Saturday, May 4, 2013

Why Does Prayer Have to Be Structured?

That was a question that a caller asked me yesterday on Relevant Radio's "On Call" program. The host, Wendy Wiese, had been discussing the Liturgy of the Hours with me for the better part of half an hour when caller asked his question. I didn't ask first whether he was Catholic or Protestant. That might have given me information that would have helped me tailor my answer. But there's nothing like unscripted Q&A's to induce a grand fit of I- should- have -saids  later on.

I answered that prayer could and should be both: at times informal, simple conversation with God. Brief phrases of faith, trust, praise and love. But most of us need structure at times as well. Unless our energy level and emotions are at perfect pitch, we often don't know what to say when we pray, or don't feel much like praying. Structured prayer--by which we mean using words that others have written, in a certain pattern or method--is a great help. These prayers give us, as Pope Benedict put it, "the language for the encounter with God."  And when God has given us inspired prayers, such as the psalms, it's probably because he wants us to use them!

Later, another caller supported what I was saying by bringing up the example of buying greeting cards for our loved ones on special days. Sure, we are perfectly capable of saying "I love you." "Happy Birthday" , and whatnot. So why do we waste time browsing through phrases and verses printed with a pretty picture and hawked by Hallmark?  That's a very "structured" way to communicate love or good wishes, don't you think?

I wonder if people who defend spontaneous prayer by denigrating structured/memorized/liturgical prayer less likely to buy greeting cards for their spouses, lovers, children, etc., than the rest of us? They ought to do  a study on this.

Do you have any simple, articulate responses to the informal vs.formal prayer issue? If so, share them here.






15 comments:

  1. I've noticed that even people who prefer "unstructured" prayer usually fall into some less formal formulas. And there are phrases you often find them using such as the "Lord, I just...." If you have to come up with your own structure, then you have to reinvent the wheel every time you pray. Having a preset form allows us to focus more on the content and the relationship.

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  2. Yes! I've been to numerous prayer groups where everyone takes turns being spontaneous, and there's a litany of "we just want to [praise you, ask you, be with you, glorify your name etc.] This is such a universal experience that I once heard a Catholic comedian do a routine and say that everyone in his prayer group was just like St. Joseph: he (or she) was a "just man."

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  3. Your question about greeting cards is intriguing. My cousins are Southern Baptists and they actually do not buy greeting cards. They create gretting cards with a computer program and include their own prayers and quotes from the Bible.

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  4. Structured prayer teaches us how to pray! We don't know how to pray as we ought and praying in the words of Scripture or the Church trains us in the art of prayer. When our minds and hearts are filled with the prayer of the church, then our spontaneous prayer becomes richer and deeper. At least that has been my experience with praying the LOTH.
    When Jesus was asked to teach the apostles how to pray,He told them what to say; He didn't encourage them to say whatever they were feeling...!

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    1. Exactly. Pope Benedict gave a great example of a child learning to speak by listening to and repeating the words he hears from the adults around him. the child may not totally understand those words at first but he grows into them, and then possesses all sorts of concepts he would not have known otherwise. The psalms, Pope B. said, give us the "language for the encounter with God."

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  5. I heard you on Wendy's show and decided to give the Hours a try. The first thing I have noticed in praying the hours is that I am forced to concentrate more on my praying.

    I, like many I am sure, have a problem with my mind wandering when I am doing spontaneous prayer. Although this can be a good thing as it gives you an idea of what is troubling you and what you should pray about, sometimes you need to have a structured (or I like the term dedicated) prayer.

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    1. Great, Paul. I"m glad you were persuaded. You'll find that there are many ways to apply a psalm as you pray it. Sometimes they fit your own specific needs, other times you pray them on behalf of others, and you always pray them on behalf of the whole Church. In a way, we become the voice of Jesus praying for his bride. That's the beauty of liturgical prayer. Stick with it and feel free to ask any questions here. I do an official Q&A post once a week, but people can ask questions on any post that they want to.

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  6. Our Lord gave us the "Our Father", the first structured prayer...he said, "This is how you are to pray". I think he was letting us know how to speak to HIS Father in heaven. He then sent us the Holy Spirit to guide us and that is where spontaneous prayer comes into play. We can never go wrong either way. Our Lady speaks to us in prayer and so does the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We must be open to whatever form we are led to and allow our Lord to speak to us. HE will guide us always to a closer relationship and answer our needs no matter what form we use. Micki Kaye, Cullowhee, NC: Cradle Catholic

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  7. Does it have to be an "either - or" decision? How about do both, with neither as the top choice? Maybe it isn't worthwhile to have an all-or-nothing debate on prayer style.

    Sometimes I'm too [fill in the blank] to pray effectively. That's when I rely on the LOTH and it never lets me down. I can't get discouraged or get off track or quit in the middle before the important stuff is covered. Even if I'm so [fill in the blank] I can barely function, after I pray the LOTH I've prayed for the church, with the church. And that's good enough for me!

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  8. Sometimes when you are in a spiritually dry place, rote prayer is all you can muster. One of my sisters equates it with "eating sand" but in a desert, that's all there is. You offer it to the Lord anyway, and hope the oasis (that refreshing wellspring of "ideal" spontaneous prayer) is not far off.

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  9. I like what you wrote in your book. In your Introduction you explained that the Liturgy of the Hours is second only to the Mass. You also said that the Liturgy of the Hours takes our personal spontaneous prayers to a higher level. This is because it is the Holy Spirit who gives order and solidity to our haphazard and weak prayers. It is to the rest of the Church, Which is His Body that our, prayers are thus joined. Giving them a strength that alone they could never have. I hope this helped. Because I know
    it has helped me.

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  10. I heard recently on Catholic Answers (Fr. Mark Toups, I believe) that spontaneous prayer is good but he cautioned that we have to guard against bringing God down to our level, which can happen when we talk to him as we would a friend. We have to remember he is transcendent and the liturgical prayers certainly do that!

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  11. I just found this in the Apostolic Constitution on the Divine Office by Pope Paul VI:
    "Because the life of Christ in his mystical body also perfects and elevates for each member of the faithful his own personal life, any conflict between the prayer of the Church and personal prayer must be entirely rejected, and the relationship between them strengthened and enlarged. Mental prayer should draw unlimited nourishment from readings, psalms, and other parts of the Liturgy of the Hours."

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  12. Daria, I have always asked people who question structured prayer if they have never recited a poem to their loved ones, or sang a song (in Church no less!) written by someone else? Or have they ever read a book written by someone else instead of writing their own. Of course all of these things bring the usual "I am not good enough to write a poem, song or novel!" At which point my follow up is to ask whether approaching God Most High in prayer is easier than doing these things...I guess for me the Office is always a new creation, it is not "repetitive" because it is always a new thing - sometimes it is a heavy, tired, sad thing sometimes it is a happy-happy thing (depends on the day!) - but always new.

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  13. Lisa Duffy, in her blog on Catholic Match May 9, wrote, "Praying prayers that guide you, instead of you trying to find the words to say, are often a a big help in getting yourself back on track." She was referring to the Stations of the Cross as a help to newly divorced Catholics, but it applies to structured prayer for anyone who struggles, as do we all at times.

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