Praying with the Church
Prayer is elbow knowledge.
It’s learned less by something you read from a book and more from “rubbing elbows” with others at prayer. In that sense, the Divine Service is a kind of weekly tutor in prayer.
The focus of this past Sunday, Rogate (“Ask!”), was prayer. And that got me thinking about the ways that the liturgy forms us in prayer. Here are five; I invite you to share others you may think of.
1. Prayer is communal.
We tend to think of prayer as a solitary activity. And certainly Jesus commends us to pray privately and in secret (Matthew 6.5-6). But in worship we learn that prayer isn’t only an individual discipline; it’s also a corporate one. Jesus taught us to pray “our Father,” not “my Father,” after all. Prayer is the family of faith’s language.
2. Prayer is interwoven through everything else.
There is a time in the Divine Service for “the Prayers of the Church”—the part when the pastor offers up petitions to the Lord and the congregation commonly responds, “Hear our prayer.”
This is but the tip of the prayer-iceberg, though: there’s also the Kyrie (“In peace let us pray to the Lord…”), the Collect of the Day, the Post-Communion Collect, and various and sundry others. Or changing the metaphor, prayer is like a thread that is interwoven through the service as a whole.
This is instructive for life generally. While many of us set aside special time for prayer and private devotion (compare the Prayers of the Church), the reality is that prayer suffuses the rest of life. It isn’t—nor should it be—cordoned off to one part of the day. And the liturgy teaches us as much.
3. Prayer is sung.
Just as we typically think of prayer as solitary, I reckon we also typically think of it as spoken. While that’s most often the case, in worship it’s like we become part of a Broadway musical—with our lines suddenly set to music. Think of the Offertory: “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” Or so many of our hymns, such as one our church sang this past Sunday: “Savior, again to Thy dear name we raise…” It’s prayer.
There’s an old saying: “He who sings prays twice.” The music of worship is meant to seep into our bones, so that it becomes part of our everyday life. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” enjoins St. Paul, “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3.16). Prayer is not just what we say; it’s what we sing.
4. Prayer is our heritage.
Many prayers that we offer in worship are written. Some have been prayed by Christians for hundreds or—in the case of the Psalms especially—even thousands of years. Critics might object that prayer ought to flow spontaneously from the heart. I don’t disagree, but that’s not the only way that one can pray.
It’s a great blessing to recognize that countless generations of Christians have been praying before we were born. When we pray we’re not initiating a conversation, we’re entering one that has been ongoing since time immemorial.
5. Prayer is objective.
I have not spoken much of the content of our prayers, but one thing that stands out about the prayers that we offer up in the worship is their objectivity. Personal prayer is often subjective and focused on my feelings. This is not wrong; it is, however, insufficient.
The prayers of the Church find their rationale in the concrete deeds of God. Take, for example, the Collect for Invocavit, the First Sunday in Lent:
O Lord God, You led Your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide the people of Your Church that, following our Savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ, etc.
This is a prayer grounded in the objective activity of God in history. We thus learn that prayer isn’t just about how I happen to be feeling; it’s about what God has done and is doing and responding appropriately.
These are just a few ways we learn to pray with the Church. Certainly you can think of many more. How have you been formed in your practice of prayer by participating in the Church’s liturgy?