Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Scripted Prayers

...if your soul wishes to pray in its own and not in other men's words, give it freedom." - St. Theophan the Recluse ("The Art of Prayer")

In a recent conversation, a Jehovah's Witness friend of mine raised the issue of "scripted prayers" (e.g., the Lord's Prayer).  She subtly suggested that those who offer such prayers are the hypocrites referred to in Chapter 6 of St. Matthew's Gospel.  The following verses appear to be of greatest relevance to her implicit claim:

Verse 1: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Verse 5: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” 

Verse 7: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

Her comments brought to mind a couple points worth mentioning.  If Jehovah’s Witnesses are similar to Evangelical Christians, then they prefer spontaneous (or “free-style”) prayer over the recitation of such composed prayers as the Our Father. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call those who pray the former "free-stylers", and those who pray the latter “reciters”. Here’s the important question: Isn’t it possible for free-stylers, as well as reciters, to display a fake righteousness to others (Verse 1), to pray like hypocrites (Verse 5), or to babble like pagans (Verse 7)? If it is possible, then one cannot logically conclude from Chapter 6, alone, that reciting composed prayers is in some sense wrong or unhelpful.  Speaking personally, when I'm struggling for the appropriate words or am distracted, I've found that, as both a free-styler and a reciter, my prayers suffer. 

Beyond the Scriptures, one must understand that spontaneous prayers are not discouraged in the Orthodox Church (nor, I suspect, in the Roman Catholic Church). My sense is that some critics assume that our prayer life is monopolized by scripted prayers, when, in fact, we are expected to free-style, as well. As 19th century Russian Orthodox saint, Theophan the Recluse, put it:

As you begin to accustom yourself to praying as you should  with prayers written by others, your own prayers and cries to God will well up in you.  Never neglect these aspirations to God that manifest themselves in your soul.  Every time that they arise, be still, and pray with your own words; nor think that in so praying you do harm to prayer itself.  No: it is just in this way that you pray as you should , and this prayer ascends more quickly to God than any other.