Liturgical Prayer


The following is an excerpt by Lauren F. Winner from her book Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Lauren was an Orthodox Jew who converted to Christianity. She describes the meaning and benefits of her Jewish spiritual disciplines and how she has been able to transfer the basic principles of these disciplines into her Christian practice. In her chapter on prayer, she makes a great (and sometimes humorous) case for liturgical prayer:


"Liturgy can be dull, and its dullness can be distracting.  Sometimes I set aside time specifically for prayer: I turn off the ringer on my phone and light a candle and sit in my best praying chair (the club chair with the red checked slipcover; don't ask me why, but it's generally the best); and even then I can look down at the prayer book in my hands and realize that I've been reading aloud for ten minutes, yet I have no idea what I've said.  My mouth may have been mouthing psalms, but my brain was thinking grocery lists or weekend plans.

But if roteness is a danger, it is also the way liturgy works.  When you don't have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God.

Put differently: I have sometimes set aside my prayer book for days and weeks on end, and I find, at the end of those days and weeks on end, that I have lapsed into narcissism [self-centered focus].  Though meaning to commune with or reverence or at least acknowledge God, I wind up talking to myself about my emotions du jour.  I worry about my mother's health, or I stress about money, or (more happily) I bop up and down with excitement about good news or sunshine or life in general, but I never get much further than that.  It is in returning to my prayer book that places me: places me in words that ask me to confess my sins, even when I can't think of any red-letter deeds recently committed; words that ask me to pray for presidents and homeless Charlottesvillians and everyone in between; words that praise God even on the mornings when I wonder if God exists at all.  (Of course, sometimes the liturgy grandly expresses just exactly what we feel.  When you have had a lousy day at work and have used every curse word you can think of to describe your boss, try an imprecatory psalm, such as Psalm 35: "May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay....  May their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.")

What I this: Sure, sometimes it is great when, in prayer, we can express to God just what we feel; but better still when, in the act of praying, our feelings change.  Liturgy is not, in the end, open to our emotional whims.  It repoints the person praying, taking him somewhere else."