Earlier this year, I felt as if my heart and head both broke open, and everything of myself fell out. People told me I should trust in God, cry out to God. But I didn’t have much to say to Him. There was nothing I wanted. I had no plans or dreams to seek wisdom about. And while I knew I had things to be grateful for, there was nothing I particularly felt like giving thanks for.
Then I discovered liturgical prayer. In his book Water To Wine, Brian Zahnd lays out the liturgy he prays each morning, and it’s been extraordinarily helpful to me. Zahnd says this about prayer:
“When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes.”
I know this to be true of my own prayers. My prayers are small. They don’t include the world-restoration God intends; the narrative is always me. Even with the best intentions, I end up praying the same things, walking in self-obsessed circles around God.
Or I simply fall flat, realizing I have no idea what to say to God. What could I say, when I’m not sure who or what God is, when he is a mystery extending beyond time itself? What could I hope to communicate?
Thankfully, Jesus taught us how to pray in the Lord’s prayer, the Psalter is a book of prayers, and the church has composed its own prayers from ancient times. Following these guides, I can pray well-formed prayers, which in turn allows me to think more rightly about God. Rather than railing against him or attempting to come up with a half-baked theology, I pray out of the Psalms things that are true:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green shepherds.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The prayer of St. Francis is one of my favorite parts of the liturgy in Zahn’s book; it made me cry the first time I prayed it out loud. The whole prayer is beautiful, but the second part I believe is a call to that dying to self Christ speaks of, that whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for His sake will find it:
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
These are not easy words to say when you mean them. For a few months, I’d been awash in grief, seeking consolation from anyone willing to give it. Certainly there is a time for grief, but Jesus calls us to give up our very selves to others–a difficult thing to do when you are always busy watering the graves of your dreams, always busy seeking love for yourself. Death and resurrection is a hard business. Thy will be done is no flippant phrase.
I am not sure if my life is any more on track now than when I prayed free form prayers. (Actually, liturgy still allows for free form prayers–they have an allotted space after you’ve spent some time in the psalms and creeds and such. And I don’t always pray liturgically. I don’t always pray, if we’re being real honest here.) But I do think, when I pray through a liturgy, it affects my thinking. When I pray these ancient words out loud, they gradually seep into my brain. I feel gently led forward in faith by those who have come before, rather than trying to forge my own path or build a great faith from scratch. For this, I am grateful.