On Prayer, Lost and Found

I once believed that ancient, corporate prayers were for those of shallow faith. I thought that written prayers were a cop-out for those too lazy or uncreative to pray on their own. At best, they were the training wheels of prayer—the “Now I lay me down to sleep,” prayers we were meant to outgrow as our faith deepened and swelled into something vibrantly alive. At worst, they were an indication of a faith that was not your own. A faith you’d borrowed from those who came before you. A faith you claimed because it was comfortable and required little of you.

In the church I grew up in, we often prayed out loud, everyone at the same time, a clamor of voices crying out to God together, but individually. It was a charismatic gathering where people prayed in tongues which we were taught to view as private prayer languages between a person’s spirit and God. Every prayer language was different, unique, a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in that person.

While I no longer hold to the faith of my childhood, I have no wish to disparage these people or their undoubtedly earnest prayers. I simply reject the accompanying belief that prayer must be original to be sincere. As if a hundred “Father God, we just ask that you just…” ‘s were more authentic than St. Augustine’s prayer, “Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy,” simply by virtue of their spontaneity.

How can these old words spoken and written by people whose bodies withered away before you were even thought of accurately represent what you need to say to God today?  I once asked with scorn. And now, in this season, those ancient words have come to stand in the gap for me.

How strange, to turn from a faith where prayer was a private language of syllables that spoke from my heart straight to God’s ear, to a faith where prayer is grounded in the repetition of words set out for me by men and women who lived long before I, or my mother, or my grandmother or her grandmother, had taken our first breaths on this earth.

I am not alone in this. Many of my generation who were raised in evangelical traditions are turning now towards more liturgical gatherings. Anglican and Episcopalian churches are filling with those who long for a sense of rootedness they felt they lacked in the churches of their parents. Some have moved away from Protestantism altogether and have embraced the Orthodox or the Roman Catholic church.

I don’t know what I am right now. I don’t know that I’m evangelical and I don’t know that I’m not. In some ways living overseas has exempted me from making that decision. My local church community is a house church made up of people from various traditions and there is no label on our gathering.

What I know is this – at some point I lost prayer. I ran out of words or out of the will to form new ones. And it has been the prayers of the saints, past and present, that have given me the words I couldn’t find on my own. These words have an integrity that is entirely independent of me. These words are pillars that stand even when my faith feels frail and brittle.

I pray the words of St. Francis or of St. Benedict,  of Mary’s “Magnificat” or Anne Lamott’s “Help. Thanks. Wow.” and I find myself standing in the presence of God once again, on the shoulders of those who stood here before me.

 Image Credit: John E Lamper on Flickr.
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34 comments

  1. Think you’re spot on – I’ve grown up in an Anglican church, and the ‘Prayer Book’ is one thing I’m so thankful for – the prayers people have taken the time to write are a great starting point for your own prayers when you can’t find the words…

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    1. Yes, I think that’s exactly right – that they are a great starting point. Of course we can come to God with our own words, but sometimes the words of those who have come before us are exactly what we need to incline our hearts to God.

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  2. Hmm. Very thought-provoking. I am Catholic and an avid pray-er and I find that the “pre-fabricated” prayers only feel less sincere at times when I spout them off on auto-pilot without connecting my heart and soul to the words coming out of my mouth. P.S. Help. Thanks. Wow. is great. So is Anne Lamott.

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    1. Yes, I think you’re right. There’s nothing insincere in praying a written prayer – there is only insincerity in our hearts at times and that can be there whether we pray someone else’s words or our own. I grew up in South Louisiana which is a very “culturally Catholic” area, by which I mean, it is a part of the culture as much as anything else to be Catholic, whether you practice or not. I think the Protestant churches in that area have (unfortunately) taught things that were subtly anti-Catholic out of a desire to promote an active Christianity rather than a passive one. Many people considered themselves Catholic because their families had always been Catholic without it having any real meaning or bearing on their lives. In this way, we sort of blinded ourselves to how much we in the Protestant church did the same thing. Some of the most deeply spiritual and wise people I know are Catholic and I have great respect for the integrity of their faith. PS- And I also love Anne Lamott. 🙂

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  3. Oh, Lily, this was perfect. And by that I mean that you’re reading my mind again. Thank you for this. I loved it so much.

    I’m very newly at a Lutheran church after spending almost five years out of church, which was very healing. One of the things I love best about my new church and Lutheranism is the liturgy. It helps me pray, it gives me words, when all I’d be able to do otherwise is sort of feel things at God. My old church thought of liturgical churches as “spiritually dead” but now I find it makes me feel connected with church history in a way I never had before. It’s beautiful. And it gives me the words.

    I even love the part where we offer prayers for people we know who are hurting or sick, after the liturgy is prayed, by thinking about the person or just saying their name. It allows me to pray for people I care so much about, and that means so much to me.

    I pray Anne Lamott’s “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” and “wow.” When I pray without liturgy that almost all I pray.

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed this and I’m glad you’ve found a home in the Lutheran church. I’m curious what type of congregation we will end up in when we return to the US. I also know exactly what you mean about your old church thinking of liturgical churches as “spiritually dead.” I was raised believing even more traditional, non-liturgical Protestants like Presbyterians and Southern Baptists were “spiritually dead.” When I started dating Jonathan (who grew up Presbyterian) I had friends who came to me concerned about use being “unequally yoked” because he was not “spirit-filled.” I wish I was kidding.

