The early-morning scripture-study class that I teach was studying the Lord's Prayer, located in Matthew 6:9-13. To my amazement, only four of the 17 teenaged students knew the Lord's Prayer by heart--two because they were Protestant converts, and two because they sang it in a school chorus.

Not having been raised Mormon, I was stunned. I have heard about LDS anxieties concerning "vain repetitions," but this struck me as extreme, especially since Christ Himself uses it as the prime example of how to pray. Surely there is room to memorize eloquent passages like this and muse on their potent meanings. If "give us this day our daily bread" starts creeping into the vocabulary of Mormon prayers, that wouldn't be so bad, would it?

Indeed, some stock phrases in prayer seem inevitable, even in Mormon prayers. After my discovery about the Lord's Prayer, I had my students make a list of all the catchphrases they could think of that are used in typical Mormon public prayers. Here they are: <>

  • Let no harm or accident befall us.
  • Bless the hands that prepared it.
  • Nourish and strengthen our bodies.
  • Take us home in safety.
  • Bless the sick and afflicted.
  • Bless those who aren't here that they can come next time.
  • I'm sure you can think of others. I learned about one during a rain-drenched spring in Boston. My sister-in-law from Utah was visiting and said a blessing on the dinner meal. In it she included a word of thanks "for the moisture." I'd been muttering all week about our soggy days, but Sarah had the good grace to see beyond our inundation and acknowledge the rain as a blessing and a bounty. We could have done with a little less of that particular bounty, but Sarah had the right idea. Although I insisted that Sarah's kind heart was inspired in that prayer, I later learned that praying about "the moisture" is a common phrase in Utah and the other dry desert homes of the Latter-day Saints.

    One of my students brought up the issue of "Thee and Thou" speech. The standard pitch is that this formal language is the most appropriate for public prayers in church meetings because it is the most respectful. I am always amused by this. Thee and Thou have roots in old European languages, like the German "Du" form, which is in fact the less formal mode of address. It is the form used for intimate associates. It carries the feel of "Daddy" instead of "Sir." I have no objection to using "Thee and Thou" in my prayers precisely because I prefer the intimacy. That is the mood I want in my prayers. Respectful and intimate are not mutually exclusive.

    I gave the students a short grammar lesson about when one uses "thee," "thou," "thine," and "thy." This is a great opportunity for developing language skills and preparing students for foreign language study. The question of whether it enhances or interferes with a person's willingness and ability to pray in public is still under debate.

    As for stock phrases, the students decided that stock phrases are bad if they are just filler--words without thought or sincerity. But what if you really do want to arrive home safely? Is it wrong to use a phrase if it actually communicates the intent of your heart?

    This brings to mind a book signing I attended where Janet Fitch, author of "White Oleander," read from her novel and spoke briefly. She said that one of her instructors gave her this advice: "A cliché is any phrase you have ever heard or read anywhere before." While writing her book, Fitch followed this advice by conjuring fresh images and vivid, original descriptions. I find the effect satisfying, but others complain that the novel sounds too much like a writing exercise designed to craft unusual images. Could it be that the occasional familiar phrase has a place?

    The Book of Mormon records many prayers, but a particularly significant one is in Alma 22:18. Aaron, a zealous missionary to the Lamanite people around 90 B.C., teaches a king about the reality of God and the message of salvation. Aaron is savvy enough to eliminate clichés and define a common vocabulary. (Read Alma 22:7-16 for this exchange.) The king's first prayer inspires me. It is stripped to bare essentials and spoken with fervor. It is raw with a combination of fledgling faith, primal simplicity, and a distillation of the gospel's promises:

    "O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day."

    This prayer, though said in the company of Aaron and the king's servants, was as personal as personal gets. In less urgent settings, do our public prayers and our private ones call for different kinds of language? Does addressing God on behalf of a group differ from our personal conversations with the Divine?

    Certainly there are distinctions. Communal concerns are not (generally) the same as our private anxieties and struggles. They may overlap, but details, and often fervency, differ. In each case, isn't it more a matter of the heart than of the tongue?

    This is my plan. I will use the "Du" form to my God and Thy God in public for our common concerns. For the rest, I will do what I can to pray--as my students suggest--with sincerity and as few stock phrases as possible, to keep my brain and soul sharp. For all my prayers, I lean on my favorite scriptural insight into the topic from Romans 8:26: "[T]he Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."

    more from beliefnet and our partners
    Close Ad