This article is part of my blog series inspired by Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice by James Alison.*
Do you recite the psalms during your Sunday worship? How about the Our Father? What about at home, in your private prayers –do written prayers play a role?
Reciting written prayers by rote leaves many people empty. It seems inauthentic to rely on someone else’s words. We want to be ourselves before God and so we feel that our prayers should arise from our deepest desires. Do you feel that way? If so, it’s probably because you have experienced the way in which prayers that come from the heart evoke a deep sense of connectedness to God. Often those prayers come without words. They erupt unbidden as a cry of anguish, a tear of grief, or a spasm of remorse. Such authentic expressions of our longing for God’s comforting presence surely need no words.
Of course there are also the prayers we pray with our own words. They are often petitions for healing, peace, or comfort. But prayers in which we remind God of what needs doing are a maybe a bit inauthentic, too. I mean, doesn’t God already know about these things? Does he really need persuading to do the right thing? Maybe behind our petitions is a little desire to impress God with how noble, good and generous we are. I’m just saying!
Maybe the truth is what we really, truly want is too embarrassing to admit to, even before God. Not that I know from personal experience, but we might long for whatever will give us an advantage over others. Who doesn’t want to be the winner, whatever the contest, or have more money or prestige? And who among us has not prayed for the perfect parking space? We might utter that last one in jest, but the one thing it has going for it is authenticity! James Alison calls these embarrassing prayers our “smelly little desires” and he rightly observes that we usually put a stopper on them. We prefer to pray the desires we think God wants us to have. And though we reject the inauthenticity of written prayers, our own prayers can be even worse when we use them to win God’s approval.
So let’s give written prayers a second look because I think there is a very good reason for us to pray them. A few years ago, I adopted the habit of praying one part of the Liturgy of the Hours – a serious practice of praying by rote that goes back to the early days of Christianity. It’s called the Office of Readings and the Universalis program offers it with two options. You can pray the same psalms every day or opt for a variation. I opted for the variation. The psalms rotate through a regular cycle, but at least I don’t get the exact same ones every morning.
It seems that the more familiar the psalm the more my mind wanders away from my devotion to mundane things. Psalm 100 is a real problem for me. It is way too familiar – so short that I tasked my students in bible camp one year to memorize it and I did too. But recently when Psalm 100 came up in the cycle, I heard something new in verse 3:
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.Typically when I read this I am annoyed with the psalmist for making such an obvious statement about God. For heaven’s sake, who doesn’t know that God is our Creator! But on this morning I realized that this prayer was not meant to be mine, but was God’s prayer for me! The unassuming, little Psalm 100 was God speaking directly to my doubts and insecurities. I heard God saying, “Don’t you know, dear one, that I made you? I am the one revealed to you by my Son, the one who loves you more than you will ever know. You are my child, a precious sheep whom I will never abandon. Why do you ever doubt that I love you?”
Much to my surprise, I felt relieved that I needn’t be ashamed of my smelly, little desires for parking spaces or recognition or even for revenge on the guy who cut me off in traffic. God knows what they are, even when I try to hide them from myself, and get this – they don’t matter to God! God loves me, shameful mess that I am, and nothing can change that. What made that revelation possible? Well, rather than trying to affect God’s behavior or impress God with the nobility of my desires, Psalm 100 turned the tables on me. It allowed me to be shaped by an encounter with God’s desire for me.
James says that this is “the urgent reason why we need to pray: so as to allow the One who knows what is good for us, unlike us ourselves, whose desire is for us and for our fruition… to gain access to re-creating us from within… [when we pray] we are asking to become a symptom of his pattern of desire.” (426) So James encourages us to pray our grand prayers and our smelly ones, but also not to neglect the written prayers of our tradition. They are especially good at freeing us from our need to be “authentic”. Don’t worry if the prayers feel boring or repetitive, just keep at it because sometimes we encounter the most authentic experiences of God where we least expect to find them.
*Years ago, just when I was about to give up on Christianity as irrelevant to my life, I stumbled across the work of James Alison. He helped me encounter a God of mercy who loved me more than I could imagine – what a gift! So when he asked for help to produce his course of introduction to Christianity, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, I jumped at the chance. All proceeds from sales of the course go to support the website, translations, promotion, and James’ living and travel expenses. James is an independent scholar and itinerant preacher and is very grateful for your support. James and I both pray that this blog series and the course itself will be a meaningful part of your journey toward a deeper faith and fuller life in Christ. You can learn more about the course and purchase it at our store.
For other parts of this series see: