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Nov 21, 2018

When to Use Rote Prayers vs. Spontaneous Prayer

Merridith Frediani

There are times when my heart hurts, times when there are no words, which is scary for a person who loves words and writes for a living. But sometimes the words go away because my heart is just so sad, or angry, or frustrated, or even joyful, or filled with some strong human emotion that takes away the words.  Those are the times when I need someone else’s words and I’m thankful for the richness of our Catholic Faith and the prayers of saints and holy people that have endured, sometimes for centuries.

The last time my heart felt as if it were breaking, “Jesus I trust in you” was all I could manage.  Those five words, given to us by St. Faustina, brought me comfort and kept me pointed toward God and not the basement of despair I was in danger of slipping into.

Several weeks ago, beset by feistiness, I managed to get myself worked up over something I later realized was inconsequential.  The small voice that is good to heed, nudged me to pray a Rosary. After reciting the fifty plus Hail Marys and meditating on circumstances more challenging than my own, I found some peace and the ability to stand down.

When I Don’t Have My Own Words

It’s not just in times of distress that other people’s prayers are helpful. There are also times when I’m happy and desire to give God his due praise but my own words seem insufficient and weak.  I feel unworthy to come up with glory good enough for God.  Again to the rescue come those holier than me, and songs of praise and worship do the trick.

Many of the rote prayers we learn are ancient and have a biblical history. The Our Father, the perfect prayer, was given to us by Jesus himself. The Hail Mary has its origin in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.  The Glory Be was inspired by St. Paul’s letters. As a friend eloquently said:

“Rote prayer is God’s beautiful way of reminding me I’m human and some days I just need to connect with him by praying something that is deeply ingrained in my heart and body.  I don’t have to think too hard to pray a Hail Mary and I’m so grateful (especially when I’m tired) that I can communicate with my creator even in the times I don’t know how to in my own words.”

God Just Wants to Hear from You

Peter Kreeft in Prayer for Beginners agrees and takes it a step further: 

“When we pray with the Church’s words, we pray with the best words ever written.  But your words are more yours and God wants to hear them. It can be a beautiful thing to quote a sonnet to your beloved, but lovers who only speak in sonnets aren’t lovers, but performers.  We need both.”

Rote prayer isn’t cheating.  It’s legitimate prayer and at times it is the best we can do.  It requires us to still ourselves and the repetition of words we already know intimately quiets our minds so God’s voice can pop through.  But, as another wise friend said: 

“The Lord loves your voice and your words. What mom wouldn’t choose her child’s stick figures over the work of a famous artist?  Which would she put on her refrigerator?”

Giving Our Feelings to Jesus

It is here where we can come to Jesus as we are—sometimes a holy mess and sometimes a giddy fool.  It is in our personal words where we build that truly personal relationship with our Lord. It may be anguish from our souls, jubilation from our hearts, or frustration from our heads. There are times we need to holler at injustice, rail against the brokenness of the world, times when we need to unload those scary feelings of being angry with God and know that he can take it all.  And only in being brutally honest can we move forward to forgiving and being forgiven.

God already knows how we feel, but we may not know until we start putting it into words. How often, in an argument with a loved one, has there been a moment when you realize you’re not really upset about what you thought you were and, in fact, it is something else? The verbalizing of those feelings leads us to greater clarity and again, no need to fear, because God can handle our feelings.

We don’t just need to go to him in times of struggle.  We need to share the joys. Even though we may feel our own words don’t adequately express what is in our hearts. Sometimes it is good to just be with our feelings, giving them to Jesus.  

Don’t Forget to Listen for God

It is good to acknowledge that both reciting memorized prayers and talking to God in conversation are ways we connect with him and grow in deeper communion.  It is how we develop that personal relationship that depends on communication to thrive. There are times when someone else’s words fit perfectly to describe what is in our heart. There are other times when our own words are far more suitable, lovely, and honest.

We have a God who desires to be in relationship with us and in his brilliance, has given us a myriad of ways to do that. So we throw our prayers up to heaven—seeking our God—and remember that, as another friend said:

“In order to draw ever deeper into God’s love we must silence ourselves and listen for him.”

You May Also Like:

Praying in Times of Suffering, Trial, and Anxiety

How Specific To Be When Praying

The Jesus Prayer Might Radically Change Your Prayer Life

About Merridith Frediani

Merridith Frediani’s perfect day includes prayer, writing, unrushed morning coffee, reading, tending to dahlias, and playing Sheepshead with her husband and three teenagers.  She loves leading small faith groups for moms and looking for God in the silly and ordinary. She blogs and writes for her local Catholic Herald in Milwaukee.

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  • Thank you Merridith for your wonderful comments and reflection on the uses of Rote or Memorized Prayer as well as Spontaneous Prayer. After a conversation with one of our teachers regarding the usual use of memorized prayer and why we don’t encourage children to pray more spontaneously I did an online search for this comparison and found the link to this page of yours. I also shared it with the teacher who inquired and I’m sure she will appreciate your comments and explanation. May God continue to bless you with wisdom from above and inspiration to help others, through Christ our Lord. Amen!

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