Some of the best prayers ever prayed are spontaneous prayers. That’s when people just blurt out whatever it is they need to say to God.
For Catholics, we’re not very good at spontaneous prayer. As children, we memorized certain prayers, such as the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and then as adults, when a crisis occurs, we instinctively start reciting those prayers.
However, spontaneous prayer is great, too. It’s just that we Catholics have little experience with it. I remember years ago being with an Evangelical Protestant friend. We heard that a guy named Dave was sick, and so my friend said, “Let’s pray for him.”
I assumed we would recite something like the Our Father, since my friend was Protestant, so I figured he was not familiar with the Hail Mary. But then he held out his arms, looked up, and just started talking. “Dear Lord,” he said, “We heard about our friend Dave, and so we lift him up to you. Please heal him and fill him with hope and joy.”
As my friend was praying, I thought to myself, “You can do that? You can just talk to God without reciting something specific you learned in Catechism class in the 2nd grade? That’s wild.”
The key, I believe, is the difference between rote recitation and true communication. In the Bible, Jesus warned, “When you pray, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).
So, rote prayers are good, especially if we focus on what the prayer means and Who exactly we’re praying to. But once in a while we should try a little spontaneous prayer. Now, I know for Catholics, this is kind of like asking a classically trained trumpeter with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to start playing some jazz music. For many of us, free-form improvisation just doesn’t come naturally.
(By the way, I have no idea if classically trained trumpet players avoid jazz music. For all I know, they could wail like Maynard Ferguson when not in a tuxedo at Carnegie Hall. I was just trying to come up with an analogy.)
Both types of prayer can be useful. The prayers we memorized as children are powerful, especially the Rosary. And spontaneous, free-form praying is good, too. And when you’re having a spontaneous conversation with God, don’t worry if you often say, “Umm,” and, “You know,” because God doesn’t mind at all.