Spontaneous rote prayer
I love the ending prayer of the Angelus:
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by his passion and cross be brought to the glory of his resurrection. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.
In one sentence you have the following ideas: God gives grace; we can pray to Him; He will give us this grace if we ask; He became man; He did this at a specific moment in history; angels exist; He died; the cross is meaningful; He rose again; He is now in a glorified body.
Of course, each of these points could be expanded upon in volumes. But, luckily for us, the simple remembrance of this prayer doesn’t require to us haul volumes of books around. The prayer itself is sufficient for a lifetime of meditation.
So too the Lord’s prayer, the Creed, the Hail Mary, etc. While criticisms get leveled at Catholics that we rely too heavily on rote prayer, I don’t believe the criticisms carry much weight. For people who object to rote prayers and only believe spontaneous prayer to be valid, I assume that the only greeting cards they buy are blank inside.
Why do we pray? What is prayer? Essentially, prayer is our personal or corporate conversation with and worship of God (and the saints too, minus the worship). It is “a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God (CCC 2558).” Is my conversation with another, even a highly beloved other, lessened if I use rote formulas repetitively instead of spontaneous prose? Possibly, but how often have I said “I love you” to my wife? Is the statement sapped of meaning because of the frequency with which I say it? If I challenge myself to say something unique every time I speak with my wife, is that evidence of a more genuine love, or do I do it to subconsciously (or consciously) give myself points for originality?
Even the simple phrase “I love you” takes on different meaning depending on which word you stress, how emphatically you say it, etc. So a rote prayer can have varied meanings and intensity, often unknown to everyone but the pray-er and the recipient of his prayer.
Many if not all rote prayers are centuries old, and are time-tested for theological accuracy. The Creed is recited today because it is true; it helps us assess the veracity of novel claims that contradict it. I don’t need to know a ton about the history or theology of Mormonism; enough to know that it contradicts the Creed’s “only begotten Son of God” which I say every week. Rote prayers are the layman’s apologetics toolbox, just as stained-glass windows were the (illiterate) layman’s Bible.
Rote prayers can be beautiful, meaningful, and deeply personal. But if we could conclude that spontaneous prayer is superior, why use rote prayer at all even if it isn’t necessarily bad? I don’t intend what follows to be offensive to anyone, but I’ve noticed that the same criticisms that get made about rote prayer can often also be made against what I’ve observed of spontaneous prayer in practice.
While the rote prayer may begin “Bless us, O Lord, for these thy gifts…,” how often have you heard “spontaneous” prayers that rarely deviate from “God, bless this food for our bodies…?” While a rote intercessory prayer may include “pray for us sinners, now…,” a “spontaneous” intercessory prayer usually doesn’t deviate much from “please lift up ____ in prayer.”
So, rote prayer can be spontaneous and spontaneous prayer can be rote. Which of course confirms the Catholic maxim of “both/and:” which prayer is best? Both!