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.