Can rote prayers “come from the heart”?

In my younger and more vulnerable years, during during large get-togethers with family and close friends at my parents’ home, meals would obviously begin with a prayer. I was often implored to say grace, which I dutifully if begrudgingly obliged– mostly because I didn’t have a choice.

I remember many such occasions vividly. And so, I would begin: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts…”

At this point, one of the adults would invariably interrupt me mid-prayer. I distinctly remember a few of them asking me to say something “from the heart”– that is, something other than a rote prayer. The exact phrase “from the heart” is how they described what they wanted to hear. Of course, being young and caught unprepared, I nervously and uncomfortably tried to compose some extemporaneous phrases, all the while looking to the adults to deliver me from this torture, this awkward moment that in any case seemed to lose the real essence of prayer and thanksgiving. To me, the reigning attitude was less “thank you, Lord,” and more “let’s see what cute thing the kid might say” or “hurry up so we can eat”.

Whether due to my introverted nature or due to my eagerness to start dinner, I passionately hated composing those forced, utterly contrived ad libitum orations. I found it difficult to understand why I had to jettison something I had been taught to memorize from infancy in favor of, to use the words of Joseph Ratzinger (although for a slightly different context), “a banal, on-the-spot product”. Of course, in those years, I was not equipped with the requisite theological language to articulate my objections to these so-called “prayers from the heart”; I could sense, however, that every time the adults stopped me from saying a Hail Mary or Glory Be, something was terribly amiss.

Later, I learned to reject this false dichotomy of rote prayer vs. prayer “from the heart”, but before proceeding, let’s make some important clarifications.

Firstly, improvised prayers can indeed be fruitful and “from the heart”, but they cannot be forced. Such prayers must arise naturally and organically according to one’s own inspiration and spiritual preparation. Without true, spontaneous inspiration, the improvised product smacks of inauthenticity. Secondly, the people best at executing anything ad libitum are normally those who are experts. We would never expect a guitar novice to nail an ad hoc solo like a Clapton or a Hendrix; likewise, a professional theologian like Fr. Robert Barron would probably preach a better extemporaneous homily than, say, a permanent deacon with no academic theological degrees. On the other hand, putting a young child on the spot for a “prayer from the heart” is probably not the most prudent course of action; more often than not, the unprepared child will exhibit from diarrhea of the mind and constipation of the mouth. Yes, Sacred Scripture has indeed bequeathed us that wondrous motto, ex ore infantium et lactantium perficisti laudem (cf. Psalm 8), but we would do better to read this line in an especially Christological sense, not in a general sense– for indeed, the phrase does not say ex ore omnium infantium. (For another particular instance of ad lib prayers run amok, see my Thanksgiving Rant of 2014).

Back to the dichotomy of rote prayer vs. “prayer from the heart”: only in high school was I able to explain to myself why this dualism was a false one. I realized that the adults in my family were implying that, if I were to use a rote prayer during grace before meals, then my prayer was not from the heart. Once I recognized this subtle (if unintended) condemnation of the prayers I had memorized from infancy, the absurdity of their position became abundantly clear, which we can illustrate by first looking at the liturgy.

One of the great privileges of priests is to be able to open the Church’s liturgical books (especially the 1962 Missal) and pray those sonorous texts that have been sanctified by centuries of use. Whether hymns written by Aquinas, Eucharistic Prefaces with Augustinian flair, Collects redolent of Athanasius, orationes super populum with their thick Roman fragrance, or any of the five gorgeous Sequences, the entire liturgy is like one polyphonic rote prayer that resounds through every generation. Indeed, what a privilege it is for priests to utter texts far more ancient than these, composed by the Eternal High Priest himself: “this is my Body; this is the cup of my Blood”.

Who would dare say that these prayers come not from the heart?

The laity can also open the books of Sacred Scripture and stand edified by the old hymns of Israel, the Psalms. The earliest Christian hymns are scattered throughout the entire New Testament. Each day, Christians draw strength from these old prayers– and who would dare say that these come not from the heart?

Each time we encounter a rote prayer, we have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the fact that the words we speak today are the same words which generations of holy men and women have prayed with unquenchable fervor. In doing so, we in the Church Militant unite ourselves with the eternal Church Triumphant, that resounding chorus of patriarchs and prophets, angels and apostles. We have a chance to breathe with the saints, and sometimes, if our prayer is truly devout and humble, we can hear the very echo of the Lord himself, especially when we pray in the manner which he taught us, as we dare to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Some might object, “well, those rote prayers were composed by somebody at some point in time; how can’t a modern spontaneous prayer be just as good?” The liturgical texts for Corpus Christi, for example, were not “ancient and venerable” in the thirteenth century when Aquinas composed them. The Hail Mary itself is comprised in part of two spontaneous greetings to the Blessed Mother. Is an attachment to the Church’s rote prayers simply a form of that anachronistic archaeologism which Pius XII condemned?

Of course, such a line of reasoning would end by condemning the Bible itself as anachronistic. Yes, mortal humans composed all our prayers at some point in time, and some were certainly done ad libitum. And yet, not all extemporaneous compositions are equal. Not all will enjoy an inspiring meeting with the Blessed Mother as did the Archangel Gabriel and St. Elizabeth, whose encounters with the Virgin begat the Hail Mary. Furthermore, if we return to what we said about the experts who are best at improvising prayers, the same experts are, by and large, also the ones capable of deliberately composing orations worthy of universal usage. It would take a supreme act of arrogance (a problem rampant in Bunigni’s Consilium) to fancy oneself on par with, for example, Aquinas’ ability to compose prayers for the universal Church.

Once any prayer receives the Church’s placet, or once their authors are canonized, said prayers thereafter belong to the Church at large. By the Power of the Keys, we can be sure that those prayers speak with the timeless voice of the People of God. They are indeed given from the heart– ex corde Ecclesiae— to the Lord. 

And so, the next time someone asks me to “pray from the heart” before a meal, I will simply close my eyes and recite what I received from the Church, confident that when I utter these precious words, I breathe with the saints of God.

Benedic, Domine, nos et haec tua dona, quae de tua largitate sumus sumpturi, per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

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