Matthew Tan: Spontaneous personal prayer is superior, right? Right?

There are lots of Christians who think spontaneous prayer is superior to liturgy. Are they right? PHOTO: Ben White

There is a memorable scene in an episode of the American television series Judging Amy (1999-2005). In that scene Bruce van Exel, a self-confessed and somewhat devout Catholic Court Services Officer, wants to say night prayers with his daughter, Rebecca.

The only problem was that Bruce left Rebecca with his sister that day, and his sister took Rebecca to a traditional bible-only black protestant Church, which she frequents.

Thus, when asked to pray, Rebecca starts belting out many familiar tropes associated with protestant ministers, spontaneous, varied in cadence – and rather loud.

Rebecca is seen smiling throughout as she prays, and it is quite apparent that her prayers are sincere, even as she takes the prayer style of a protestant minister.

In a state of unpleasant surprise, Bruce stops Rebecca and together they start praying the more familiar Catholic devotions. Rebecca’s smile disappears as she unenthusiastically drones in unison with Bruce.

There are many Christians who would identify with Rebecca, and do not like liturgical prayers. The seemingly mechanistic corporate drones that are the hallmark of liturgical prayers quite often come across as either uninspiring or insincere.

A man engages in spontaneous personal prayer. PHOTO: Ben White

In response, there has been a tendency among many contemporary Christians to favour spontaneous prayers “from the heart”, often driven by the unspoken assumption that prayers are more legitimate and honest when they are consonant with one’s individual dispositions.

While there is some truth to that, the emphasis on individual sincerity in prayer has to address two things. First, spontaneous activity works off the assumption that it is often bracketed by periods where no such activity happens. This is a problem with regards to prayer, in light of the scriptural injunction to “pray at all times and in all occasions” (Eph 6:18).

The second thing is the subjective experience of many Christians who, for quite legitimate reasons—be it trauma, illness or experiencing of the crushing of spirit (Job 17)—either cannot find the words or even the desire to pray. The emphasis on individual sincerity which is ascendant in contemporary forms of Christian expression very often leaves such Christians behind.

Another thing to consider is how individual sincerity works on the assumption that prayer is primarily a human product, a projection of the individual will towards God.

In response to this, the Dominican Master of Theology, Paul Murray, wrote in his Praying with Confidence: Aquinas on the Lord’s Prayer, that prayer finds its provenance not from the individual at prayer, but from the economy of the Triune God.

Prayer is thus primarily a process where, to paraphrase the Carmelite writer Ruth Burrows, God speaks to God who abides in us, a process in which we get swept up.

More concretely, prayer is an economy into which God in the Body of Christ—the Church—invites us. If we find ourselves with no internal resources of our own to pray, the economy of prayer operates to provide that prayer on our behalf. In such a situation, the task of “praying for one another” (James 5:16) takes on a new layer of meaning.

PHOTO: Caique Silva

When Christians pray they are not only praying for others, but also, in Christ, praying in place of others when they find themselves unable to. And that economy of prayer aids the Christian struggling to provide his own sincere prayer with two things.

First, the economy of prayer may set the context in which God could search and test the Christian, in order to know the Christian’s anxious thoughts (Psalm 129: 23), and in so doing the economy of prayer articulates for the Christian what he or she wants to pray but cannot.

God in the economy of prayer opens the lips of the person at prayer, in order for that person to pray to God (Psalm 51:15). In doing so, the Christian may very well find in the economy of prayer, particularly in the Psalms, words that more profoundly express his or her interior state.

At the same time that the economy of prayer provides the lexicon for the Christian to pray, that same lexicon would also serve to revivify the imagination of the person at prayer, providing training to see beyond the walls his or her own circumstances erect before his or her vision.

Prayer is thus an economy of salvation, one that is able to give joy where joy is not forthcoming from the individual, redemption where redemption seems impossible, and life where life appears to be over.

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