Be a Prayer

Should we say our prayers or read them?

Some fairly strong opinions on the subject have driven people one direction or the other in their search for a place to worship.  Baptists will extol the virtues of extemporaneous prayers.  Catholics will celebrate the written prayers of the church and rely on them with regularity.  Other denominations are scattered across the spectrum in between.

People can also be fairly passionate about their commitments.  For some Episcopalians the Bible is just The Book of Common Prayer taken out of context.  Others have argued that written prayers are just about as bad for you spiritually as anything you can do.

Judith Maltbey, who is the Chaplain and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, notes that, ironically, it was an Anglican curate who protested in the early seventeenth century:

I am perswaded that the reading of Common prayer hath beene the meanes of sending many souls to hell.  That booke of Common prayer doth stinke in the nostraills of god.  The reading of Common prayers is as bad or worse than the mumbling of the masse upon beades.

The problem with the solutions offered at either end of the debate over how to pray — like most of the answers offered from the vantage point of two extremes — is that a lot of truth is lost in the search for simple solutions.  So, a bit of balance might be helpful:

Both kinds of prayer are legitimate and each emphasizes a different aspect of prayer without excluding the possibilities offered by the other.

Extemporaneous prayers are the stuff of a lived relationship with God. If you can’t imagine talking to God without an aid to the conversation, it may mean that you are not particularly familiar with God, never mind prayer.   Extemporaneous prayer requires a lively, contemporary sense of God’s presence.

On the other hand, written prayers keep that conversation from being all about you.  The Prayers of the People that you find in The Book of Common Prayer were written with the breadth of God’s work and the needs of all of God’s people in mind.

The combination of the two, then, also speaks to the way we are formed spiritually.  Extemporaneous prayer stresses the first hand, existential nature of the Christian life.  Written prayers can serve to deepen our understanding of the Christian pilgrimage, reminding us of the ways in which we share this life with God and with others.

In the final analysis, neither form of prayer is a guarantee that we will be present to God, or deeply connected with the prayers that we say.  Without a deep desire for a relationship with God and a willingness to be present to God in the moment, prayers can be spoken, or read without any deep level of awareness.

As more than one person has noted, the way we pray is not nearly as important as living a life that becomes a prayer.

In the final analysis, when prayer goes awry, the problem almost always lies with the person praying and not with the prayer itself.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.