On using a prayer book

On Using a Prayer Book

Photo by James Ogley, Flickr

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.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    Joel, my experience with the prayer book is almost identical. When I pray with my own words, I have a tendency to prescribe for God how He should behave. I am selfish and arrogant. The prayers in the prayer book are what I WANT to pray, even if the words would never occur to me on my own. And, like you, I find my heart following the words so that as I speak them they truly become my own.

    Excellent post.

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

    Thank you so much for this post. Extremely well said. I realized that pre-written prayers often serve as a “springboard” for me. I love how, on some days while praying with a prayer book, I’m propelled onto side-roads of prayers for paricular individuals or situation which are heavy on my heart. The written prayers serve to focus me on the truth of God’s purposes and powers and protect me from my presumptuous intentions or I-know-best attitude. His ways are perfect.

  • http://wmarkwhitlock.wordpress.com W. Mark Whitlock

    I haven’t used The Book of Common Prayer, but I love The Valley of Vision featuring compiled prayers from Puritans. It produces much of the same response in my prayer life as you mention about the Book of Common Prayer.

  • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Love this: “If spontaneity is the truest form of communication with God, then why aren’t all worship services jam sessions?” So true.

    I see a prayer book as a way to prime the pump and get the spiritual waters flowing.

    Excellent post!

  • Patty

    I think if we truly spent time with God in prayer with no limits on time in a church setting then perhaps the worship services would be jam sessions. You reminded me that I have a prayer book in this house somewhere and need to find it. I have been in a Bible study group focused on hearing God’s voice. It talks about spontaneity and that form of communicating. I get something from God everytime I do, I feel so blessed (I think there was one day when I didn’t and I couldn’t quiet myself down enough to communicate). Well I am off to look for that prayer book. Have a great day!

  • Ali

    This is a great post, Joel, and I have really enjoyed your essays on the Christian and spiritual life. I have one Orthodox prayer book that I used to carry in my purse, but I actually replaced it with the small psalter book put out by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. I find myself praying through some of the psalms daily as well as saying the Lord’s Prayer every day (often multiple times a day). For me the psalms cover a multitude of expressions toward God, and I am able to use them as a springboard to move on to my own personal prayer. And of course, I am really trying to cultivate a regular discipline of the Jesus Prayer (but that is for an entirely different post!). Thank you for the reminder of how wonderful prayer books are in aiding us to connect wih God.

  • http://joeljmiller.com joel j miller

    Ali: I love the HTM psalter and carry it with most places. I often use it to sing to my daughter at bed time. I think there is a lot of joy to be had in chanting the psalms.


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