To pray is to communicate with God; the medium of communication is the spoken word, and although we can convey feeling, desire, and intent also by facial expression and gesture, it is only by words that we can give them clarity of meaning and of form. By the word also we declare and bind ourselves. Thus in oral prayer as in any other form of speech, it matters what kind of words we use and how we use them. Right intent is in itself not enough.
It is true that clumsy and awkward words that spring from a sincere heart are preferable to the most flowery ones which are devoid of inner substance. God looks into the hearts of men and will not reject those of pure heart who find it difficult to express themselves clearly or well.
The words we speak will themselves affect our state of mind. Human speech does not originate with the individual as an auto-genous means of self-expression; man finds the world of words — the language — ready-made for him. He is born into the language, grows up with it, and is influenced by it to an even greater extent than by his surroundings.
Language penetrates down to the roots of his mental and emotional life. He thinks in it, feels in it; it is the vehicle of intercourse with his fellows and the means by which he learns the significance and use of all objects.
The language of prayer is no exception to the rule. Only to a limited extent can the individual make up his own wording; the greater part of it he finds ready-made. It follows that the words used in prayer have a formative influence on the whole of our spiritual life; we should therefore pay due attention to them.
The most vital prayer is the one which springs unprompted from the heart; it has no difficulty in finding its own appropriate language. Indeed, we may say that the spontaneous expression of repentance or yearning, adoration or joy, supplication or thanksgiving, is the prime language of prayer.
Learning to speak (that is, acquiring the faculty of putting one’s thoughts and feelings into words and conveying them to others) is a vital part of our growing-up process. It should be the aim of education to develop in the individual the ability not merely to use the language correctly but also in accordance with his own way of experiencing and seeing the world — in other words, to use it in an individual manner.
This also applies to the language of prayer. We do not pray merely to communicate our needs to God — He knows our hearts better than we do. Prayer is an intimate form of speaking which should bear the mark of our personality. In prayer we live before God, offer up to Him what is ours to offer, and receive from Him what it pleases Him to give to us. Therefore the language of our prayer should be truly our own.
There are times when spontaneous formulation of our prayer is easy. When we feel God’s presence, or when we are in distress and put ourselves into God’s merciful hand, the right words come of themselves.
Often, however, the heart is empty and the mind has little to say; in this state of poverty speech does not come easily. But we must not give up; we must accept this insufficiency, for it has its own purpose and its own significance. We must find words of prayer which are true to it, words of great simplicity — plain affirmations of faith, hope, and acceptance. Such words are not less valuable than those which flow in easy abundance, and they are the right ones for the occasion precisely because they are not contrived or artificial.
If words do not come easily we should not immediately resort to established texts; we should subject ourselves to the discipline of inner poverty. We may learn lessons from it which no sacred books can teach us.
Even if the language of our prayer consisted in nothing more than the words “I believe in Thee” or “I bow before Thee” or “I will obey Thee and do all that is in my power” or “I commend myself to Thy holy care,” the prayer would be as precious before God as the most inspired flow of words in a moment of profound emotion. However, we should not go to extremes of resignation. If we cannot find the right words within, we must not hesitate to go to external sources.
The established texts of prayer
We speak of the “communion of saints” without knowing too well what is meant by it. It does not mean the communion between the saints or the communion between ordinary people like ourselves and those great ones whom we call saints. It means, above all, the company of those united by a common faith in the Gospel, the Eucharist, and all things pertaining to divine life. If, therefore, there exist appropriate and good words of prayer which have sprung from the heart of some inspired person, it is only right and proper that others should make use of them. This establishes a union in holiness.
There are other reasons why we not only may but should make use of established texts: we may learn from them. It has already been shown that speech is more than a means of individual self-expression; it is the means by which the individual moves in that vast world of symbolism which we call language.
In this world he finds much more than the individual words which have developed in the course of time; he finds combinations of words, phrases, predications, periods, and patterns of thought which others have created; he must enter into them and submit himself to their formative power.
The same again applies to the language of prayer. The texts established by pious people are imbued with their experiences and with their struggles; in using these texts we make them part of our own schooling. They not only teach us how to express our own thoughts, but can awaken in us thoughts and feelings which may have been dormant. The prayers of saints are veritable journeys of discovery in the land of the spirit, paths that lead to God — intimations of a new life. A good prayer can be to our spirit what bread is to the hungry, medicine to the sick, or flowers to those weighed down by the monotony of everyday life.
Prayers given by God Himself
There are prayers which come to us directly from God, which form part of Revelation: the Psalms, for instance. They tell us of God and how to reach Him — not in the form of instruction but directly. They take us by the hand and lead us. The Psalms are not only beautiful in themselves but are necessary to us. They originated in God-inspired hearts; they were implanted in them by God, to rise up to Him as an offering of all mankind.
The same is true of the great prayer texts in the Gospels (such as the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and Simeon’s thanksgiving). And there is one text which is of absolute validity and is necessary to us all — the Lord’s Prayer. No one should say that his spiritual life is so highly developed that he has no more need of the Lord’s Prayer; this would be delusion or arrogance. The Lord’s Prayer must forever be our introduction to prayer: it was the Lord Himself who taught it to His disciples when they said to Him, “Teach us to pray.”
Yet another, more hidden, significance attaches to the prayers just mentioned: they are part of the new creation. The new man lives in them. They are mysteries, linked to the rites out of which spring the things to come, namely, the sacraments. When we say these prayers we help to build the new earth and the new heaven.
Not quite of the same eminence, but nevertheless connected with them, are the prayers of the Church as contained in the Liturgy. Not all liturgical prayers are equally valuable, but some of them offer wonderful opportunities for communion with God (such as, for example, the Gloria of the Mass or the “Come, Holy Spirit” of the feast of Pentecost, and also some of the hymns and prayers of the Divine Office). Their texts mostly originate in the early Church; they have grandeur and give expression to a most lofty concept of God. We cannot do better than to use them also for our own personal devotions.
The importance of choosing holy prayers
It is important to choose the right kind of prayer. We are not speaking now of the revealed prayers which form part of the divine canon of prayer and are therefore binding for all, although it is left to the individual to decide which of these prayers are suited for various occasions. We are speaking now of prayers as found in certain current prayer books, and here we should not mince words. Many of these prayers are simply superfluous; others affect our spirits as bad food affects our body.
Prayer, as we have said, must above all be truthful; prayer, therefore, which is given to exaggeration is not truthful. Untruthful also are prayers which are mawkish and sentimental, which presume feelings which a mentally healthy person cannot entertain. The same applies to prayers in which man abases himself before God and revels in the idea of his own sinfulness. Such prayers have unwholesome roots and must therefore be rejected.
It may appear strange to speak of a sense of honor in the context of prayer. The sense of honor is, as we know, a sentiment of problematic value, and many of its forms have no place at all in the realm of spiritual life. But there is a sense of honor which does enter into the relationship between man and God, not only for man’s sake but also for God’s sake. People speak of their honor and lay great store by it; they should remember above all that honor can be upheld only by means which are themselves honorable. In the sight of God, only the kind of prayer which springs from clean and honorable motives has real value.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from a chapter in Romano Guardini’s The Art of Praying, available from Sophia Institute Press.