Have you ever heard someone playfully mock prayers that use technical terminology and complex language? Well, I sure have, and mostly from people I greatly respect. I do not believe that their intention is to discourage people like myself, actually I am quite certain that is not their intent, but I will say that in the moment it makes me second guess some of my deepest and most meaningful prayers.
Typically, all the individual is trying to do is to argue against using such prayers as a way of trying to manipulate or coerce God with fancy language and they are seeking to encourage Christians not to hesitate to approach the throne of grace as a needy child. And to that I say, “Hear! Hear!” Yet, something, quite dear to me, often gets caught in the friendly fire as the entire concept of praying with complexity gets brought up on charges.
I confess that I do not have the richest of prayer lives. Far too often my prayers are short, scattered and self-focused. What is my cure? Deep doctrinal prayerful langue, derived from Scripture, creed or study. When I feel like my prayer life is in a rut, so unfortunately quite often, a little something like this usually does the trick, “My God, you who exist in holy triune perfection, sovereign over all, not an atom extends beyond the word of your power. You, who sent this rebellious race, this wretched man, your beloved Son, your only Son, who in the wondrous mystery of incarnation took on full humanity, apart from that stain of Adam, and yet, all the while without laying aside the fullness of deity, the hypostatic union of two natures in one person, without confusion, change, division nor separation, the depths of which my mind cannot fathom, the heights of which my heart adores…”
Forgive me, but I find such prayers intoxicating and edifying. Such prayers affirm doctrines in a nation that abhors them. Such prayers fan the flame of my stale faith like little else that I know of. Perhaps I am not alone. C.S. Lewis, in his preface to a rather doctrinal book On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius, states the following while he is discussing the importance of doctrinal books and devotional books, “For my own part I tend to find doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” And to that I say, “Hear! Hear!” Whether in study, or in prayer, my heart sings most when it ponders and wrestles with and proclaims the doctrines of the living God.
Still more, even the eloquent prayers of a fellow brother or sister in the faith can move my far too shallow heart. The following prayer from Saint Augustine is apparently a work of “high Latin”, yet even in our weaker tongue does it not stir the soul? “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” Amen.
Even Scripture bears witness to this. After several chapters of rich, deep, difficult doctrine it is as if the Apostle Paul cannot contain himself, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
Therefore, let us remember, there is certainly a time to pray as a child with no hindrance nor lofty speech, yet, let us not forget that we are also a bride. Shall the bride not adorn her husband with lustrous praise? Shall the redeemed of Christ not pray with minds that overflow from a love which knows the depths of the doctrines that cause our hearts to sing new songs in the morning? Such prayers need not be trivialized away, in their proper place, from the heart already purchased by grace, they have their place in praise, exultation, devotion, exhortation, proclamation, and adoration.
- Saint Athanasius traslated by John Behr, On the Incarnation: Popular Patristics Series, (Younkers, New York: St Valdimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 13
- Saint Augustine, Confessions: A new translation by Henry Chadwick, (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 201