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.
The most important quality of any prayer is that it come from the heart and that it be honest. We don't pray to prove anything or to manipulate God into seeing things our way. We pray in order to draw closer to God, and we can't do that unless we're honest. So yes, mental prayer that is rooted in our own thoughts is a vital part of that communication.
But are there times when our own words aren't enough?
My mother was an expert at this sort of thing, at using the finely wrought words of others to make her own point. Every birthday, she sent out cards to me or her grandchildren, cards that might be unremarkable on the outside, but which on the inside she had copied, from one of her many reference books and anthologies, a most appropriate poem, all the more surprising because it was probably penned by some obscure eighteenth-century British poet. But somehow it always fit; it always captured who we were and, more important, who we could become.
We might try looking at these traditional prayers in the same way. St. Paul says that we "do not pray as we ought." (Romans 8:26) He helps us see that in the face of the complexity of life, of our great yearning, and of the mystery of God, it can be almost impossible to come up with the words that capture the depth of our feelings, especially when we are distracted by grief or fear.
At those times, it helps to have someone else's words in front of us, words from the psalmist or one of the saints that express our need in a way that requires no more of us than we can give during a difficult time.
These words are also gifts from the past, connecting us to something very important: the entirety of the Body of Christ, as it was then, as it is now, and as it will be to come.
How many billions of times have Christians recited the Lord's Prayer? How many lips, both Jewish and Christian, have murmured the ancient words of the Psalms?
There is a sense in which each of us is alone in the universe. At the end, there is no one but us and God. We are beholden to no one but him, and he is the one we face with an accounting of how we have used this gift called life.
But we are not alone. Every child stumbling through the words of the Lord's Prayer, offering up simple prayers for simple needs out of the simplest, deepest love-every one of those children has countless companions lisping through the same pleas, and we are among those companions.
We're not alone. And when we pray these ancient prayers, in the company of the living and the dead, we know this.
These ancient prayers, worn and prayed by millions, bring a sense of a wider context to our experience. They reflect the experience of the ages, the experience of those who have not only been in the mess we're in but endured to the other side of it and seen its purpose.
These prayers-conceived in the womb of God's people, brought to birth, and nurtured by their experiences of hope and faith-are treasures worth rediscovering. They put our yearnings and questions in a context in which they will be answered by the wisdom of the holy ones and the revelatory word of God rather than kept in the confines of the present moment.
That night in the monastery, it was hope I was looking for. Hope that God still loved me. Hope that my children would be all right. Hope that good could come out of the whole blasted mess.
I could have sat there for hours, by myself in silence, wondering, alone. But thanks be to God, I didn't have to. In the prayers written centuries ago and kept alive by my fellow Christians over those same centuries, I found a different kind of path to mental prayer, which means, when you get down to it, another way to collapse the wall and just be more fully present to God. On this path made of well-worn and polished words, I found a way to hope that was true to my own experience and yet took me beyond it, beyond my own vision of what was wrong, to share in God's vision of what was right.