When I was young, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. I went to CCD (aka Cathechism) classes. I memorized prayers. The Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Act of Contrition, the Act of Faith, the Act of Hope, the Apostles’ Creed, etc, etc, etc.
When I was a young adult, I was received into the Episcopal Church. Same faith, different man made structure, no infallible humans (in matters of the church or anything else). It suited me. There were some of the same prayers and some new ones that I liked. I didn’t have to memorize them, but when you say something often enough, it is etched into your memory anyway.
Now that I approaching 57, I’ve been considering the various prayer “waystations” I’ve visited along the way to where I am now.
I’ve learned about kinds of prayer: Praise, Petition (asking something for oneself), Confession, Intercession (asking for something for someone else) and Thanksgiving. I’ve read and heard about verbal vs nonverbal prayer; praying with the body; the practice of the presence of God; written or memorized vs spontaneous prayer; various types of meditation; praying in “tongues”; praying in song; praying in community vs praying alone.
I have found that everything has something to commend it to our use and not everything works for a person all the time.
I think when you’re young, praying in words – your own or memorized – is a great help. I know that, in my experience, it was easy to petition, give thanks, intercede or confess (well, maybe that was a bit less easy). Praise was something built into most memorized prayers, but it really didn’t mean that much as a child. I think praising God comes from experiencing God in your life – and most children just haven’t had enough time to find that place.
A note about age and memorized prayer. When I was a kid, we heard prayer in public school – generally the Lord’s Prayer. Every day, “Our Father, ….” I already knew it and didn’t think much of it. Everyone in the class seemed to know it. In stressful times, it was easy to fall back to – say it and repeat and repeat and … there was a rhythm and sameness that was soothing and reassuring. These days, I serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister and Visitor. One of my “duties” is assisting our priest at a monthly service at the local nursing home. There are usually 25 or so elders in various conditions and states of mental alertness. They have booklets to follow the service if they want to and some do. Some seem to doze. They quietly mumble the responses. Then we get to the Lord’s Prayer. Suddenly everyone participates – loudly and strongly – “Our Father …” Even elders who were seemingly “out of it” remember that prayer. So I think when we teach our children these few memorized, frequently used prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer, we give them an anchor that will keep them from going adrift in much of their lives.
I personally have a few other memorized prayers that I have learned along the way that seem to be particularly important to my own life. I think to be helpful, prayer has to be personal – it has to be tailored to the person who is praying. We don’t all fit the same mold.
At this point in my life, I find it very difficult to pray in words, especially the flowery ones you hear from some preachers. I guess I have come to try to “practice the presence of God” – to know every moment, in every task, that God is with me, knows what I need, loves me and wants to be with me. I do not need church or preacher to be in that place. I can find it equally doing laundry or being mesmerized by the Rocky Mountains. It becomes trite to me when I try to put into words what my soul is trying to say to God.
I still practice intercessory prayer – but not in a very literal way. I offer those I love or am concerned about to God in my heart with every thought of that person. I know it is God and not myself who can give them what they need or open their eyes/ears/minds. I very rarely ask for anything for myself. I know I will have what I need – my years have taught me that and I trust it. I sometimes wish I could “give” that trust to others, but it is something we each have to find in our own time and way. If I ask for something for myself these days, it is usually for the right words to say to someone else or the right way to try to help someone.
I have had times in my life when meditation has been of great value. These days, if I meditate, the only prayer that I can use is the “Jesus Prayer.” I’m sorry I’ve forgotten it’s source but I know it has been used by many Christian traditions. It’s quite simple and can be pared down to four words. The full prayer is: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The crux of the prayer: Lord Jesus have mercy. It can even be used on the treadmill, which I do from time to time.
I have felt the Spirit of God and have spoken in “tongues” but don’t feel it’s necessary for prayer. For me, it has happened when I have felt so close to God that I could not think – there were no words or ideas that would shape in my mind. It is, for me, always linked to great feelings of awe and praise and joy.
I don’t think any particular type of prayer or manner of praying is better than another. I truly think that whatever prayer can bring us closer to God is the right prayer – for that moment.
I think it matters less how you pray and more that you pray. I think prayer is our acknowledgement that we are not all knowing or all powerful, even though we often act as though we are. We are human – with flaws and imperfections. Prayer is our attempt to draw closer to the One who is without flaw and perfect – maybe then a little more of that will rub off on us.