Our Prayer Should be Simple

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

At a recent general audience Pope Benedict spoke about the nature of prayer and its place in the Christian life. He said that prayer is the only way to have a life-giving relationship with God. Even the simplest of prayer can give a person the power to resist evil and do good, the Pope said. “The grace to pray is given to all.”

I found the Pope’s direct and unassuming approach to prayer to be very refreshing, because prayer in the Church today has become terribly complex, especially the more formal, public liturgical prayer of the Church. This trend is apparent in the development of liturgical books in recent years. Consider the following examples.

When I was ordained 40 years ago, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Office that priests and deacons are bound to say everyday, was contained in one book with 1,668 pages. That in itself was formidable. Now, the Liturgy of the Hours has grown to four volumes with 8,140 pages.

And the format is complicated. My goodness, to say Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, especially at times like the Octave of Christmas or Easter Week, requires the dexterity of a brain surgeon and the simultaneous management of ribbons, holy cards, fingers and thumbs, as well as the constant flipping from one section to another. All of that with the simple goal of praising God and sanctifying the day.

Another, more contemporary example. The Sacramentary that was used at Mass for many years after the Second Vatican Council was 1,099 pages long. The new Roman Missal, just recently introduced, has 1,341 pages and is rife with long sentences, too many dependent clauses, and ineffable words like consubstantial, firstly, abasement and prevenient.

Finally, the Lectionary, the book containing the Scripture readings for Mass, used to be in one volume of 1,122 pages. That single book was all-inclusive with readings for Sundays, weekdays, feast days, ritual Masses and votive Masses. The current version of the Lectionary has also had a growth spurt and now has 5,424 pages in four multi-colored volumes, in three cycles for Sundays and two for weekdays.

I wonder if prayer was intended to be that complicated. When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, did He give them a four volume set of texts, complete with ribbons and tabs?

Some have suggested that the digital age, with new electronic devices might come to the rescue. Recently I was introduced to an app for my iPhone, the iBreviary. Here you can find all the prayers of the Divine Office, listed everyday, in a very accessible format. No ribbons, holy cards or flipping required. Just click, scroll, and pray.

Now, as adverse as I am to electronics, I have to admit, it’s pretty cool. However, I don’t think that an electronic device is a suitable replacement for approved liturgical books which should possess a certain beauty and dignity, suitable for public worship in our churches. Sorry, I can’t envision an iPad replacing the Roman Missal on the altar, and the first deacon who carries an iPhone to me to be reverenced after reading the Gospel at Mass will be instantly defrocked!

Despite my whining, I recognize the difference between liturgical prayer and private, personal prayer. The liturgy of the Church is meant to be structured and formal. Hence the need for a variety of carefully researched, well-written, and beautifully presented liturgical texts. The Catholic Church has a long tradition of noble, rich, liturgical prayer, a tradition that some say has been lost in recent decades as the liturgy became less vertical and more horizontal, and the language of prayer less inspiring and more pedestrian.

Personal prayer and liturgical prayer are closely related of course. They nourish and complement each other. Personal prayer without liturgy is incomplete; and liturgy without personal prayer is sterile.

Nonetheless, at its heart, prayer is meant to be simple. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked what a person should do to follow the path of salvation. She said simply, “Love God, and above all, pray.” And St. John Vianney said: “This is the glorious duty of man – to pray and to love. That is where man’s happiness lies . . . Prayer is nothing else but union with God.”

Join the Bishop's Facebook community here. Learn more about the Bishop's new book here. This summer I read about a U.S. Olympic swimmer, Katie Ledecky from Maryland, just 15 years old, who said she always prayed the Hail Mary before her races. Nothing more complicated than that; just a simple Hail Mary. I don’t know, of course, but my guess is that Katie didn’t pray to win her races, but, rather that she would do her best and that she’d be strengthened by the presence of God. But, in fact, we are happy that she won a gold medal in the women’s 800 freestyle.

John Vianney said that prayer is union with God. Friends and lovers don’t need text books or a lot of words to communicate. A few quiet, whispered words are sufficient. Sometimes, in fact, words just get in the way and it is silence that opens the heart and prepares the soul for an intimate union.

So it is in our relationship with God. Our personal prayers should be just that – personal, direct and simple. Talk to God, and listen to Him, in silence. Praise Him for His goodness, tell Him you’re sorry for your sins, ask Him for help, and thank Him for the good gifts He gives you every day.