By the Book
If prayer is a craft, we shouldn't be ashamed to learn from the masters.
There's much to be said for Christianity as repetition and I think evangelicalism doesn't have enough repetition in a way that will form Christians to survive in a world that constantly tempts us to always think we have to do something new—Stanley Hauerwas
My husband Jonathan and I both grew up in settings where the only undisputed virtue was "authenticity"—he in the raw angst of the punk scene; I in the Slacker days of Richard Linklater's grungy, 90s Austin.
Even as questions about sexuality, morality, and worldview were contested, both those inside and outside of the church agreed that we should be "authentic." Over the past few decades, being "authentic" has become a buzzword and a bit of a social obsession. Stephanie Rosenbloom writes for the New York Times,
Authenticity seems to be the value of the moment, rolling off the tongues of politicians, celebrities, Web gurus, college admissions advisers, reality television stars. . . . The word has been bandied about for ages, be it by politicians or Oprah Winfrey, who popularized the notion of discovering your "authentic self" in the late 1990s after reading Sarah Ban Breathnach's Something More. But "authentic" is enjoying renewed popularity in an age of online social networking and dating, in which people are cultivating digital versions of themselves.
Some of the impulses behind this drive to authenticity are crucial to the Christian faith—we should reject duplicity, and desire to be honest about our emotions, experiences, or opinions. But for many of us who grew up "keeping it real" authenticity carries another meaning: a commitment to self-expression by embracing each feeling we feel in its most unadulterated form. My husband and I subconsciously committed ourselves to this latter view of authenticity, and it was disastrous for our first few years of marriage. It turns out that expressing every emotional impulse, however genuine it may be in the moment, did not form us into the kind of spouses capable of loving each other well, or even the kind who could stand to be in the same room together. Throughout our early years of dating and marriage, we developed practices in our marriage—habits of communication, patterns of expression and response, ways of interacting—that were making us into people who were less capable of love.
Code for Humanity
All of us learn to interact and to communicate by following a script. This script is most likely unconscious; we may have inherited it from our parents or picked it up from friends, movies, or our particular subculture. But these habits—our particular patterns of thinking, speaking, and listening—move us, bit by bit, toward or away from love. Jonathan, the recovering punk, and I, the crunchy Austinite, had to learn this through painful and blessedly humiliating practice. One day in marriage counseling, our therapist quite literally handed us a script. It outlined "active listening"—a way of arguing that, to us, felt utterly contrived, which required the speaker and listener to slow down, to repeat each others' argument charitably, and to affirm the other. We were sent home with "homework": to argue using our script. Following this script did not always capture the genuine emotional tenor of our hearts in the moment, but our habit of dropping f-bombs in every argument wasn't working, so we did our homework; we said "I hear you," we repeated, we affirmed, we nodded, we said our lines. We felt slightly ridiculous—every shred of commitment to "authentic self-expression" was dying a slow death. But we found that while following a script felt a bit awkward, it did not make us lobotomized marriage robots. Instead, it provided banks for powerful emotional currents; it gave structure that we needed to get past ourselves to see and hear the other. Twelve years later, we don't often follow this script word for word because we've internalized its pattern, but in our most intractable conflicts, we still go back to it. We still, years later, need help developing habits and practices that foster love.
A couple of years ago, I took a friend who was not from my Anglican tradition to church with me. She did not particularly like it. One of her chief complaints was that we said "other people's prayers." She felt that reciting a prayer from the prayer book wasn't really praying. Praying involved a present invocation of our moment before God. If we were feeling Psalm 88, "my companions have become darkness," then it would be dishonest to pray Psalm 118, "Let us rejoice and be glad."
This debate about whether prayer should be original and spontaneous or fixed and recited is not a new one. Evangelicals can pin "extemporaneous" prayer against "other people's prayers" and deem the latter inauthentic. We can see prayer as a means of self-expression—a way of voicing our most raw fears, needs, and joys before God. Formulas and imitation seem like enemies of self-expression. If prayer is primarily self-expression before God, then we figure it should come naturally; it should be our words.
