Many years ago, when my kids were still little and I was feeling the need to get out of the house, I joined a Bible study in our neighbourhood. I figured it would be a great way to get to know other young moms, while also growing in my faith. At the first meeting, though, I wondered if this was such a good idea. The woman leading the group began with an eloquent and heartfelt prayer, and I was amazed at how the words seemed to flow so naturally from her mouth. But rather than being inspired, I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated and secretly hoped she wouldn’t ask me to lead the prayer the following week.
And herein lies a problem. Some Christians have gotten the idea that prayer, in order to be genuine, must be “spontaneous, creative, and emotional.”1 We’ve come to believe that formal or memorized prayer is childish or outdated, and that once we advance spiritually, we should put it aside, as with other remnants of childhood. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Formal prayer has an important and ongoing place in our spiritual lives. It has merit precisely because it doesn’t depend on our intellect or creativity. We may not all be blessed with the gift of poetic speech, but we are all called to pray. So, what do we do?
When the Apostles encountered this problem, they asked Jesus directly, “Lord, teach us to pray.” He went on to give them – and all of us – one of the most beloved of all Christian prayers, the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father.2 There have been countless times in my own life – especially in moments of suffering or danger – when a Hail, Mary or an Our Father was about all I could muster. Like the times when I was in labour, or when I white knuckled it to get through stretches of icy roads, or even at times when hiking through dimly-lit forests, unsure of what dangers might be lurking in the shadows. Whenever we experience pain, fear, or anxiety, words often escape us. Needless to say, it’s hard to be poetic or eloquent. But our Catholic tradition offers us so many prayers from which to draw strength and consolation.
One of my favourites is actually the Prayer to St. Michael. I never learned it as a child because I didn’t grow up Catholic. But now I frequently call on the archangel to come to my defence, to do battle with the forces of evil that seem to be so prevalent in the world. It’s easy to memorize and a great one to teach your kids. Religion or catechism classes are few and far between, so it’s up to each of us to take the initiative to learn prayers and teach them to our children. That way, it will be there when you need it – like a prayer in your back pocket.
Perhaps one of my fondest memories of prayer was when my son was in grade three, attending a Catholic school near our home. We were living in Texas at the time and a tornado had been spotted in the area. The school had decided to close early and asked parents to come pick up their kids right away. Fighting traffic and barely able to see past the rain, hail, and dark sky, I was a nervous wreck by the time I arrived. But when I walked into the school, it was an entirely different scene. It was peaceful and quiet. The children were all sitting on the floor lining the hallway, and they were praying the rosary. What a sight! I’ll never forget the sound of those sweet, little voices reciting the prayers all together in unison. It was beautiful and powerful. I began to pray, too, and almost immediately my breathing slowed and the pounding of my heart returned to normal. The calm and peace that came over me was supernatural, transforming.
Of course, formal prayer can and should be incorporated into our lives at other times, too – not only in moments of distress. When we are struck by the beauty of creation or see God’s hand at work, we can take a moment to praise and thank Him for His wisdom. Consider the response of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the angel came to tell her that God wanted her to bear His Son. In that moment, she gave us the beautiful prayer of thanksgiving that we find in Luke 1, the Magnificat, which can become our prayer, too.3 The Scriptures are, in fact, filled with prayers. And the Psalms are considered the “masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament.”4 But any passage can become a prayer, and it’s so helpful to commit a few to memory. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a verse or two come to mind in the midst of sorrow (or joy), as a way to unite ourselves to the Lord? And isn’t this really all prayer is – consciously raising our hearts and minds to God?5
When you really get down to it, prayer has less to do with words and more to do with the disposition of our hearts – the humility and sincerity with which we approach God. Ultimately whether we pray spontaneously or from memory, aloud or in silence, alone or in community, God knows when we are ‘heaping up empty phrases’ or being sincere.6 We tend to equate eloquence with piety, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Memorized prayers can be every bit as heartfelt and meaningful as spontaneous ones. What’s more, when we join our hearts, minds, and voices in prayer, we become what we profess: in essence, one voice – the Body of Christ.
– Kelley Holy
1 Scott Hahn, Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 167.
2 Cf. Luke 11:1 and Matthew 6:9-13.
3 See Luke 1:46-55.
4 CCC, 2585.
5 Cf. CCC, 2559.
6 Cf. Matthew 6:7.