Liturgical prayer – the superiority of form…

(Tonight, I am about to print something that may unintentionally offend people of certain persuasions but I should note one thing: the links are to sources from within that persuasion. Sometimes, we need to loosen up a bit, but my point should be clear…)

Ever since I read this article from a conservative Evangelical, I have never ceased to smile whenever someone does what we call “The Prayer of the Just.” I have often wondered as to where this liturgical quirk, peculiar to the Evangelical Christian communities, originated. But I have become more conscious of it, and understandably so. I began to realize that, yes, while it is desirable to pray using one’s own words, there is something to be said for at least trying not to rely just on one’s own verbal crutches, where we just keep on adding clause after clause, Lord, because we just want to add on to your praise which you just do not need, etc.

Of course, the funniest variant of this is a rant from noted author Brian McLaren, where on page 254-5 of his Generous Orthodoxy, he notes what I meant when I used the term “liturgical quirk.” “Every denomination is liturgical,” he says, “Some just don’t know it because their liturgies aren’t written down.” And then he begins with a long version (cynically, he admits) that—well, read it for yourself if Philippine bookstores carry it! (Yes, Ben, I asked Fully Booked today.) More conveniently the first part of the thing is on Google Books.

He ends on a note that he prefers the way Cranmer, for example, crafted his prayers. (I was therefore not surprised that he decided to address Lambeth.) Or if you want informality without annoyance, here is this passage from a certain Bishop of Hippo in North Africa:

“Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain you? Do even the heaven and the earth, which you have made, and in which you did make me, contain you?”

– Augustine, Confessio, cap. II.

It was cited approvingly in this article from Christianity Today, which is yet another Evangelical voice coming out against this unfortunate liturgical non-form. And here too is where I learned where all this came from. The most influential book in evangelical Christianity, Christianity Today notes, is a book which promoted the practice of spontaneous prayer—and since then the results have been a mixed bag. One comment to the first article notes that, as the CT article also mentions, some spontaneous prayers fall prey to heresy—patripassionism was caught out once.

I believe that the Holy Spirit works through the forms which the Church, itself brought forth and sustained by the same Spirit, has felt would allow it to express both its faith in God and the needs of all who are in it. And while there is value to praying from one’s heart as the Spirit prompts, we must bear in mind that the God beyond all praising deserves nothing but the best we can possibly give—especially in the way we address God. This is why I am happy to be a liturgical, post-denominational Catholic, who grew up Roman, who was once involved in the charismatic movement, and who learned about Anglicanism and the treasures of common prayer.

On a final note, the CT article cites several books, but one stands out. Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours is patterned on the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, a spiritual practice which has been done for centuries and which, I am pleased to note, uses Scripture a lot. (I should note Augustine was citing 1 Chronicles in his prayer, if I recall correctly.)

*****

Next up: Canon Trevor Beeson and canons.

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