However, even if we have mastered the words of a prayer, it often remains someone else’s prayer. We may never quite get into it. It may never express the thoughts of our minds or the feelings of our hearts. We say it more out of conditioning than genuine insight. We may say “Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty, through Christ our Lord.” But we say it without gratitude and feel free to grumble about the poor quality of the food. The same rote recitation can happen with the Our Father.
• John Shea
• • •
In the Roman and Eastern liturgies, those who pray the Lord’s Prayer often preface it by acknowledging, “We dare to say…” (or, “We are bold to say…”). This is an expression of humility, recognizing that, apart from God’s grace to us in Christ, giving us new life and making us God’s children, we would not be able to pray like this. We are looking at themes from John Shea’s book, To Dare the Our Father: A Transformative Spiritual Practice, and learning how the Lord’s Prayer might become a transformative spiritual practice in our lives.
In the chapter, “Praying Someone Else’s Prayer,” Shea reminds us that we have all memorized prayers or inherited specific ways of praying. One of the dangers of such inherited praying is that praying can become saying our prayers, without the necessary attention and focus that a genuine conversation with God entails. “Prayer is not mere mouth material but the inner being of the human person in communion with God,” he says.
However, John Shea also explores the dangers that come with a commitment to extemporaneous prayers. Mystical and pietistic traditions that emphasize personal authenticity in prayer have recommended this way of praying as a antidote to thoughtless rote repetition. But this kind of “free-floating” prayer is subject to the ever-changing whims of our own inner state.
It is interesting to me that Shea links this with the verse in Matthew preceding the Lord’s Prayer that says, “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:7-8).
For most of my evangelical life, I have heard that verse used to criticize “vain repetitions” — meaning the mindless repeating of words, or what people often call “dead liturgy.” But Shea, observing the biblical context, identifies this kind of praying with a kind of inner panic that is afraid God won’t hear us if we don’t multiply the intensity, volume, and quantity of our prayers. This text is set in the context of being anxious and worrying about having the things I need, things, Jesus says, the pagans are preoccupied with. But we pray in confident trust, not needing to bombard heaven with passionate petitions.
Furthermore, in this same context, Jesus instructs us to “Seek first the kingdom.” How can we do that if we pray only out of our own inner thoughts and feelings? One advantage of praying liturgical prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and the psalms is that they force us to reorient our minds and hearts around the priorities scripture reveals. We conform ourselves to the patterns we see therein. We “think God’s thoughts after God.” We “pray in God’s own words” and thus are conformed more and more in our inner beings to God’s priorities.
So, John Shea encourages us to pray the Lord’s Prayer meditatively, to see it as a form to follow, but not as a straitjacket that is always simply to be repeated. This is the same way Martin Luther encouraged his friends to pray, going line by line through the Lord’s Prayer and contemplating the meaning and application of each petition.
So inherited prayers can become mindless recitations and personal prayers can reflect ever-shifting states of egocentric anxiety or bliss. The first misses the richness of the Our Father and the second bypasses the Lord’s Prayer for whatever is currently capturing attention. Is there a prayer practice between these two actual but basically lower-level prayer possibilities?
One way is to engage the Our Father as a meditation text. This assumes the prayer has a “higher” mind than the ones praying; and the practice of praying it is to transfer this more evolved mind into the minds of the ones praying. This demands deliberative-ness, a disciplined attention that offsets the tendencies to mindless recitals. The prayer is memorized, but the negative effects of memorization are countered by a steady, inner attention. This mindfulness allows us to pray the words in a way that is in tune with their level of awareness, to pray them on their own terms, so to speak.
As a meditation text, the Our Father also provides a harness that is by no means a straitjacket. It charts channels for thoughts and feelings, and it encourages exploration. But it does not allow the mind to jump from thought to thought and feeling to feeling, turning each into prayer material. In this way the prayer quiets our incessant needs and opens for us to the reality that the gospels think is truly first, a first so inclusive that within it all our needs are strangely and surprisingly met.