Many people struggle with prayer. This is a fact. Statements like “This is boring”, “I don’t get it”, “Do I have to?” and “God doesn’t care if I pray at home or in a Church” are commonly made about prayer, and they all belie the fact that the makers of these comments all share one thing in common – a very one dimensional and often inadequate understanding of prayer and its many dimensions, causing a blasé approach to what is really important in life.
There are at least two major categories of prayer that we should be participating in on a regular basis. When we understand what these two categories are, we will be mentally fitting in and helping ourselves to tune in to what is actually happening around us. Let me explain.
Liturgical prayer is the first level. This is when we gather as one body of believers in a church, often around a central altar, and make our prayer and presence an offering of a sacrifice to God for the love of him and as an act of love for the world. At the Eucharist, we join in with the prayer and sacrifice of Christ, and it is really his prayer, not so much as it is ours. When we pray the Office of the Church either as a community or privately on our own in the silence of our homes, at work desks or in a group in a chapel or a church, or even on a bus, we also pray liturgically. These are not private prayers as such, but are our living out of the baptismal covenant that we share. Because it is a prayer for the world, and not for individual members only, it becomes a salvific act, and a universal act as well.
Contrast this with the other major category of prayer, which is personal, devotional prayer. This kind of prayer serves to open our hearts to the God of love who longs for our yearning for him so that we can be intimate with the giver of life and love.
What makes prayer, especially liturgical prayer, both difficult to do and to appreciate is the common mistaking of one form of prayer for the other. Many will naturally feel uncomfortable and even confused when the liturgical words and community actions are deemed to be an interference, and perhaps even a hindrance to what one thinks should be simply devotional. When one is so completely happy with an empty silence of centering prayer, or praying in the solace and comforts of one’s living room, and brings this attitude into Liturgy and expects the same kind of still union on a Sunday Mass gathering, of course the ramblings of the Gloria or the badly articulated words of the Holy Holy Holy could cause inner turmoil and frustrations. What one is not aware of, is that one is actually comparing apples with oranges.
The truth is, both are indeed necessary, and both need to be done, and done well. The challenge many face is that often, only one of them is done in life, and worse is when it is only done occasionally and not on a frequent and habitual basis. The priest who is a presider at Liturgy also needs to become one who is clear about not mixing up the two forms of prayer and mixes up the two by the choice and genre of music. We need to be extra vigilant in not turning liturgical services into meditation sessions, and added challenge for any preacher is to go deep into scripture and to really pray for the world.
Ultimately, the test of whether we are getting it right is whether we are getting all flustered when we find ourselves upset at Mass because the tune of the Gloria is not what we deem a ‘nice’ melody, or that the actions are rather stiff and artificial, and that they don’t make one feel comfortable. It will show that we still think that the Mass is about us and how we feel as individuals. The fact is that, it is not about us.
It is about what we can contribute to the well-being and holiness of the world, and how the Church continues to glorify God in worship.