school of prayer and I have certainly found that over the years I am learning how to pray more deeply, above all how to listen to God, not only tell him what I think.

Jesus himself taught us a written prayer. Presumably because he knew that we needed some guidance when it comes to the proper way to address God. St Paul says that "we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings".

Turning to prayers that are inspired by the Spirit that have been passed down through the Church seems to be a form of humility, a way of acknowledging that we do not know how to pray as we ought and allowing other's words to guide us. In this way we open ourselves to listen to God's will for us in a more radical way. The danger in only praying our own prayers is that we can get so caught up in speaking that we forget to listen.

I think that the commenter sets up a false dichotomy, for me written prayers can often help me to find what is in my heart more clearly than if I were fumbling for my own words. And above all they help me to align my heart with the heart of the Church, which is to say with the heart of Christ whose body is the Church. My heart is all too often a heart of stone, by using written prayers, especially by praying with the word of God, I allow him to enter in and turn it into a heart of flesh that is entirely His.

jogger mom said...

Wonderful, thank you for the thoughtful & informative commentary. I really feel that the practice of praying written prayers is one specific thing I can point to that has deepened my spiritual life since I have become Catholic. It is a practice in which I still have a lot to learn & experience - at first the idea of praying from a book seemed so odd, but eventually it seemed that God was pushing me forward in faith that this new thing would grow me in ways I never expected to grow in prayer.

I identify with you saying it takes you out of yourself- it takes me out of the narrowness of my feelings towards God, which are often dictated by circumstance rather than WHO God is and what he is doing, not just in my life but the world over. Certainly this has happened in spontaneous prayer as well, but there's just something about praying written prayers that expands what you will bring to God.