For the past several years my prayer life has included the use of a prayer book. I started with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and eventually came to use various Eastern Orthodox manuals.
I have experienced three basic reactions to my practice: (1) support, (2) curiosity, and (3) disapproval. Many have already discovered how useful prayer books can be, and some are lifelong users who cannot imagine a full prayer life without one. Others have few reference points for use of prewritten prayers but are intrigued and desire to know more. For some, however, prewritten prayers strike them as inauthentic and unspiritual. Their take seems to be that only spontaneously composed prayer is real prayer and that props like prayer manuals get in the way of true communication with God.
I grant that the use of a preformulated collection of prayers is uncommon to evangelical practice—but only sort of. Presbyterian, Reformed, and Lutheran believers often use prewritten prayers in their liturgies, particularly public confession of sin. Devotionals frequently feature prayers or suggestions for prayer. And what is the Sinner’s Prayer if not a precomposed formula designed to cover all the needful points in leading someone through a plea for salvation?
Looking at worship services might make for a useful comparison. We use psalms, hymns, and choruses that were written anywhere in the last three millennia (give or take). If spontaneity is the truest form of communication with God, then why aren’t all worship services jam sessions?
We write hymns and other worship songs because they communicate well the disposition of our hearts or help lead us to that disposition if we’re not there already, a place of worship where we stand before God and show gratitude for his love, mercy, and saving activity in our lives. They also allow people to join corporately in this holy undertaking. Prayer books serve the same three function vis-à-vis prayer.Confessing truth before God requires ideas and words. Sometimes (perhaps oftentimes) I do not have ideas and words that are accessible or acceptable. I must reach outside myself. The church provides the ideas and words in prayer manuals. They involve confession of sin, extolling the mercies of God, petitions for his outpouring of grace, and several other aspects of the devoted life that do not come naturally to me. What’s more these prayers are beautifully composed and express well the thoughts that they are trying to communicate—much the same as an Isaac Watts hymn.
By communicating well the thoughts, they help bring my mind and heart into alignment with my confession. If I am not feeling particularly prayerful, just starting to read the prayers begins to bring things in line with what God desires of me. By the time I’m done I have truly prayed and truly worshipped—because men composed prayers more than a thousand years ago that I can access today even when I’m not feeling particularly prayerful or worshipful. The idea follows St. Benedict’s formula, mens nostra concordet voci nostrae, “Our minds must agree with our voices.” To feel prayerful, start saying your prayers; the prayer book can get you into the spirit.
Finally, by following the prayers the church offers in its manuals, I am doing something hinted at in the title of the Anglican manual; I am sharing something in common with my fellow believers. Like a massive congregation of worshippers singing one heavenly chorus to the Lord—many hearts linked by one faith and one voice—so the diverse peoples of God offer up prayer in unison, bearing one another’s burdens.
I want to participate in that glorious endeavor, but I am not up to that task on my own. And so I am grateful beyond words that God through his church offers me help, my worn and wonderful prayer book.