“I like praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” says Leah Libresco
because, at a bare minimum, it gives me something to say to God. Not just the words of the prayers but, basically, “I’m really grateful for prayer traditions because I’d pretty much suck at having to make all this up on my own.” Instead of just being grateful for language period, it’s kind of like being grateful for slang — the shared set of references that characterize a relationship or a community.
Jennifer Fulwiler addresses a related phenomenon when she speaks of praying the Liturgy of the Hours: She realizes that, when the words don’t apply to her life, that’s a good thing, because she is praying as part of the Body of Christ. She says,
I found myself saying “we” and “our” more often than “I” and “mine.”
We all need the discipline of praying about things that are not immediately relevant to our needs. She says,
It all finally clicked. For the first time, I think I really understood the power of the Liturgy of the Hours as the universal prayer of the Church …
As my heart swelled to think of the great drama playing out all over the world that morning of which I was only a small part, I thought back to my words at the beginning of the office — “But this Psalm doesn’t have anything to do with me!” — and realized that I had learned something critically important about prayer: It’s not all about me.”
This is not to say that we can never pray about things that do concern us. But in my experience, the formal, selfless, ritualized prayer comes first, before there can be any depth of sincerity in individual prayer.
We can, for instance, try to flog our hearts into a sensation of awe during the consecration, but we probably won’t get anywhere. But if we simply humbly accept what is being offered, and obediently participate in the ritual of thanksgiving, that is what lays the groundwork for heartfelt awe and wonder.
So both kinds of prayer are necessary for us and pleasing to God — both the formal, “ready-made” prayers that we participate in as an act of will, and the personal, immediate outpourings of our own soul.
Praying only in own language is limiting and inadequate — but so, I believe, is only ever praying in the formalized language of the Church, because it’s all too easy to keep it formulaic, and to forget that prayer is conversation, and conversation implies a relationship.
We ought to pray, at least some of the time, in our “native tongue.” Leah has already discovered this:
When I think of immaterial things, I tend to think of Morality, which might not be that bad as a focus of prayer, even if I need to expand it out a little. The trouble is I also think of Math, and since it’s much easier to think about clearly and distinctly, I was running into a problem. I certainly wasn’t intending to pray to the Pythagorean theorem (which would make me a very strange sort of pagan), but I was drifting away from trying to talk to a Person and over to just thinking about immaterial ideas.
And kudos to her for noticing the problem!
So, basically, instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind. I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends. Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things. In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”
And that meant I was basically thinking about a person and a relationship again. In my own weird little way.
Brilliant. Leah is drawn to truth; it’s her native tongue. For others, it’s goodness; for me, it’s beauty. Pythagoras doesn’t do much for me, but corn on the cob bubbling away in my blue enamel pot as the steam sifts through a shaft of evening light? This is something I invariably hold up to God, so we can delight in it together.
The saints all found different ways of praising God according to who they are, according to the native language He gave to them. And so we have St. Francis in his tattered robe, and also Josemaria Escriva with his precisely groomed hair; King David with his wild dancing, and Mother Theresa washing wounds. All of them related to God with some combination of formal language inherited from the Church, and spontaneous outpourings of their particular kinds of heart. These individual orientations are not something to struggle against; they are languages which God gives us so we can sing love songs to Him.
Do you speak to God in your native tongue? Or do you hide your personality from Him? Do you compartmentalize your spiritual life from your daily experience? Or can you remember that everything that is good comes from God?
This is the main thing to remember when we pray, and when we live our daily lives: “He the source, the Ending He.” Both root of idea and flower of expression. Here’s Hopkins:
the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
This is how we become more like Christ: by allowing God to refine who we already are. We become more like Him by speaking to Him in our native tongue. If, like Leah Libresco, we are looking for “something to say to God,” we could hardly do better than, “Here is what I am, Lord. Make me more like You.”
This post originally ran in a slightly different form in the National Catholic Register in 2012.
Image: The Astronomer by Johannes Vermeer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons