Sunday, June 8, 2008

Vain Repetition?

If you are an Episcopalian, perhaps someone who is not Episcopalian has asked you this question: "Why do Episcopalians say their prayers out of a book?"

Or maybe they've asked it like this: "Why do Episcopalians always say the same prayers out of a book every Sunday?"

These are good questions that every Episcopalian should be able to answer readily.

Eve Tushnet, who is Roman Catholic, offers helpful insights on this topic that apply beyond her Church to we who worship in accordance with the set forms and fixed liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer. Here's part of her response:

“Why can’t you just talk to God in your own words?” Protestants sometimes ask. And in fact, one of the most poignant uses of repetitive prayer is when our own words fail us. When I’m really at the end of my rope, I feel like nothing I say is good enough. My words can seem empty, clumsy, total failures of communication.

I was re-reading Harriet the Spy, the way one does, and I came to the scene where a distraught and friendless Harriet awakens from a nightmare screaming the name of her nurse over and over: "Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly!" I fall back on traditional prayers when I really don't have the strength or self-confidence to shape my own sentences--when I just feel desperate, composed entirely of need. There have been a lot of times when the Hail Mary is my personal equivalent of "Ole Golly, Ole Golly, Ole Golly!"

At these times the Hail Mary comes to my lips like a cry. I know for sure that it’s something worth saying; the Hail Mary is never inadequate to the occasion! In “falling back on” other people’s words I can admit that I can’t express myself very well, and I need help even to understand what I might want to say. Helplessness and a sense of terrible distance from God lend themselves naturally, I think, to these shy borrowings of others’ speech. (Jesus on the Cross uses the Psalmist’s words when He cries, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”) ...

So it isn’t only that the repeated prayers can help us when we already feel as weak and small as a child; it’s also that we need to put ourselves, voluntarily, in that state of spiritual littleness, overcoming our pride. It’s good to put aside our very own, special-snowflake words sometimes, and accept others’ words as an act of humility. The repetitions push us to recognize how much more there is in these humble words than we might initially realize. It’s good at times to pray patiently in a way we did not choose, and see what others’ practices can teach us.

Praying with others’ words means praying with the Church. Repetitive prayer, because it draws on traditional practices and set phrases, draws us into the Church stretching across time and space.

Read it all.

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