Sunday, March 31, 2013

Learning to Pray

I grew up in a church tradition that eschews liturgy. The actual reasons for this philosophy are many, but the main argument I always heard growing up (not from my parents, more from other church members) was that liturgy is bad because it causes people to "just go through the motions." When you recite certain prayers or Scriptures at appointed times, it becomes empty. It's better to pray in your own words "from your heart."

This always struck me as a bit hypocritical, seeing as we had no problem singing songs written by others. It seemed to me that "going through the motions" could happen no matter what worship style you ascribed to. And, in fact, many of the prayers I heard Sunday after Sunday sounded rather, well, scripted. People used the same phrases over and over again. If I ever prayed in public (which was somewhat rare, given my gender) or even in front of close friends or family, I felt the need to utilize these phrases and style.

As I've gotten older, my ideas regarding the purpose of prayer have changed. I struggle a lot with the questions of what I should be praying for, why God will answer one prayer and not another, and what tone I should have in prayer (reverent? familiar?). I still don't have answers to my questions, but I do know that the prayers I grew up hearing and saying don't fit with my newer conceptions of the purpose of prayer. When I pray, the old words come out, and they sound so false to me now. So I've found myself slowly distancing myself from prayer. I can't seem to pray in a way that's authentic to me, so I just don't pray. I really don't like this, because I do feel like prayer is an important spiritual discipline and that we don't have to understand it completely to practice it. It's mystical nature is part of its very design, I'm sure.

Wanting to redevelop the discipline, I decided to ask for a book for Christmas, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime, edited by Phyllis Tickle. This book is based on the early Christian and monastic tradition of praying set prayers at various times of the day. Each day has texts for the morning, midday, vespers (evening), and compline (just before bed) offices. The texts include Psalms, other readings from both the Old and New Testament, and prayers (most from The Book of Common Prayer, but some from other sources).

I decided to start slowly and only observe one office per day (whichever was most convenient that day). If I am at home at other times, I try to do more than one, but I figured if I started out with all 4, I'd just give up. I've been using the book since February, and I've really enjoyed it. It's nice for me to have some structure to my prayer time. And I really appreciate the beauty of the prayers. It seems strange to me that we will readily admit that some people are better teachers, singers, writers, etc., than others. But we don't consider that some people might be better prayers. I enjoy praying the prayers of others who are able to express what I'm thinking in a more eloquent way. And, surprisingly, I've found that I'm more likely to pray spontaneously on my own now. I really do feel like this practice is re-teaching me how to pray.

One of my goals for myself personally and for my future family is that we would observe traditions related to the church calendar. I find it meaningful to know that I am participating in something that has been practiced by Christians for centuries and is currently being practiced by Christians all over the world. I have been following my book's special section for Holy Week, and I've felt that this has been one of the most meaningful Easters I've ever celebrated. I attended a Good Friday service for the first time, and I was really moved by the symbolism and history behind it. I feel like, as a person who really loves structure, tradition, and routine, liturgy is hugely helpful for my spiritual life.

Here are some of my favorite prayers from the book:

(each morning) Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen. 

(at bedtime) Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen. 

Heavenly Father, in you I live and move and have my being: I humbly pray you so to guide me and govern me by your Holy Spirit, that in all cares and occupations of my life I may not forget you, but may remember that I am ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

The Gloria: Glory be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, so it is now and so it shall ever be, world without end. Alleluia. Amen. (I can't really explain why this prayer moves me so much. I just find it incredibly beautiful.)

1 comment:

Clint and Whitney said...

Beautiful prayers. I have been thinking about the power of liturgy as well. And since we have very similar backgrounds, it's a little overwhelming to know where to start. I'll have to look into this book. Thanks for posting about it!