When Our Own Words Aren't Enough: Personal vs. Traditional Prayer

A confessed 'prayer snob' discovers the wisdom of ancient words.

BY: Amy Welborn

Reprinted from "The Words We Pray: Discovering the Richness of Traditional Catholic Prayers" with permission from Loyola Press.

It was the 1970s, and I was a student in a Catholic high school, so of course I learned to pray.

I learned how to meditate on flickering candle flames, a budding flower in a vase, and the ceiling tiles. I was guided in contemplation of songs by James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel and Bread, and if it was a "really good" prayer experience, I cried.

Although I shake my head over it now, I can see how all of that practice took me to a point in my senior year when, on our class retreat with Jesuits in Atlanta, I could immerse myself in a bit of

lectio divina

centered on John's Passion account, be in the presence of the Presence, and give myself over to what I finally knew was real.

I still remember that encounter, and in a way I still feel the effects of it. So if contemplating (and crying to) "You've Got a Friend" helped get me there, it was good. But the bad part was that such experiences made me a bit of a prayer snob. The message I absorbed and lived with for a good long time was that the only real prayer was mental prayer-that very personal and subjective experience that was mine alone-and that anything else, especially if it involved praying with words that someone else had written, was definitely not worth my time. Only children repeated memorized prayers and then closed their eyes to go to sleep. It was what the less enlightened did for penance-repeated memorized prayers and assumed they were taken care of. Rote recitation of prayers written by dead people was not the practice of a spiritually mature person.

But then, I visited a monastery for a weekend of retreat.

As night fell, I sat in the back of the monastery chapel, struggling to follow along as the monks prayed Compline, the final prayer of the day. And then, as Compline drew to a close and night settled, the monks started singing.

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy

It was what all monks sing at the end of Compline, everywhere. The Salve Regina. I had never heard it before in my life.

Our life, our sweetness and our hope.

The chant drifted through the chapel, settling around us like stars emerging from the night sky.

To thee do we cry, Poor banished children of Eve

Yes. I cry, banished, my own shortsightedness and failure bringing tears to the lives of others. What could I do?

To thee do we send up our sighs, Mourning and weeping In this valley of tears.

All of us. My babies. My disappointed parents. Me.

Turn then, most gracious Advocate, Thine eyes of mercy towards us,


O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!

The monks raised their voices in hope at the end of each phrase, and then paused a great pause in between, letting the hope rise and then settle back into their hearts. My own heart rushed, unbidden by me, uncontrolled, right into those pauses and joined the prayer. A prayer written by a eleventh-century bedridden brother, chanted by monks in the middle of Georgia, and joined by me and the silent folk scattered in the pews around me, each with his or her own reasons to beg the Virgin for her prayers.

My days as a prayer snob were over.

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