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Knowing Prayers

To roughly summarize last week's newsletter, prayer is talking to God.

Thus far, I've mainly been talking about spontaneous, conversational prayer. The kind where you close your eyes and just "talk".

It's a kind of prayer that's been easier for me to think about, as it's formed solely between two entities. It's simple. But, it captures only a segment of the prayers I've said throughout my life. Many more are learned prayers.

This newsletter is going to be a meandering exploration of what these prayers are, what properties they have and what their uses might be. I'm a little more intimidated by this subject than by last weeks, because of the sheer amount of history in these prayers. The one I know best, the Our Father, is near two thousand years old.

Like spontaneous prayer, these can serve many different purposes in the conversation with God. They can communicate worship, supplication, repentance,

What's unique about them though is where the words come from. Though informed by the culture and world around you spontaneous prayer is filtered through your own mind. Learned prayer, on the other hand, comes directly from systems larger than us as individuals, that persist over time, in our lives and through history. They're words that we will return to, that won't change.

This means they can express things that we, in a single moment, cannot.

Big ideas

These prayers can cut straight through to our core beleifs, to the foundations of our relationship with God. The Our Father can be thought of as the "summary of the whole gospel" which is a pretty incredible thing to be able to say in a few lines.

It's very strange as an individual, relating to a prayer like that. It feels so removed from words you might say yourself, or thoughts you might think unprompted.

At the same time, there's something very secure in them. They're stable foundations for you to anchor a conversation around, and to guide you. They can serve to expand your conception of God, to break you out of misconceptions or misunderstandings you fall into.

Perhaps a good metaphor for these kinds of prayers is manners. They're practices useful for introducing you to a new social context and get you accquinated with how it functions and who people are, in the general sense.

But to thrive in it, and to make truly meaningful connections, you have to establish your own relationships, beyond manners.

Pitfalls in Prayer

One thing I worry about is saying prayers I don't understand.

I worry that they can cloud my relationship with God, introducing ideas that I don't beleive, or have faith in. Do I beleive them? Are they articulating real thoughts and feelings I have when I say them? This may sound trivial, but I think it can be a really tricky thing to know.

These are especially difficult questions to ask in the format of learned prayers. So many of them are statements of absolute belief, not spaces for uncertainty.

When the mere act of saying something like that can make you beleive it more, how can you step back and examine the words you're saying?

A framework for writing prayers

Perhaps one way is to try writing prayers yourself. This is the kind of thing that's fascinating to me, but I have no idea where to start. How are prayers written?

A start could be just writing my spontaneous prayers, and then extracting from them the ideas, words, and phrases that I want to return to.

Another approach might be by trying to capture the big ideas and phrases. What would it look like to write my own version of the "I beleive..."?

Regardless of the initial seed, the key, I think, would be to pay close attention to the prayers, and refine them over time. I have an inkling that that process itself could be an incredibly meaningful way to communicate with God.

Places of Inspiration

While I've been talking about prayers from Christianity, there's a whole universe of them out there, from other religions, poetry, literature.

One that I read first growing up and rediscovered a couple years back is the the Wizard's Oath, from the Young Wizards by Diane Duane.

In Life’s name and for Life’s sake,

I assert that I will employ the Art which is its gift in Life’s service alone, rejecting all other usages.

I will guard growth and ease pain. I will fight to preserve what grows and lives well in its own way; and I will change no object or creature unless its growth and life, or that of the system of which it is part, are threatened.

To these ends, in the practice of my Art, I will put aside fear for courage, and death for life, when it is right to do so —

till Universe’s end.

God, it's a good one.

One thing I love in particular about this is that it changes throughout the series, based on the character that's saying it and the context their in. The author even talks about how it changes over time for a Wizard. It's an interesting concept to have a named prayer, that nevertheless changes in form and content, but remains the same thing.

Combining the two

If I look at how I've actually prayed throughout my life, it's rarely been in isolated instances of spontaneous or learned prayers. Instead it's usually a sandwich of the two, with spontaneous conversational prayer making up the middle.

I wonder what other conversations could work. Could the spontaneous prayer be a reflection directly on the static learned aspect? Or perhaps you could move through different phrases.

In some ways, the learned prayers can be thought of as prompts, or settings, to get you into a particular mindset, stating the subject of conversation for the day.

I feel I really haven't done justice to the subject here, but it's been extremely interesting reading up on more prayers in the church and else where. If there are any prayers you learned, in any context religous or otherwise, I'd really love to hear about them!

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