I made the mistake of catching the eye of a friend. We had listened to a fellow lecture for an hour, and then our host asked him, an Episcopal minister from that body’s Catholicish wing, to lead the final prayers. And he started speaking in a top of the mouth, stiff-jawed, pursed lips, fruity-sounding way a million miles from his regular voice.
My friend found it as funny as I did, and despite our best efforts, we both only partly suppressed our laughter through the prayers. And the glares we got, oh boy. We deserved them, but I’m still a little surprised that no one else seemed to find the disjunction of voices as funny — let me be honest, as preposterous — as we did.
For years before that, this idea of prayer as something to be done in a special voice had put me off praying. The evangelicals I knew in my youth could go on elegantly for a very long time. They would speak boldly, then softly, then boldly again. Their voices might tremble or crack or rise in ecstasy. They called this praying from the heart.
It didn’t work on me. I saw right away how formal, how artificial, was their supposedly spontaneous prayer.
They seemed to have mental sets of file cards, some for general subjects, some for specific, and an ability to choose the right ones on the fly. As George Orwell wrote about political language, this kind of prayer “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
I’m not saying they didn’t mean it. Two saintly Baptists, who could pray like that as well as anyone, helped formed my own life. The phrases were on their mental notecards, but they meant them with all their heart. Their notecards were to them what liturgical prayer is to us, giving us the right words to say what we want to say.
Still, I took this to mean that in prayer, you were not you, you were an ideal you. You prayed as you wished you were, not as who you were in fact. This may be my own peculiar mistake, but I’ve met others who felt the same. It was all I knew, so I tried, but it didn’t work.
Eventually I found, mostly through reading Catholic devotional writers, that in prayer, supremely, you are you and God is God. You are, specifically and uniquely, yourself. You are not anyone else. You are not your ideal of yourself, nor the opposite. Your mind is wired a certain way, your personality set a certain way, your life is what it has been, and your circumstances are what they are.
You can be yourself in prayer because in prayer, you speak to God as a friend. The Dominican theologian Father Bede Jarrett explained this in a book from 1917 called “Meditations for Layfolk” (you can find it on Internet Archive), which I found looking for something else. I wish someone had explained prayer this way when I was young.
Your friends know you, he wrote. You can’t fool them, so you don’t try. “I say exactly what I think in the language that is most spontaneous and natural to me.”
We should be just as natural in our prayers. God knows you inside out. He loves you completely. Therefore, he knows you completely. You can’t hide anything. Don’t bother to try.
Jarrett warns that one unnatural way of praying is to try to pray like other people, whose prayers “will either be too large or too small.” That had been my experience. I think of wearing shoes the wrong size. You will walk funny.
Jarrett gives examples: “If my temperament is emotional, my prayers should be emotional; but if by temperament I am very matter of fact, what good would there be in my attempting to use the rapturous language of ecstasy?” As a matter-of-fact person who’s spent time in religious circles dominated by emotional people, I appreciate that.
“My prayers should therefore be my own,” he finishes. But then there’s the twist. Honesty means vulnerability. “I should ask only for what I honestly want,” he writes. “It is a mockery to ask God to take me to Himself if I cannot really say that I want to go.”
But even there, you can be honest with God. You can admit that you don’t really want him to take you to himself, but you can tell him that you want to want it, and ask him for his help to truly want it. You be you, trusting that God will be him.
David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.