      I think one of my consistent, don’t-know-what-to-say prayers is just, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” But, you know, not like in an “Oh shit” way like that sounded. 😉

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      1. Yeah, I think people would’ve thought that I’d I had dated a Presbyterian when I was at my old church, too. The first church attended that was liturgical was Presbyterian, so it’s funny for me to think of a Presbyterian church not being liturgical. It was PC(USA) loved the denomination, but the little church closed due to financial troubles.

        And now nearly fives years later I’m in a ECLA church, which is pretty much the Lutheran version. Love their focus on social justice issues and having visiting pastors who are women has been healing. And Pastix had a hand in helping me get in touch with my inner Lutheran. My younger self would be so horrified, haha 😉

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      2. Yeah the Church J grew up in was PCA I think? But it was also just sort of loosely Presbyterian. By which I mean, it wasn’t the sort of church that talked about being Presbyterian or what their denominational beliefs were or anything like that. He’s always said he never felt attached to being Presbyterian, though he was very attached to his church. And my younger self would be horrified at a lot of me, haha. Thank God. 😉

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    1. You’re welcome. 🙂 I’m really glad it was encouraging to you. Do you have a recommendation on a Celtic prayer book or place to find those prayers? I’d love to read some of those.

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      1. To be honest I stumbled across some on the internet. Also The Book Of Kells is a lovely book with some amazing drawings in it. A band called Iona used the book as an inspiration for one of their albums and is worth a listen.

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  4. I grew up Catholic, then my family moved to a non-denominational church and today my husband and I are Episcopalians. Having experienced the gamut of prayer styles in my lifetime, I find that there is a time and season for each kind of prayer. Even free-flowing non-dom prayers can be empty when quickly rattled off but marking off the same key words. I think that if you don’t feel connected to God and are not engaging in a deep personal relationship with Him then it won’t really matter what kind of prayers you are praying. There is real beauty in corporate prayers. I love the idea of connecting with the same words that generations before me have also prayed, there is something deeply profound there!

    In any case, loved your post! And perhaps the best realization is that we are with God and then denomination or church affiliation seems less weighty.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing this! I love hearing about how you have experienced God in a variety of traditions. I think, like you, the important thing about prayer is engaging with God and sometimes I do this better by speaking off-the-cuff whatever’s on my heart and sometimes I do this better by focusing on the words I’m reading and matching my heart to their rhythms. I like what you said about different prayers being right in different seasons to because I think in spite of some problems, the frenzied prayers of my childhood served to establish my faith as something I would never shake off, even if I switched churches or traditions and I’m grateful for that. Thanks so much for reading. I’m so honored that this meant something to you.

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  5. Can I say Amen? Hah. Interesting that you have taken this journey. I myself did not grow up in a church, but “my” church is evangelical Baptist. However, due to my pro-life work I have had the privilege of getting to know many dear Catholic brothers and sisters and have discovered that I love the contemplative, liturgical expression of faith as well. I particularly love the prayers of the ancient Celtic Christian church….in the research for my novel (set in Northumberland in 642 AD) I stumbled across many lovely ones. The Breastplate of St. Patrick is rich and meaningful in so many ways. Too long to quote here but it starts off, “I bind unto myself today the strong Name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three…” and gets better from there….and of course my favourite hymn, Be Thou My Vision is based on a prayer from that time and place as well. They give you words when you have none of your own, and so many are so well thought out and meaningful.

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    1. That is really so beautiful. Be Thou My Vision is also one of my favorite hymns and I didn’t know about it’s history. I love that your work has allowed you to partner with people from different faith traditions than your own. There can be so much division in the church, and so much judgment cast on those who worship differently, when really each tradition has something unique and beautiful to offer and together they make up this gorgeous mosaic of faith. I’m so glad you appreciated this post. Thank you for sharing!

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  6. Love this. I Had been rereading “practicing the presence of God” but I put it down. You inspired me to pick it back up. Thanks I hope you are doing well.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  7. It really doesnt matter if the words are from your own or from others. What’s important is the sincerity of the heart and the longing of the person to talk to God.

    This blog is very inspiring. 🙂

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  8. I laughed out loud at the “Father God, we just ask that you would just…” Spontaneous prayers (the out loud ones, at least) are often a repository of verbal filler words. When I was a teen/young adult, I disdained tradition because it felt ‘dead,’ and put the highest value on the spontaneous because it felt authentic. As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen the deep beauty and value of tradition. It’s only dead if you treat it that way.

    Have you ever read “The Valley of Vision,” a collection of Puritan prayers? It’s a book I return to when my prayer life feels dry. One of my favorite prayers: “Lord, let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision.”

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    1. Haha. Yes, the way you describe yourself as a teen/young adult sounds exactly like me at that age. And honestly, it was partly grounded in my experience – at that time in my life I really didn’t know many people from more liturgical backgrounds who had a vibrant, mature faith (mainly because I didn’t know that many people from liturgical backgrounds at all). I love your phrase, “It’s only dead if you treat it that way.” Exactly.

      I haven’t read The Valley of Vision, but you are the second person to mention it to me since this post went up so I will see if I can get my hands on it. I love the prayer you shared here. Thanks for the recommendation!

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