I came from a faith tradition that highly valued spontaneous prayers and devalued liturgical prayers. If a prayer arose from one’s own heart and mind, that meant it was real. Praying someone else’s words didn’t seem as genuine.
This preference for extemporaneous prayers is based on the assumption that anything spontaneously arising from my present mindset is actually real. Except sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes what I thought was heartfelt spontaneity was really a kind of autopilot prayer that I could hardly remember when I finished.
I’ve discovered that the value of liturgical prayer, or of writing out my prayers instead of offering them impromptu, is the intention with which I pray them. As I pray the words, do I affirm their truth? Do I intend to offer my thanks, my praise, my requests, my concerns to God through the vehicle of these written prayers?
I’ve learned that it is possible to pray spontaneously with little actual intention. The liturgy of time-tested and historical prayers can be replaced by the liturgy of habitual words and phrases: “Lord Jesus, I just come and pray, Father God, that you would just bless us, Father God, and help us as we serve you. Amen.” Granted, that could be a perfectly fruitful prayer if it is spoken from the heart and not from empty habit.
There are times when I will overhear a spontaneous prayer and sincerely wonder what the person praying actually intends. They are clearly saying words that they mean to be directed to God as prayer, but the words themselves sound like something they’ve likely repeated out of habit. It can become a kind of meaningless spontaneity.
It has helped me, when I am praying spontaneously (which I do plenty) to take a second or two to be silent before I speak. This is especially helpful in any public prayer.
I let my heart and mind become attentive to the reality of God with me. I remember that I am not informing God of anything he does not already know as if he were ignorant. I am not trying to interest God in my concerns as if he were indifferent. I am not counseling God about the best course of action in addressing my concerns as if God had no good ideas.
Instead, I pray with an awareness of God’s loving knowledge of my life, relationships, and situations. I pray knowing that God is already involved and is, in fact, at work in whatever concerns me. I pray remembering that God is not somewhere far off, as though the heavens were in another sector of the universe, but that the kingdom of the heavens is closer to me than the earthly space in which I find myself.
I can pray with few words because so often my many words are an unnecessary attempt to inform God, recruit God, even force God’s hand to action. I can pray simply because God was already aware and engaged before I spoke. These are the things that liturgical prayers have helped me remember. At their best, they have captured this wisdom in time-tested language.
I also love that liturgical prayer is there for me at times when my capacity for spontaneous prayer is zero. In my young seasons of faith, I seemed to have limitless energy for self-expression in prayer. But over the years there have been many seasons when I’ve had almost nothing to say in prayer. That isn’t an expression of disinterest or apathy on my part; rather, it’s an acknowledgment of how much I don’t know about what I pray about.
Whether spontaneous or liturgical, we must aim for prayer rooted in a soul that is awake and alert to God. From my more recent experience, I can say that liturgy often has a way of honoring this mystery.