Thursday, July 31, 2014

Form and Freedom in Prayer

"Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen."                                                        
The collect (opening prayer) quoted above is one of my favorite prayers from The Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church. The beauty of the prayer is that it welcomes an openness before God. I grew up among Southern Baptists who valued spontaneous impromptu prayers. The good thing about spontaneous prayer is that it encourages a conversational attitude that assumes God’s immediate proximity. The downside of spontaneous prayer is that there is often very little depth and a very narrow range of things expressed in prayer. Such prayers are often a quick “Thank you God for bringing us together, thank you for this lovely day, lead us and guide us, bring healing to my body and spirit, watch over our loved ones, etc.” Sometimes a spontaneous prayer will be one of thanksgiving and praise; often it will be a plea for help. All of these things are elements that belong in the realm of prayer but it is quite easy to remain very superficial and perfunctory with these types of prayers. One can go for years hearing very little variation from a handful of prayers. I have heard many fervent spontaneous prayers, and have participated in many such prayers, but I have also learned two other approaches that revolutionized my concept of what happens in prayer. Public liturgical prayer and personal prayer with the Rosary have added new dimensions to my devotional practices.                                                                                                                      
Public Prayer

In my spiritual pilgrimage, I moved on to explore modes of prayer found in Episcopal and Catholic traditions. My first introduction to liturgical worship was at an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Church. When I first arrived, my attitude was that I would learn a new language for worship. I soon realized that the act of coming together for corporate prayer broadened my concept of prayer. My prayerful thoughts were turned toward the community and the world, but in specific details that caused me to examine my own life.

I heard prayers for creation, for our wise use of resources, and for justice and equity. I heard prayers for leaders, calling them by their first names (which forced me to see them as vulnerable people in need of prayer, regardless of political issues). I was guided to pray for things I might not have thought of on my own, but all were matters that were vital. Moreover, the process of praying helped me to let go of petty differences and to examine what I was doing to help bring about a more just and equitable world.  

Private Prayer

Another thing has affected my prayer life for the better is the Rosary. The basic concept of the Rosary is to use a string of beads to count prayers as they are said so that you pray one “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer) and ten “Hail Marys” in a series of five “decades,” or five repetitions of ten prayers focused on the Blessed Mother, each cycle separated by the Our Father. It is traditional to begin by reciting the Apostle’s Creed. There is also a series of meditations from the life of Christ called “mysteries” that are attached to the use of the Rosary*.

As I began to learn the Rosary, however, I found it more helpful to focus on the repetitive prayers. I thought at first that I would come back and practice meditating on the mysteries, but the simple use of the Hail Mary and the Our Father were so effective in bringing about a meditative state, I never did get back to contemplating the mysteries or reciting the creed. I kept it at a basic stripped down form. Years later I would hear Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr affirm my own intuitive take on the Rosary in a recorded talk he gave on “Emotional Sobriety.” He said that the Rosary had the potential for meditative practice, but that it had become so cluttered with other things that its original purpose had been crowded out. I was glad to receive affirmation that my pared down Rosary practice was not a neglecting of the gift but rather a true doorway to spiritual practice.

Structure Giving Rise to Freedom

The beauty of formally structured liturgical prayer is that it instructs me in things to pray about and it proceeds regardless of whether or not I feel like praying. The beauty of the Rosary is that it can focus me in quiet meditation even when I do not know what to pray or how to pray in a given circumstance. I also think that the interplay between masculine and feminine is a psychologically healthy practice to bring to meditation and prayer.                                          
I have found a freedom and renewed creativity in my spiritual practice through the structured forms of liturgical prayer and the Rosary. They both act as a center, a home base to which I can return. The key is to remember what Jesus said about spiritual structures: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NRSV) If we can remember that spiritual tools are to liberate us, not to enslave us to form, then we can hold the form lightly enough to benefit from it without being bound by it.             

*For information about praying the Rosary, the Dominican Fathers have a good resource at

Photo by Charles Kinnaird


1 comment:

  1. A very thought provoking post, Charlie. One well worth coming back to.


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