Common Ground? Prayer

Do Catholics and Protestants share common ground on the subject of prayer? Certainly!  After all, both groups pray often and fervently, both pray to God in Jesus’ Name, and both expect that God will hear and answer their prayers. Some Protestants have the misconception that Catholics somehow can’t pray directly to God but are taught to go through a priest, or through Mary or the other saints. Considering how often Catholics pray the Our Father, that’s kind of hard to claim with a straight face. Read Church history! Read the lives of the saints! Visit a Catholic Mass! Any one of those would disabuse a skeptic of such a silly notion. Every Catholic who goes to confession is required to pray directly to God:

My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong

and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above

all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more,

and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and

died for us. In His name, my God, have mercy.

Yet, this example illustrates a difference between Evangelical and Catholic approaches to prayer. Those who consider themselves Evangelical Protestants wouldn’t be caught dead reciting a formula prayer like the above-cited Act of Contrition. Why not? Because Jesus forbade it!

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Mt 6:7 (KJV)

Evangelicals have concluded, based on this verse in the Gospel of Matthew, that memorizing a prayer and reciting it, or reading a prayer aloud out of a book, is the “vain repetition” that Jesus warned against. Yet the words of more modern Protestant Bible translations make clear that this wasn’t what Jesus was warning against at all:

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans…. (NIV)

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…. (ESV)

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do…. (NASB)

In other words, Jesus forbade “babbling,” “empty phrases,” and “meaningless repetition” – hardly what a Catholic is doing when he prays for forgiveness using the deeply meaningful words of the Act of Contrition. After all, Evangelicals understand the concept of “praying the Psalms,” clearly a highly meaningful practice. Someone could thoughtlessly recite Psalm 23, but that does not make the practice of praying the Psalms equivalent to “babbling” – it just means that someone could turn it into babbling if they weren’t careful. Evangelicals want to find some kind of blanket condemnation of the Catholic practice of reciting pre-written prayers (explaining that reciting psalms as a form of prayer is fine because it’s SCRIPTURE, while reciting anything else is dead Catholic ritual), but the fact is that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, can pray without sincerity or fervor, thereby making their prayers – pre-written or spontaneous – empty babbling. I know that, as an Evangelical, whenever I was called upon to pray in front of a group, it was my practice to “heap up empty phrases” with a vengeance! I was so self-conscious when praying aloud that all I could think to do was string together a plethora of pious platitudes and finish things off “in Jesus’ Name, Amen.” No one condemned my pious platitudes, because I wasn’t reading any of them off a piece of paper. I was, however, reciting from memory Protestant catch phrases like “Dear God, we just want to praise You, Lord, and give You thanks,” and “I really just want to pray, Lord, that you would really just touch someone here in a special way right now, Jesus” which in the churches I attended passed for spontaneity. My prayers under those circumstances meant pretty close to nothing. Contrast that performance with Catholic me, leading the Litany of the Most Sacred Heart now on First Fridays. I pray with deep love as I read the words – the litany is pre-written, I don’t have to come up with beautiful-sounding phrases, the focus isn’t on me, and I can forget myself and pray with all my heart:

Heart of Jesus, in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, have mercy on us!

Heart of Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Divinity, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, in whom the Father is well pleased, have mercy on us.

Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received, have mercy on us.

Litany – there’s another Catholic vocab word that gives Evangelicals the willies. Surely there are few things more unbiblical than a litany!

1 Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!

For His mercy endures forever.

2 Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!

For His mercy endures forever.

3 Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!

For His mercy endures forever:

4 To Him who alone does great wonders,

For His mercy endures forever;

5 To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,

For His mercy endures forever;

6 To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,

For His mercy endures forever….

