On the same day that my daughter comes home with yet another question from her Fellowship Friend, Eve busts out with a post on the very subject of the question and answers it
I've run across Protestants who get it fixed in their heads that prayers like the Hail Mary (but not, I hope, the Our Father!) are the "vain repetitions" condemned in Scripture. I've never understood that view, since really, there is nothing less repetitive for me than repeating a traditional prayer.
continuing with thoughts from which I also draw on in my book, and moreover, ties it all in, ingeniously and winningly, with a book that happened to be my absolute favorite as a child, Harriet the Spy.
(I must have read it twelve or so times...I never really could figure out why, until it hit me a couple of years ago. She's nosy, and she's a writer. Duh. What do your favorite books of childhood say about you?)
St. Paul says that we "do not pray as we ought." (Romans 8:26) He helps us see that in the face of the complexity of life, of our great yearning, and of the mystery of God, it can be almost impossible to come up with the words that capture the depth of our feelings , especially when we are distracted by grief or fear.
At those times, it helps to have someone else’s words in front of us, words from the psalmist or one of the saints that express our need in a way that requires no more of us than we can give during a difficult time.
These words are also gifts from the past, connecting us to something very important: the entirety of the Body of Christ, as it was then, as it is now, and as it will be to come.
How many billions of times have Christians recited the Lord’s Prayer? How many lips, both Jewish and Christian, have murmured the ancient words of the Psalms?
There is a sense in which each of us is alone in the universe. At the end, there is no one but us and God. We are beholden to no one but him, and he is the one we face with an accounting of how we have used this gift called life.
But we are not alone. We have billions of brothers and sisters, all of whom breathe the same air and whose souls look to the same heights for meaning and purpose.
We whisper the words of the Hail Mary at our child’s bedside, in concert, in God’s time, with every other mother who has looked to the Virgin for help and prayers when the burdens of parenthood seemed unbearably heavy.
Every child stumbling through the words of the Lord’s Prayer, offering up simple prayers for simple needs out of the simplest, deepest love—every one of those children has countless companions lisping through the same pleas, and we are among those companions.
Together we beg God for mercy, we rage at God in confusion, we praise God in full throat, and when we do so using the Psalms, we are one with the Jews and Christians who have begged, raged, and praised for three thousand years.
We’re not alone. And when we pray these ancient prayers, in the company of the living and the dead, we know this.
There’s one more reason to claim these prayers as our own, another dimension of Paul’s acknowledgement of our helplessness in prayer. So much of the time, we don’t know what we really want.
Oh, we think we do. We sit down to pray, to present our lives to God, and we think we know exactly what we need; we’re approaching God, open to his wisdom and grace and power—but on our terms.
We can’t see the big picture. Understandably enough, we want our suffering to end now. We want life to change so that we’re more comfortable living it.
We’re like children who blame our unhappiness on the fact that it’s Wednesday in the middle of math class instead of Saturday, or that we have an unappetizing plate of turnips (is there any other kind?) in front of us, or that our parents are hopeless dweebs.
We blame our inner discord on what’s outside, never thinking for a moment that there might be a bigger purpose to it all, lessons to be learned, and strength to be gained.
And how often do even our circular, self-referential prayers reflect that shortsightedness? How often does our undisciplined mental prayer end up being one more kvetch, one more plea for God to change life so that we don’t have to?
Here is what these ancient prayers, worn and prayed by millions, bring to that experience: they bring a sense of a wider context. They reflect the experience of the ages, the experience of those who have not only been in the mess we’re in but endured to the other side of it and seen its purpose. These prayers express the wisdom of the saints, whose sharp vision helped them see God’s purpose in everything both beautiful and wretched. They bring God’s word, in which everything is said, if we only listen.
These prayers—conceived in the womb of God’s people, brought to birth, and nurtured by their experiences of hope and faith—are treasures worth rediscovering. They give us words when words are beyond us. They link us to our brothers and sisters, past, present, and future. And they put our yearnings and questions in a context in which they will be answered by the wisdom of the holy ones and the revelatory word of God rather than kept in the confines of the present moment. When we explore the history of how these prayers were composed and used, we hook into those original impulses that gave birth to the words and shaped them, impulses and yearnings that we still possess because God is still God and we are still human. Some things have changed, but the most important things haven’t.
That night in the monastery, it was hope I was looking for. Hope that God still loved me. Hope that my children would be all right. Hope that good could come out of the whole blasted mess.
I could have sat there for hours, by myself in silence, wondering, alone. But thanks be to God, I didn’t have to. In the prayers written centuries ago and kept alive by my fellow Christians over those same centuries, I found a different kind of path to mental prayer, which means, when you get down to it, another way to collapse the wall and just be more fully present to God. On this path made of well-worn and polished words, I found a way to hope that was true to my own experience and yet took me beyond it, beyond my own vision of what was wrong, to share in God’s vision of what was right.