As Catholics, we tend to nurture our devotional lives through longer prayers—the rosary, novenas, litanies, and the Liturgy of the Hours.
But there is an additional way to deepen one’s prayer life, and that is through shorter prayers, known as exclamations. These prayers, often just one sentence or even a few short words long, were a staple of pre-Vatican II spirituality but seem to have fallen into great disuse today. Here are a few examples:
Mary our hope, have pity on us.
Sweet heart of Jesus be my love.
Heart of Jesus, burning with love of us, inflame our heart with love of Thee.
Exclamations—also known as aspirations, ejaculations, or invocations—are a simple yet profound way to deepen your prayer life. Because you don’t need a prayer book, rosary beads, a desk, or even a silent space in order to say them. Exclamations can be uttered while you’re rushing out the door to work, stuck in traffic, distracted at Mass, or brushing your teeth at night. You never have an excuse to not be able to say an exclamation. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, St. Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing.’ This is one way to do it.
Here are seven specific ways exclamations help us grow spiritually:
1. Engage with Scripture. Does your morning devotional consist of reading Scripture? If so, an exclamation is one way to take that reading with you throughout the day. Pick one verse or one line from your reading, turn it into a prayer and memorize it, putting it into a mental pocket of sorts which you can retrieve throughout the rest of your day. By reciting this exclamation, the Scripture you read in the morning permeates and punctuates your whole day.
In fact, many established exclamations are taken from Scripture. Here are a few examples:
O God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (Also known as the Jesus prayer; from Luke 18:13.)
Teach me to do Thy will, because Thou art my God (Psalm 142:10).
O Lord, increase our faith (Luke 17:5).
My Lord and my God (John 20:28).
Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46; Psalm 30:6).
2. Extend longer prayers. Of course, this same principle could be applies to whatever else is the source of your morning devotional. For example, if you pray through Liturgy of the Hours in the morning, the exclamation could be a line from one of the psalms or other prayers that particularly struck you. Or, perhaps in the mornings you commit to simply saying the Hail Mary or the Our Father. Exclamations can be adapted from those too. Have a day where you seem burdened by everyday concerns, like paying your bills, making a mortgage, or getting a new job? Make your exclamation: Give us this day our daily bread. Feeling particularly conscious of a sin on a certain day? Forgive us our debts. Find yourself filled with a desire for things of heaven? Thy kingdom come.
3. Enrich your experience of the Mass. Exclamations are not meant just to be said alone. Some are intended to be said at specific parts of the Mass, according to traditional devotionals. Here are some examples:
When the host is raised up: My Lord and my God.
For the chalice: My Jesus, mercy.
Today, in the wake of Vatican II’s revision of the Mass, we have become accustomed to directly and actively participating in the Mass as a congregation. But there is something also to be said for silently contemplating the mysteries of the Mass and exclamations are one way to do it.
4. Expand your spiritual arsenal. A few gifted persons have the ability to memorize long texts of prayers, Scripture, poems, and the like. Most of us, not so much. But exclamations, by their very nature, are easy to memorize. So, make a habit of doing it. And you will soon find you have an arsenal of prayer ready at your disposal for any occasion—a sudden moment of temptation, the agony of an expected wait in the emergency room, or any other situation where you do not have a Bible, prayer book handy, or a cell signal to access digital versions of both.
5. Add to other prayers. Don’t just use exclamations in isolation. Use them in conjunction with longer prayers. This way, exclamations focus your mind on a particular element of that day’s devotional or Scriptural reading.
6. Adapt to the seasons of the Church. Exclamations can be used in a particular way to deepen your devotion during certain liturgical seasons. For example, during Holy Week, you might consider taking each one of the seven last ‘words’ of Christ and making those an exclamation for the day. You could do something similar during Advent. For example, you could read through the many prophecies Isaiah made of the Incarnation and take one line from each to focus on each day, or each week.
7. The grace and joy of unceasing prayer. Prayer is the life of the soul, so goes an old saying. Unceasing prayer keeps the doors of our soul constantly open to the operation of the Holy Spirit. It ensures we are constantly attached to the lifeline of grace that flows to us from God. And with that, I suspect, will come great joy.
For more information: I recommend an old prayer book titled Blessed Be God, published in New York in 1925 by P.J. Kennedy and Sons. (Here is a preview of the book.) Also fisheaters.com has a list available here. Note that many of the above exclamations were culled from these two sources.
Note: The above is adapted and revised from a lecture the author delivered for a 2016 Advent retreat on prayer hosted by Pray More Novenas.