Sunday, July 20, 2008

quote of the week

The church I grew up in considered written prayers downright unspiritual. How could a prayer be sincere and heartfelt if someone read it from a piece of paper? That instinctive reaction probably traces all the way back to low-church rebellion against the Church of England. For centuries Christians had relied on carefully crafted prayers. Yet the Puritan John Milton scorned the majestic prayers of the Anglican prayer book as "cuckoo-notes." John Bunyan and George Fox likewise warned against printed prayers, and the Independents in England even disdained use of the Lord's Prayer in public worship.

Over time, Protestant overreaction tempered. C.S. Lewis preferred fixed prayers for his private devotions because they kept the focus on permanent things rather than contemporary problems. (For this reason, Lewis opposed revising the Prayer Book: "the more 'up to date' the Book is, the sooner it will be dated.") He also felt uncomfortable with the casual, extemporaneous prayers common in evangelical churches. How can we mentally join in a prayer until we've heard it? he asked. The prayer may contain actual heresy. He preferred fixed prayers, the theology of which had been honed by the church.

Written prayers serve an especially useful purpose, I have found, during periods of spiritual dryness, when spontaneous prayer seems an impossible chore. I borrow the words, if not the faith, of others when my own words fail.At such a time I have two options. I can stop praying completely, which only serves to distance me further from God. Or I can keep going, asking God to see me through this difficult period, meanwhile leaning on the prayers of others.

As I have mentioned, for a year I relied on prayers from a Liturgy of the Hours. I have also used The Book of Common Prayer; both of these collections are readily available in inexpensive editions. Because they are designed for group worship, under the guidance of a leader, they may not seem user-friendly at first. Yet they have the advantage of being compiled by people sensitive to both spiritual and literary concerns, and they have stood the test of time.

I must admit, however, that apart from exceptional times I tend not to rely on fixed prayers - not out of aversion but because as a writer I find them distracting. I start attending to the words and images, and my editing instinct kicks in: Hmm, what if she had broken the line here, and not there, or used a metaphor rather than the flat statement . . . In my profession I am always looking for new ways to express thoughts, and I find it difficult to read familiar words over and over. I consider this tendency a defect, and hope with time it will fade.

Oddly enough, I never have these editorial thoughts while reading the Bible, at least in a good translation, and if I stick to truly great writers, such as John Donne or George Herbert, the temptation to edit never occurs. Reflective poetry lends itself to meditative prayer. Already language is compressed; in meditation I plumb the metaphors and unpack the meaning, just as I do with the Bible. Well-written hymns and praise music can serve the same purpose.
Philip Yancey: Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?, 179, 180.


Fade to Black said...

I too am a writer/editor and have faced similar dilemmas as Yancey mentions.

Nevertheless, the remarkable explosion of God's goodness permeating us - body, soul, and spirit - can produce more fodder than we'll ever need to envision Him - both communing with us in intimacy, as well as interceding for us - helping us to "work out our salvation under the banner of his protection and love.

Yet... I will say that there are times when a "crafted prayer" - perhaps of my own making (vs another writer's) will spur me forward.

Sometimes, to be totally authentic, I am stuck - almost as if I do not know how to open the conversation with my wonderful Lord and Saviour.

At those moments, to hear the beat of another's heart... to capture some truth from their affections, to rest in their discoveries - knowing that they have approached, in boldness and confidence, the throne of grace, well, it's downright satisfying.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Fade to Black,
Thanks for your good words here, and for visiting.

I confess that I'm hardly a beginner when it comes to liturgical prayer. In theory I believe in it, but my practice is weak in it, at best.

I do tend to like a balance between the spontaneous/free and the liturgy in a meeting and in our lives. That is my preference, even though I've hardly worked that out well for myself.

Thanks again!