Familiarity breeds contempt. It’s true, even with prayer. Maybe especially with prayer.
- Do the prayers taught to you as a child still mean anything to you?
- How can something we’ve recited so many times still stir the heart and fill the soul?
Most of us have been reciting The Lord’s Prayer since we were children. In my Roman Catholic tradition, I was also taught the “Hail Mary,” a prayer to my guardian angel, and the “Act of Contrition,” said when I confessed my sins to the priest. I’ve said those many, many times.
In nursery school my children were taught a simple prayer before meals that is familiar to most everyone:
“God is great, God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen”
It was the prayer we said as a family before meals for many years.
When do prayers such as these lose their meaning? Can it be restored, and how?
Dealing with monotony
My husband recites the same prayers every morning from the Divine Office (from the Eastern Catholic Church). He has been doing this for seven years. I marveled at how he found meaning in this repetitive action.
To me it seemed like a monotonous chore. To him it was sublime.
What kept him from being bored?
I was soon to find out.
The value of spoken prayer
In a book called Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life by Vassilios Papavassiliou, a Greek Orthodox priest, I read that according to St. Theophane the Recluse, there are three stages, or levels of prayer:
- Spoken prayer
- Mental prayer
- Prayer of the heart
Father Papavassiliou recommended beginning by praying “through the Church,” meaning the using prayers we hear at the Sunday service. Hymns could be sung as well as they too are prayers.
For some reason, this time, the message got through. I have desired for a while to achieve stillness, harmony and connection with God through prayer but I couldn’t seem to settle on anything. I would start a routine only find it exceedingly dry once the newness wore off.
Beginning with a sacred space
I put the book down and proceeded to create my own prayer corner, a sacred space in our bedroom where I could put Father’s words into practice:
A starting point
I remembered a small prayer book that my husband’s bishop had created to help people begin to recite these prayers of the Church.
There were prayers for dawn daytime, evening and midnight, mostly taken from the psalms. I would begin with Vespers, said at sunset, and Orthros, said first thing in the morning. In keeping with the tradition of my husband’s church, I would chant the prayers out loud.
There was something comforting about praying texts written by people recognized as saints. I knew the prayers would be centered on God rather than on me. They would lead me to a place of truth and humility with regards to my failings. And I would pray for others, even those who have passed on before me.
Keeping up with this routine would not be easy, especially if I should feel dead tired or sad. I was to discover that faithfulness to duty can bear a rich fruit. Just ask Mother Teresa–she dealt with spiritual desolation for over fifty years and yet she never wavered in her devotion to prayer and her work. I lean on her when I don’t feel like being faithful.
I started this regimen on March 6 and five weeks later, it is still going strong. And it rarely feels flat. Each time I recite the now familiar prayers, some word or phrase will touch my mind or heart and I will pause for a moment and think on it.
Keep my trusty cup of coffee nearby, I forget my weariness and become caught up in the rhythm of the chant.
Praying with a friend
My cat, Jenny, joins me each time I pray. She loves hearing me sing (along with the warm lap), and settles right in. I stroke her, and I pray.
And I’ve noticed something.
Stillness is becoming a part of me. The endless churning that kept me anxious and robbed me of my peace has nearly disappeared. The endless fidgeting that comes with the aches and pains of age has lessened. Emotionally, the peaks are not so high, the valleys not so deep.
And the prayers are not boring.
When I attend mass on Sunday, the experience of stillness continues and deepens. I can focus on the altar or the cross or a stained glass window and remain still and quiet. The mass becomes one long and wonderful prayer.
I sense an inner harmony.
I feel this peaceful undercurrent leading me. While I have trouble putting words to what I am experiencing, I know I am being led to a deeper union with God.
All because of spoken prayer.
You know, the familiar prayers can be monotonous and boring.
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