Prayer That Isn't Prayer


At a parent gathering which I attended, someone had been asked to lead the opening prayer. We were each given a sheet of paper and asked to join in reading the words printed on it. It was an extract from Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech. Some of you may know it. The opening words are: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”. It is a very moving, thought provoking piece.
A national church agency recently provided liturgical resources for parishes to use at Sunday Masses. The first petition in the suggested Prayers of the Faithful read: “Jesus worked to break across social, religious and ethnic boundaries. What values of tolerance, understanding, compassion and respect do I actively promote at home, workplace, recreation or public arena?” Each of the seven followed this same pattern.
My Collins English Dictionary defines prayer as: a communication or petition addressed to a deity, esp. in the form of supplication, adoration, praise, contrition, or thanksgiving (my emphasis added). Reflecting on God, or on our own lives, and extolling people to live more in accordance with Gospel values are all good and worthwhile exercises in themselves, but they are NOT prayer!
The Nelson Mandela speech is not addressed to God at all. The only reference to God is in the line: “You are a child of God”. It is simply NOT a prayer!
The petitions that parishes were encouraged to use were NOT prayers but rather an examination of conscience. They all focussed exclusively on ‘I’ and ‘me’. Prayers of the Faithful are offered by the whole assembly and are meant to intercede for the needs of the Church and the world.
There seems to be a tendency to completely reject traditional forms when people are called upon to prepare prayer for occasions such as a parish gathering or school staff meeting, so that nothing identifiably Catholic remains– not even the sign of the cross. I am certainly not advocating rattling off an Our Father or a Hail Mary as was sometimes the practice in the past, but we seem to have moved from one extreme to the other when it comes to praying in public. No Catholic liturgy that ever existed involves people sitting passively and reading, or following while someone else reads, words from a sheet of paper!
The greatest danger I see in the trend of using flowery verses or philosophical reflections as ‘prayer’ in public settings is the message it conveys that this is the only way to communicate with God, that prayer is an activity confined to those who can create, or copy, the right poetic words. Is it any wonder then if young people do not pray, or when we struggle to pray spontaneously when put on the spot?
Next week I will look at how the Catholic tradition provides simple and effective ways and words for addressing God in prayer.

Elizabeth Harrington