Friday, February 5, 2010

Prayer - Using the Words of Others

When I was a child, I was told that prayer was personal. Something between me and God. An individual matter.

At first, this seems very different from the way I came to view prayer as a Pentecostal. The Pentecostals spend a lot of time praying together, either in prayer meetings, in fellowship groups or as a church. Then there are prayers said at the beginning or middle of every social event and a prayer said before each meal. When somebody needs prayer, everybody near gathers around and lays a hand on them. There are also prayer chains, where people are placed on a list and asked to pray when requested. When the bible studies close down for the holidays, the prayer meetings continue. Prayer is considered not just important, but vital.

In the Catholic Church, prayer is also seen as essential. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most denominations see the importance of prayer. Perhaps that is one reason why prayer meetings are often the way place where different denominations come together. Prayer is something that we all do.

And yet the way that we pray can be very different. I have certainly noticed a difference between how I saw prayer as a Pentecostal and how I am beginning to see it as a Catholic.

Pentecostals may not see prayer as a personal matter, but I think it would be fair to say that there is a strong focus on the individual. When prayers are said, they are usually said as the person thinks of them. No notes are used. No memorised prayers are used. In prayer meetings, people are encouraged to simply speak out as the Spirit leads them.

Despite attending many Sunday School lessons, my children were never taught any prayers. Nor were they given any prayers to read. The Sunday school teachers talked often about prayer. But it was prayer that focused very much on the relationship we have with Jesus and with God. Prayer was simply talking to them, not borrowing other people’s words to say.

In the Catholic Church, praying is done a bit differently. (And I’m leaving aside here, one obvious difference that Catholics pray to Mary and the Saints.) But in a Catholic Mass, prayers are usually ones that the congregation knows and recites together or they are read from a book. And outside the Church, Catholics are encouraged to pray the rosary and use other existing prayers, instead of always making up our own.

I would say one of the main differences between Pentecostal Prayer and Catholic Prayer is that Pentecostals place more emphasis on using their own words (or the words of the Holy Spirit, as they would have it) and Catholics place more emphasis on using the words of others. That is not to say that there is a firm divide between them. Pentecostals do not have a rule that you must not use the prayers of others. Nor do Catholics only use existing prayers.

To ask which one is better seems pointless. People usually pray in the way that seems best to them. I’m sure that God is more concerned with whether we are actually praying, rather than having a preference for the way in which we pray.
However, I do believe there are a number of things I have gained through starting to use the prayers of other people.

First, I believe praying together forms a spiritual connection between people. And although Pentecostals do pray together, they are not saying the same words at the same time. And quite honestly, there are quite a few prayer meetings I have been to where I have been more concerned about what prayer I would say, rather than listening to the prayers of other people. We say Amen together at the end of it. But for the rest of time, we could be thinking of completely different things.

When people say specific prayers as a group, they are brought together in that one thought. And yes, it is possible to be thinking of tonight’s dinner while you’re reciting memorised words. But even despite this, there is a group of people saying the same words together. I think there’s something powerful in that. One of my favourite times of the day is when I pray with my children. And it never used to be. There were times when we would pray and I would be struggling to think of something to say. It’s hard work trying to think of a new prayer every night. But now we recite prayers together. And it really is beautiful. To hear all three voices in unison – three voices that may have been in disagreement with each other that day. But when we pray, we are brought back together again. Not only does it connect us to God, but it connects us to each other.

The other benefit from using existing prayers goes back to what I said about it being hard work trying to think of a new prayer every night. For some people, praying is easy. As soon a prayer meeting starts, something beautiful and amazing comes out of their mouths. For others, it’s a bit more difficult. One reason why I have spent time in prayer meetings worrying about what I would say next is because I do find it a struggle. Not so much when I’m praying alone, but definitely in front of other people. Plus, I know there are some people who won’t pray in prayer meetings at all. Either they’re too shy or they can’t ever think of anything. When a group prays the same prayer together, that obstacle is removed. Everybody can pray, without trying to think of something to say or the right way to say it. And then we can focus on the words we do say, instead of worrying about what we should say next.