After decades of authentic self-expression before God, I ran into the limit of where my words could take me.
But what if prayer is more than simply self-expression? What if prayer is a kind of craft or exercise that shapes us? What if God uses prayer to "act back on us," to form us? What if set liturgical prayers are an ancient tool that reframe our perspectives and desires so that we might learn to pray in ways that are beyond us?
For most of church history, Christians understood prayer not primarily as a means of authentic self-expression, but as a learned way of approaching God. The earliest prayer book of the church was the Psalms, which have been prayed, memorized, and sung in every language and time throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity. The repetition, memorization, and internalization of the Psalms produces a formidable historical memory, making faithfulness possible in each moment of the church, in times of abundance or times of sorrow. As Christopher Hall reminds us,
The goal of praying the psalms daily, even hourly, is not vain repetition. It is the forming and shaping of human character. . . . Without doubt the Spirit could have provided a different prayer book for us or no prayer book at all.
But, he continues, with words that inform the use of any prayer book or set prayer,
The Holy Spirit knows we need help learning how to pray; the Spirit knows we are apt to stumble and perhaps lose our way if we exclusively rely on our own words and thoughts in prayer. The point is that it is our thoughts, words and actions that need remolding, reshaping. We need mentors in prayer. . . . If we listen carefully, immersing ourselves in his words and life, our own disposition will change, in prayer and out.
Here's an embarrassing confession: As a young, über-churchy kid with ample WWJD bracelets, I always thought prayer was pretty easy. My understanding of prayer consisted of drumming up words to speak to God, and I love words so I loved prayer. I was well into my late twenties when, in a dark season of disappointment and heartache, I realized that there was more to prayer than I had known. After decades of authentic self-expression before God, I ran into the limit of where my words could take me. I needed other ways of prayer. I needed a script.
Prayer molds us; it forms our beliefs (hence, lex orandi, lex credenda—the law of prayer is the law of belief), and it shapes our dispositions and actions toward God and the world, moving us toward or away from love of God and neighbour. Just as receiving a "script" from our marriage therapist didn't stifle us but made room for us to enter the "craft" of marriage, which is bigger than our own experiences and feelings, so patterns of prayer draw us out of ourselves into the larger story of Christ's work in and through his people over time. We situate our own moment, experience, and "authentic self" in a larger story of redemption. We join others in the gift and practices of approaching our trustworthy God.
Something in Common
In this process of being shaped through prayer, we need our historic community, the communion of saints. We need "other people's prayers" to tutor us in this craft. When his disciples found Jesus praying alone in a "solitary place" (Mark 1:35 KJV), they asked him to teach them to pray. He did not tell them, "it's easy; just say whatever comes to mind"; he taught them the Lord's Prayer, a pattern of prayer to shape their own prayer habits. Christians over the centuries have honed practices of prayer. Beyond the Lord's Prayer and the Psalms, other Christian leaders have written prayers both for gathered worship and for private devotion. My own tradition's prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, pulls from and simplifies a number of different sources of prayers and liturgies from the Christian tradition—for instance, the Collect for Purity is drawn from an eleventh-century eucharistic liturgy, and the Great Thanksgiving is based on a third-century prayer in Hippolytus's prayer book, The Apostolic Tradition. In our current moment, as we drown in a torrent of words with our near-constant self-expression on social media, inhabiting the ancient, enduring prayers of the church is perhaps more needed than ever.
These historic prayers call me out of the kinds of extemporaneous prayer that come most naturally to me. In doing so, they reshape me, reminding me of kingdom priorities and hinting at depths in the spiritual life that I can yet scarcely imagine. Robert Wilken, writing about the prayer practices of monks, says,
Prayer comes first, because without regular and disciplined prayer there is no genuine spiritual life. And prayer for the monk means something very specific: reciting the strophes of the psalms. Left to our own thoughts and words prayer moves on the surface. The psalms loosened their tongues and gave them a language to read the book of the heart and to enter more deeply into conversation with God.
