Working, as I do, in low-church Methodism in the South, I’m called upon regularly, in a variety of contexts, to offer extemporaneous prayers. I also frequently hear others—both clergy and laity— pray “on the fly.”
Extemporaneous prayers can be as varied in substance and style as those who offer them, but I have to say that the longer I am in this setting where extemporaneous prayers are valued as “authentic” and “heart-felt,” while historic, liturgical, or other written prayers are subject to suspicion or seen as a crutch for the less articulate (how ridiculous), the more I long to retreat to a corner somewhere, cover my head (and ears), and pray the rosary.
(Praying with beads is a fairly new discipline for me but one that has breathed new life into old habits and assumptions about prayer).
One of the things that is often lost in ad-lib praying is eloquence, by which I don’t mean flowery phrases; there are usually plenty of those. By “eloquence” I mean the basic dictionary definition of the word: the art of using language with aptness; that is, with both intelligence (not cleverness) and with a sense of occasion and purpose.
Which is why, as Stanley Hauerwas once wrote, “the loss of eloquence in prayer is a moral loss.” But try telling that to someone convinced that the language of prayer (and of worship generally) must mimic the culture’s vernacular lest people tune out and turn off.
Why is it that we don’t trust the language of the liturgy—of the historic prayers of the church and of scripture itself—to do its transformative work? Why are we so anxious when we pray not to bore or intimidate—both others and ourselves?
(Originally published Thursday, April 17, 2008)