Prayer and Recitation
Prayer prayed extemporaneously is like finding a lovely flower, or turning the bend in the road only to discover some scenic beauty. It is prayer that is important to life with Christ. But there is another kind of prayer that we often ignore, or even censure, because we have been taught that Jesus condemns such prayer. That kind of prayer is formal prayer, a prayer of recitation, written, composed, or liturgical prayer.
In Matthew 6:7 Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (NLT). Is Jesus warning us against recitation, against “vain repetition”? I don’t think so. Perhaps the problem is we have come to believe that any repetition is always vain rather than believing that repetition can become vain, which is what I believe Jesus means.
Jesus himself recited prayers. Devout Jews recited the Shema daily. Some recited it three or more times a day. (The Shema begins with “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” from Deuteronomy 6.) Jesus did this. Now if Jesus recited this prayer, then how can he mean that all recited prayer is vain? Doesn’t it make more sense to understand that he warns against reciting prayers vainly or thoughtlessly?
Furthermore, this is how Jesus addressed the disciples’ question about how they should pray, an answer that resulted in his giving us the Lord’s Prayer, a complete prayer for our recitation. I have heard it said that the Lord’s Prayer is simply an outline for Christian prayer. And it does provide an outline in a sense, but only because it is a perfect prayer that covers our relationship with God and man fully. Tertullian called it the “summary of the whole Gospel.” Thomas Aquinas, “the perfect prayer.” Augustine said of it, “Whatever be the other words we may prefer to say . . . we say nothing that is not contained in the Lord’s Prayer, provided of course we are praying in a correct and proper way.” So perhaps we are allowed to improvise using the Lord’s Prayer as a kind of outline as long as we do not begin to think of it as something less, something bare and skeletal. “Our Father” is not prayer’s starting point, but its apex. The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was and is the practice of Christians. The Didache—a first century pastoral manual about the life of the Church—tells us to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.
And yet Jesus did warn against vain repetition or babbling. He did warn against thinking our many words will guarantee God’s affirmative answer. It is an instruction that mustn’t be taken lightly. So when we recite prayers we must recite them deliberately, with our hearts in each word, with fire in our bones—not vainly or thoughtlessly. Not idly. Not while our minds are racing down a thousand other paths. When we recite a prayer like the Lord’s Prayer, we must be present in it, we must know his presence in it, and our hearts must be borne along by the words. When this has happened, we have prayed. If extemporaneous prayer is like finding a beautiful flower, and delighting in it, then recited prayer is like bedrock. When life sweeps over me, leaving me breathless and destitute, the words I recite strengthen and support me; they ground me when all else shakes; they bear me before God.
Now prayer is not bound by words, but is located in the heart. And even when words are absent, the Holy Spirit hears the heart. This is true both of written prayers and of extemporaneous prayers. God is not concerned with the words I manage—with the clumsiness or elegance of my prayers—he does not listen to my words but to my heart. Words are a vehicle for the heart, there is no magic in them. And as we encounter God in prayer, he hears our hearts.
If you don’t do this already, begin to pray the Lord’s Prayer now. Pray it as you wake in the morning, before you get out of bed, sanctifying the day. Pray it before you close your eyes, sanctifying the night. Be present in the prayer, allowing it to take your hand and teach you to pray. Know God’s presence as you pray it. Allow the Lord’s Prayer to teach you how to love God and to love others. It is a beautiful and wonderful guide that can lift your heart to heaven. It is a partner and a director that comes alongside of you and points the way. Conform your heart to these words.