Friday, May 9, 2014

Why Should Prayer be Structured?

Replaying a popular post from last year. It's on that perennial question of formal vs. "spontaneous" prayer. 

"Why should prayer be structured? Why shouldn't we just pray to God in our own words?"

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.


  1. I read something somewhere about how structured readings or hymns help a great many of us in times of great emotional stress or calamities.

  2. I think we need both. The structured prayers provide an essential framework to our prayer life - but they can become easy to "hide behind", resulting in prayer that is rote and sterile. On the flip side, without the structured prayer, I for one, would find it difficult to establish a regular prayer routine. I think this question just highlights that there are a lot of "both/ands" in our spiritual life as opposed to "either/or".

  3. During the intercessions, we add our own after reading the ones printed in Christian Prayer. So, we have a bit of the informal within the formal.

  4. Structured prayers give us a way to join in a worldwide cycle of prayer. The classic Anglican prayer discipline (influenced by Benedictine patterns and as described in the writings of Fr. Martin Thornton) is Mass - Office - Devotion. The Daily Office provides the structured prayer; Devotion is the personal intercessory and contemplative prayer and might well include lectio divina.

  5. The scripture which pops into my mind when such issues come up is Ecclesiastes 5:2:

    "Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few."

    In light of this, it seems like a good idea to make use of the words that God gave us to use when speaking to Him, namely, scripture, particularly the Psalms. (Hmmm, I wonder if I got this from your book? Sorry if I stole the idea!)

  6. All good and thoughtful replies. Russ, I did not quote that Ecclesiastes verse in my book, so your idea is original. Or at least, not borrowed from me. For my part, I found that it wasn't until I began to be pretty consistent about stopping to pray the liturgical hours three to five times daily that I began to consistently remember to lift my mind and heart to God (that's all prayer is) in spontaneous praise, petition, thanksgiving, etc. at random times during the day. Prior to that, I was always confessing that I never took the time and/or remembered to talk to God in the course of my daily life.

  7. There was a great reference to praying the office in the PBS show Call the Midwife. One of the young lay midwives was deeply upset about something and one of the nuns asked her to join in their prayer. She said so something like the psalms were like a ladder leading to God when we had no words.

    1. Really? That's brilliant. I've heard of that show but never got aroud to following it. Maybe I"ll look it up on netflix.