Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Spontaneous Prayer is Good

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. 
And you know what? That’s a great thing. Those prayers are indeed powerful, and in a crisis situation it’s better to pray something than to be paralyzed with fear or despair and pray nothing.
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.”
My friend kept on praying, and it was such a normal conversation, he even said things like, “Umm,” and, “You know,” as he paused to come up with the next words. Can you imagine Catholics saying, “You know,” while reciting the Hail Mary? “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is, you know, with thee.” Of course not. That’s because we’re reciting something we memorized decades ago.

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).

I acknowledge that my prayers often turn into rote recitation, just many words being babbled. For example, if I’m praying the Rosary while driving on the highway, sometimes I’ll realize that I’m on the fourth mystery but I haven’t paid attention to anything I said during the previous 10 or 15 minutes.
Other times while praying the Rosary, I’m focused intently on each of the five mysteries, and when I’m finished I can feel that I’ve just had a profound interaction with Almighty God.

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.)
We need to remind ourselves that God is a person — an eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful person, yes, but a person nonetheless. (Actually, three persons in one divine Being, but let’s save Trinitarian theology for another day.) This means we can have conversations with God. We can open our arms, look up, and just start talking to the Lord. It doesn’t have to be anything we were taught in Catechism class. It doesn’t have to be anything we’ve memorized. It’s simply good ol’ conversation with a loved one, where one person says what’s on his or her mind, and then listens quietly for the reply.

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. 

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