Perhaps after dedicating oneself to the life of prayer for awhile, there is a tendency to think of vocal prayer as not real prayer. Prayer, after all, is more than saying prayers.
If one has responded seriously to the call to meditation and contemplation, one may easily see vocal prayer as the lowest rung on the ladder of prayer. In fact, that's exactly where St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great masters of prayer, puts it.
But even if it is the lowest rung, praying with words is an essential part of human prayer. Words are how we give meaning to our experience, state our commitments and communicate with others. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "we experience the need to translate our feelings externally" (no. 2702).
Maybe we associate vocal prayer with mindless repetition of formula prayers and we want a spiritual life with greater depth than that. In the post-Christian Western world, if people are going to bother with a life of faith, they will want forms of prayer which go deeper than mindless repetition.
Yet even repetition can be an important form of prayer as long as it is not mindless. The repetitive chants developed by the Taize community in France, for example, can be a useful means of disposing one's mind and heart to prayer. The repetition of Hail Marys in the rosary can serve as a background for meditating on the mysteries of salvation.
The issue is not whether vocal prayer is a worthy form of prayer but rather how we ought to use vocal prayer. We must, above all, pray with attention and with devotion. In defining prayer, the Catechism quotes the straightforward statement of St. John Damascene: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God" (no. 2559). When one is distracted or reciting prayers mindlessly, one is not praying. But if one is speaking simply to God from the heart then one's prayer is real.
Prayer is difficult partly because God does not speak directly to us the way people do. God has other ways of responding to our words. And so, this can leave us confused about how to speak to God. But if there is a rule about how to pray vocally, it is that simplicity is better than complexity. That was Jesus' advice: "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do" (Matthew 6:7).
God wants us to share ourselves with him, not to try to impress him with big speeches. We can speak from our hearts and from our experience in words which seek or accept God's will and which express faith, hope and love. Usually there is not a lot to say. Sometimes it is difficult to say anything. However, the late Father Roman Guardini advised that "If words do not come easily, we should not immediately resort to established texts; we should subject ourselves to the discipline of inner poverty. We may learn lessons from it which no sacred books can teach us" (The Art of Praying, p. 99).
But one should also pray using established prayers, ranging from the Lord's Prayer to Psalms to New Testament canticles (such as Luke 1:46-55, Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:12-20), to prayers written by holy men and women. These are not our words. And because they are not ours, they can stretch our souls, challenge us, make us better able to love in ways that our own prayers cannot. These words come from outside us, take us by the hand and lead us to God.
When we talk to our friends, the words we choose to employ say a lot about who we are. But, more than that, they also form our personalities. If I use coarse language, for example, it not only shows that there is coarseness in my soul, it also helps us to solidify that coarseness and spread it further.
Likewise, the words I use in speaking to God both express myself and form me. If I am always asking God for the gifts he has given, then my prayer actually solidifies my self-centredness. But if much of my prayer consists in asking the Holy Spirit to enter my soul so that I may praise and thank the Lord, I am being formed into a person through whom God feels welcome to act.
The old saying "Be careful what you pray for or you might actually get it" is true in a much broader sense than in terms of our prayers of petition. The way one prays and the words one uses do much to determine what sort of person one is. Vocal prayer has a crucial role in the life of one who seeks to know God.
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