Is there value in repeating ancient words?
Often I feel more comfortable in the tradition of spontaneous prayers. Prayer where I piece the words together in the moment and express myself like I would to a friend over coffee. This free form stream of conscious type prayer is a sincere and powerful extension of my heart, but recently I have found a new peace and strength in the prayers passed down through Christian tradition.
A huge collection of ancient prayers dripping in history, theology, and truth are still repeated by millions of Christians from all over the world today. Words that were written down long ago and have journeyed through history in the mouths of searching people. Maybe you have prayed some of them before, some come from scripture like, The Our Father, The Magnificat, Simeon and Zachary’s Song, and The Doxology. There are also many prayers passed down through tradition of the church like the prayers of Ignatius of Antioch and Hippolytos of Rome, the Nicene creed, and the church’s liturgical prayers of baptism.
So this is my attempt to understand how the prayers of the historic church can be a peaceful and beneficial part of my regular prayer?
First is the simple reasoning that if a prayer has stuck around, it must be useful and powerful, right? Yes, surviving time does give these scripted prayers credibility and lets us know they have been helpful to Christians for centuries, but I think there is even more.
By reciting ancient prayers we draw on the experience and wisdom of Christians who have gone before and weave tried and tested ways of connecting with God into your prayer rhythms. As you lift up these ancient words, you are uniting your prayers to the millions of believers who have prayed them before.
When we pray we are being assumed into the relationship of the Trinity, making our prayer communal and timeless. Almost every ancient prayer, including the one Jesus gave us, The Our Father, use the pronoun “We” rather than “I”. Prayer is our entry to the communion of saints.
This multiplication of prayer offers an abundance of benefits. Jesus said, Matthew 18-19-20, that prayer is powerful, when people come together to pray, big things can happen. Acts 2:42 presents a picture of the early church meeting regularly to learn the doctrine of the apostles, break bread, and pray together, the disciples saw the power of joining in prayer. Secondly in this joining of prayer the Holy Spirit can unite believers into one body. Praying with others within and beyond our generation edifies and unifies us as we share our common faith. It reminds us that we are not alone. We move, speak, act, and prayer in one voice.
Prayer is transcendent
This type of communal prayer reminds me of Jesus describing the kingdom of Heaven as a banquet. As a dinner party with God, you, and the entire congregation of believers. We are all joined together, in one voice praising God.
God has spoken in lots of different ways throughout time. In reading scripture we see this very clearly. Through engaging in ancient prayers we look into and interact with a snapshot of how the Spirit was manifested in a different time. These ancient prayers highlight a variety of facets in our unchanging and unfathomably huge God. It is valuable to enter another culture of prayer and see how God’s goodness transcends throughout time.
Engaging with another generation’s language comes with its challenges. Sometimes these aren’t always words, phrases, or sentence structures we use everyday, they may not feel natural coming out of our mouths, but just look at it like…
Saying ancient prayers sounds a lot cooler when you think of it as time traveling. When traveling through time you expect to face some cultural stumbling blocks, but it does not overshadow the greatness.
We travel to visit holy people from all different times, places, and ways of life, uniting in one act of praise toward the King. On Sunday, I pray the same words that St. Augustine, my great-grandmother, and a woman I will never meet on the other side of the planet.
Sincerity in Scripted Prayer
But what happens when these ancient words feel stale? With every type of prayer there are temptations that creep in
It is important to remember that in praying scripted prayer we still have to bring our hearts, not just our mouths. We pray not for those who hear the words, but toward the God who knows us. God is not pleased with empty phrases (Matthew 6:7), he seeks a sincerity of heart. Repetition is an ancient technique seen throughout scripture (Revelation 4:8, Matthew 6, Is. 6:1-3, Psalm 136) and Christian history. In one of Jesus, most troubling moments we see him praying “saying the same words” several times in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-39) and reciting the psalms on the cross.
Repetition can be the recipe for a great prayer. I never ask my husband to stop telling me that he loves me. When he repeats these words to me, I take them with joy each time because I know they are coming from a place of sincerity, even if it just out of habit. Some prayers are so great we do not always need to expand upon it. The key is, that the words we say are the true desire of our heart, that we are living and entering into the words.
Our bodies and minds are weak. In these moments the prayers provided through Christian tradition are an opportunity for me to continue to pray at all times, even as my earthly body fails.
When we engage our heart in this type of ancient and repetitive prayer we can focus on each word and let our mind dwell on the familiar phrases. Prayer is not only about communicating with God, it is also about communing with God. To be in the presence of the creator of heaven earth, to listen, learn, and grow.
Russian Orthodox Fr. Georges Florovsky writes a thoughtful forward to Praying with the Orthodox Tradition, a translation of a 1300 year old prayer book. He ends with these thoughts, “A Christian has to feel himself personally in the presence of God. The goal of prayer is precisely to be with God always. I hope that the prayers in this book, designed for the different hours of the day, will help us in small but significant ways to do exactly that: to be with God always, to make our prayer, not just an intermittent activity, but a dimension present continually in all that we undertake– not simply something that we do from time to time, but something that we are the whole time. For this is what the world around us needs: not that we should say prayers occasionally, but that we should be at each moment a living flame of payer.”
if you are interested in incorporating some ancient prayers into your daily rhythm, her is a great resource from 24-7 prayer that can help you on your way.