That’s a litany found smack-dab in the middle of the Bible: Psalm 136, all 26 glorious responsorial verses. There’s nothing unbiblical about a litany, and there’s nothing unbiblical about pre-written prayers! You see, Evangelicals – who pray the Lord’s Prayer seldom to never (I was appalled to find out that my young children, who attended a Baptist academy and were memorizing all kinds of Bible verses, couldn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer with me) – tend to gloss over Jesus’ response when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray:

And He said to them, When you pray, say:

Our Father, Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be Thy Name!

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Luke 11:1-4

Our differing perspectives on prayer can be addressed by answering this one question: Why did the disciples even ask Jesus to teach them to pray? And why did Jesus humor them by giving them the Lord’s Prayer?

From a Protestant perspective this really makes little sense. If you prize spontaneity in prayer above all else, you would think that Jesus would have answered along these lines:

“Verily I say unto you, there is no right nor wrong when you pray. Speak simply and from the heart. Lay before the Father your needs, and your Father who is in Heaven will answer you, but be always careful to remember to give Him thanks and praise.”

That’s what a properly “Evangelical” Jesus would say. Yet strangely, when the disciples asked Jesus to “teach them to pray, as John the Baptist taught his disciples,” Jesus complied by giving them a prayer to recite. Could this mean that rote prayers have an essential place in our Christian training?

No question about it! There are several reasons why pre-written prayers are necessary and desirable:

First of all, pre-written prayers squelch the temptation to put on a performance. In a Protestant setting, whoever prays publicly is put in the position of “performing” – beautifully worded “spontaneous” prayers make a performance successful. In a Catholic setting, the words are already in place, and whoever prays them is not thereby drawing attention to himself – the focus is on the words of the prayer. Well-written, clearly expressed sentiments in a pre-written prayer can be a real aid to those praying along, since they need not attempt to decipher what the pray-er may have been getting at in a poorly thought-out, rambling prayer. Gossip, a constant hazard in an Evangelical prayer environment, is avoided altogether. (“And Lord, we just want to pray for those who didn’t show up tonight….”)

A second reason pre-written prayers are a great idea is because they provide a framework for growth. When we pray the Our Father with sincerity, those of us who are intent upon reminding our Father that we need our daily bread are also compelled to ask Him to forgive us, which brings to mind our sins – something we may have neglected to bother about in our concern over our earthly needs. We must then also ask ourselves if there is anyone whom we have not forgiven – something we might rather forget. In other words, pre-written prayers challenge us to step off our own little hamster wheel of “I need! I want! Oh, please! Oh, please! Oh, please!” They compel us to turn our thoughts towards God’s interests. We need that.

The third reason is evident in the giving of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus is teaching his disciples. Pre-written prayers are meant to teach us. When you recite the Our Father, you are being taught theological principles; each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is a learning opportunity: God’s will is our ultimate good, and our goal must be to see to it that His will is done here in our lives just as it is done in Heaven. That may mean that our requests will not be answered as we would hope, yet God is the Giver of all good things; He is the One we must go to for our needs. We must forgive those who have hurt us – no ifs, ands or buts. Otherwise, God will not forgive us. We must realize that we may be tempted to be unfaithful; we need to ask God to deliver us, and not rely on our willpower alone. Each of these issues is something that we may question (indeed, there are whole Protestant denominations that question whether one must actually forgive in order to be forgiven, or whether a true believer can fall into serious sin). In reciting the Our Father, and every other pre-written prayer of the Church, we are taught certain truths of the Faith.

The Litany of Humility is an excellent example of prayer as a framework for growth and a learning opportunity. Imagine a person who realizes that she lacks humility. She will spontaneously pray, “Jesus, I am so proud! Help me to be humble!!” This is a very good prayer! But in reciting the Litany, she will come to an entirely new perspective on what she’s up against and whence her help comes:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus!

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus!

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus!

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That, in the opinion of the world, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it!

This prayer is not merely a petition for assistance – praying it actually begins the process of making us humble, and the last line is a powerful guard against pride concerning our own spiritual accomplishments. How often we fail to grow in humility because as soon as we make a tiny bit of progress, we are overcome by a sense of pride at how humble we have become! Just make me as holy as You want me to be, Jesus – then make everyone else even holier….

