Blogs have archives but no memory. Perhaps our Very Special Anniversary Announcement will be special enough to change even that. I’m not taking any chances. I’ve decided to revive a few old posts from the first half of the blog. I’ve enjoyed doing it. “Time,” as James Lileks says, “is nothing more than a lick of paint over the hinges. Push hard enough. They still swing open.” My first re-entry is nothing flashy, just an early April post on praying from a piece of paper.
Dear Lord, I Refer You to Appendix A
Outside a few key ordinances, we don’t like written prayers, by which I mean planned or prescribed prayers. We have some scriptural support for our position in the saying of the Lord, But when you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do. We have repeated prophetic guidance, usually quoting this saying. (See, for instance, Russell M. Nelson, “Sweet Power of Prayer,” Ensign, May 2003, 7). Instead of reading from a prayer, we try to pray what’s in our hearts and what the Spirit directs.
We have good reasons. From our own experience with cant phrases in prayers, or on trying to concentrate on the sacrament prayers, we all know that repeated phrases tend to lose their meaning (although the quest for novelty can also be a distraction from meaning). Unstructured prayer is also an attempt to maintain a personal relationship with God and reinforces the doctrine that He is in a sense one of us and can be spoken too in the unplanned way we speak to each other (although our conversations with other people are often deeply structured by what we’ve planned to say or by cultural models for the conversation). This emphasis on conversing probably goes hand in hand with a democratic emphasis–everyone can pray and no special rhetorical skills are necessary. Finally, I think we have a mostly true idea that spontaneity and openness to the Spirit are connected (the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life). If we know to say X, we are less likely to seek the Spirit’s guidance on what to say. This varies: we feel that teachers and speakers should do some preparation, but we dislike it in prayer.
I accept all that and yet, I think we go too far in unstructuring our prayers. I’m not saying that those who pray on behalf of the congregation should prepare the entire prayer in advance the way we do with talks, though such a practice would avoid the problem of repetition, might improve prayers, and should be as open to inspiration as giving a prepared talk is. It might, on the other hand, run counter to the democratic aspects inherent in the idea of prayer as conversation; since the unplanned prayer will probably lack polish, any one Saint can do it as well as another.
But why do no planning at all? I’ve seen how planning can work to strengthen prayer. In my personal prayers I’ve jotted down reminders when I’ve needed to pray over particulary complex or varied problems. Those jottings have strengthened the prayer, and the preparation of them served as an avenue of revelation. In Church, I’ve been in a ward that put the names of the missionaries on a list on the pulpit. Instead of praying for the missionaries, we prayed for ‘Elders Knox and Wesley, and Sisters Ridley and Latimer.’ We could all feel the difference in our plea.
We have no reason to avoid preparation of this kind except, I feel, a foolish exaggeration of the spontaneity of prayer. As Luther would put it, having seen too many people fall off the horse on the side of formality and structure, we’re now trying to fall off the other. That must be why we avoid any preparation and why we avoid another fruitful practice, that of jotting down notes during the prayer, or soon thereafter. Pen and paper, forethought and postthought, are all features of important conversations with our fellows. I think they ought to feature when we speak to God.
Commenters are welcome to comment here or go back and respond to the comments in the original post. I am going to highlight an idea or two from the original comments though.
“Spontaneity can be its own crutch: an excuse from thinking seriously, and picking our words carefully, in making our offerings to God. Making something formal, even something as small as the specification of names of missionaries during public prayer, I think can only increase the sense that an act of consecration is taking place” –Russell Arben Fox