One book I read said that existing prayers can often be useful, because they say what we want to say, but better than we could ever say it. That is certainly true. Sometimes what we want to say to God comes in semi-formed thoughts. Existing prayers put those thoughts into sentences. And some prayers are so beautiful. To read them is like reading poetry. But I think it goes a bit deeper than that. Because many prayers do not just say what we want to say, they say what we never even dreamed of saying. If I pray, only using my own words, then I am limited to what I think and believe and already know. But when I use the words of others, I am influenced by their spirituality and their devotion. They take me to a place that I could never find by myself.

When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he did not say well it’s a personal matter. Nor did he say just pray as the Spirit leads you. He gave them a specific prayer to say. At the very least, we should pray the Lord’s prayer, as it was given to us by Jesus himself. But also, there have been so many wonderful prayers written throughout the centuries. It seems arrogant to believe that anything I can say would be better than anything they could say. And foolish to ignore those prayers have brought comfort, hope, joy and a deeper spirituality to many people, simply because they are not my own words.

Christianity is not solely a personal religion. We are not just a bunch of individuals who happen to believe in the same thing. We live our faith in fellowship with one another, as a community or believers. The prayers I make up myself belong to me and God alone. And yes, there is a place for that. Some prayers are meant to be personal. But prayer is also meant to be a communal activity. Something that the Church does together. And even when we are not physically located in the same room, when we pray the prayers of the Church, the prayers that people have written, the prayers that many people through the ages have said, we do pray in community. We pray alongside the many people who have said that same prayer in the past, all the people who are praying it now and all the people who will pray it in the future.

Think about the Lord’s prayer for a minute. In fact, why don’t you actually pray it now?

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.

Did you pray it? I sure hope so. Because if you did, you just said a prayer that people have been praying for 2000 years. In fact, you just said a prayer that the Apostles prayed, the very people who were with Jesus when he was here in earthly form. You just said a prayer that was taught to those Apostles by Jesus himself. Two thousand years of people using that prayer, going all the way back to Jesus.

I don’t even have words to express how that makes me feel. But that’s okay. Because I’m sure that someone, somewhere, at some time, has done a very good job of explaining it.

(Image details: The Lord's Prayer (1886-1896) from the series The Life of Christ, Brooklyn Museum, by James Tissot. Image is in the public domain.)


  1. Hi Liz,
    This reminded me of when i was a child. How we would pray together in front of a small shrine that my father had constructed in the corner of the room. As well as praying together, we children were reminded to say our prayers when we went to bed.
    Of course I was encouraged to pray for other people but i got that out of the way quickly so i could concentrate on what was important- ME..."Dear God can I please have ... " I can't think of what i would have asked for but i distinctly remember feeling that whatever i prayed for, i would get.

    Praying as a group does intensify the spiritual energy, that's for sure. And praying out loud intensifies it more because there is a release when praying out loud that doesn't happen when you pray silently. New-Agers would describe it as putting it out there to the Universe but I think of it as declaring your trust in God. Like you say, it is beautiful to hear your childrens voices mingling with your own when you pray together. Hearing something beautiful has a profound effect and when you think about it that's not surprising because it's through our ears that we first begin to understand the world. Before we are even born.

    Another explanation I heard, about the power of prayer, is that the prayer itself - repeated over and over through time, by so many people, becomes imbued with the intentions of all those who have prayed. So that repeating the prayer is like opening the gateway to God's love.
    This wasn't exactly how it was described but it was something like that.

  2. Hi Teresa,

    I find it easier to pray for other people than to pray for myself. Because when I pray for things for myself, I often get caught up in my own worries and own fears etc. Sometimes I even lose sight of God altogther.

    I love hearing my youngest son say the Lord's Prayer in church too. His voice is so loud. I can hear it clearly above everyone else's.

    Sorry, but I have to make this comment short. I've been on the computer for a while and my children want to watch a DVD with me.




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