I never would have thought to pray like that!

That’s what written prayers can accomplish, provided that they are used properly and not as magical incantations or “empty phrases.” Written prayers will take your spiritual life to a whole new level if you let them. And that’s the take-away here for Evangelicals – you have to let them!


On the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Gina Nakagawa said:

    I’m saving all these Renee. Perhaps you could gather them into a book sometime. The thoughts are wonderful and clear and make so much sense. God bless you always.

    • Aww… thank you, Gina! If you’re getting anything out of this, it must be courtesy of the prayers of St. Raphael, patron of this blog!

  2. Sheesh – I wrote a really good comment, a monument, in fact, to the combox art. A comment so excellent future comboxers would read it, fall into a stunned silence, and gently weep at its sublime depth.

    And the system ate it.

    OK, maybe not that good, but it was at least OK, and now I have to do it again. And the muse may not be awakened at the beck of mere mortals!

    Sorry, I’m a little punchy – Pro-life Mass, West Coast Walk for Life, fundraising dinner, heading out for Adoration in a bit. I’m about holy-ed out.

    Anyway: good post! Once cracked up a friend by commenting on how ‘I just want to thank you Jesus!’ prayers seemed to make up the bulk of the evangelical service she took me to, apart from the sermon. Yea, sublime and creative intercession it ain’t.

    Today, had a intense experience praying the rosary out loud during the walk for life – over and over again, praying over the ‘fruit of thy womb’ and ‘at the hour of our death’ just got to me. Freed from having to think up words to say, the Spirit is able to break us down a little.

    Finally, have you heard Audry Assad’s song “I Shall Not Want”? It’s a sort of riff on the Litany of Humility.

    My style runs more toward chant and polyphony, but this is good.

    • I apologize for the evil “system” – it has eaten parts of various posts of mine, and I have then had to re-insert those parts, but they show up in teeny-tiny print, and refuse to be enlarged…. Oh, the travails of bloggerdom.

      Very, very pleased that you were able to walk the Walk. I trust the weather was a tad more cooperative there than it was here for the March. Someone who has never prayed the Rosary or any pre-written prayer simply can’t fathom the way God can work through those words. The best part is that they’re not your genius idea or mine, so we can’t get all possessive or proud of our creative accomplishment! When the Holy Spirit works through them it’s deeply private.

      I’ve been an Audrey Assad fanatic ever since Joseph Richardson at The Lonely Pilgrim posted this link to her “For Love of You.”

      I’ve listened to it again and again, and still burst into tears when she gets to the part about “your Sacred Heart within me beating.” She’s a convert from Protestantism, you know, and I think she’s the prime illustration of what we’re talking about when we reference “the best of both worlds.” In “I Shall Not Want” she’s taken the Litany of Humility, internalized it and made it her own. Yeah. That’s what we’re talking about.

  3. Kala Nila said:

    I remember one time in VBS when I was a little girl that, for some reason, the Our Father was recited and I felt good because I didn’t know the words. After all, prayer needs to be spontaneous and in the spot. :/ I’ve finally learned the Our Father and I love how, every time I say it, there’s something else that I’m gleaning from it, something else that the Lord is teaching me.

    Just as you have said, it helps to have pre-written prayers because sometimes we have no words to accurately express what needs to be said. I have trouble finding what to say, especially in prayer. And so, I used to feel so not-holy because I couldn’t pray straight for one hour, half hour, or even fifteen minutes! But a pre-written prayer puts on my lips what is in my heart but I would never even know how to articulate.

    • Exactly – I am absolutely flabbergasted that I am able to spend so much time in prayer now. With every prayer opportunity I learn and grow. Maybe I’m somehow deficient, but my prayers as a Protestant really didn’t amount to anything very impressive….

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