As proved by hours next to my first-grader as she sounds out picture books, learning to read requires sitting with someone who can help and guide, someone who has reached further depths in the practice. These inherited prayers are Christ himself, through our older brothers and sisters, sitting with us as we trip over our own neuroses, grudges, distractions, and self-obsession, learning to "read the book of the heart."
I don't want to paint prayer as a sort of competition—where some are the prayer MVPs and others are sidelined. I know that my three-year-old's meandering prayers and stumbling words delight God. And yet she can grow in her prayer life; she can learn to pray. Certainly there are times for prayers that are raw outpourings of emotion and cries for help from God. Yet I enter rhythms of prayer—day in and day out, on Sunday through the liturgy and each day through the daily office—that train my "muscles" in prayer, that teach me to stretch in prayer in ways that don't come naturally. Here is an example: in my own spontaneous prayer, I often forget to praise God simply for the sake of praising him. Quite instinctively, I thank him for good things when good things abound, but praising God for his character is something I have to take up as a discipline. Here's another: in extemporaneous prayer, I hardly ever pray for political leaders (in spite of Paul's admonition to do so). And when I do, I frankly don't know what to say. I'm cynical enough about politics that it's hard for me to pray for politicians without a bit of ire or irony—and yet, each week in church I "pray for all who govern and hold authority in the nations of the world; That there may be justice and peace on the earth." This trains me in a way of prayer, teaching me how to pray for those I find it hard to pray for.
One particularly instructive prayer practice for me has been using set prayers to pray for enemies. When I've been deeply wronged, the prayers that come naturally are for my own vindication or that God would show the other guy what a jerk he's being, but those prayers do little to shape me into a person capable of loving my enemies. But praying inherited prayers inches my heart toward forgiveness and love, even in spite of myself. In the Lord's Prayer, we ask that we may be forgiven as we "forgive those who have trespassed against us"; in the Jesus Prayer, that Christ would "have mercy on me, a sinner"; and in the Book of Common Prayer, that "in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord." This kind of prayer practice opens up new possibilities. My heart, through prayer, begins imagining a kind of ethic of forgiveness that my conscious will can't yet reach.
Prayer as Ergonomics: Fixing Our Posture
These practices of prayer do not just shape our prayer lives or worship style; they shape us. They form us into people who move differently through the world, and they bring us back to "spontaneous" prayer with new habits and patterns—and new hearts. Think of a professional ballerina. Watch her exit the dance studio or performance stage, and still she holds herself differently than the rest of us. My friend who is a professional dancer shows more bodily grace and coordination while pouring her coffee or taking out her trash than I do at my best moments. Her long training in her craft has taught her to carry herself differently, even away from her time of "exercise."
In the same way, these inherited prayers shape us so that when we feel tired or harried or annoyed at our bickering kids or when we sit in an empty room alone after hearing heartbreaking news, our minds—our very neural pathways—are tuned to ancient words of longing, hope, and worship. These allow us to live differently, to stretch in prayer, to walk with a different kind of grace.
A few years ago, an Orthodox friend told me about her practice of praying the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, and it has become an important prayer practice for me. Two weeks ago, I got a call that my dad was back in the hospital. This time, they said, it was heart failure, words that scared me and pushed all other words out of my mind. As I drove to the hospital to see him, I felt sad, but mostly I felt numb. The shock of bad news left me blank. I wanted to pray and could not find words. In this moment of crisis, I couldn't drum up words to capture the wide range of emotion I felt—the peaks of fear, the whispers of anxiety, the uncertainty of how to respond, the quaking vulnerability, the glimmers of hope, the longing for better for my dad. And with my mind blank, habit kicked in. As I drove down the road and walked the fluorescent hospital halls, I found myself turning the Jesus Prayer over and over in my mind: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on Dad, a sinner." These are words given to me by the church—they our "other people's prayers"—but in that moment, they were the most honest, the most intimate, even the most authentic thing that my heart could utter.Subscribe