We were driving to school recently when an ambulance passed us. I suggested to the kids that we pray for the person who was hurt or sick in the ambulance. Jacob, Liam, Jamie and I said the Hail Mary together. Teenasia, our foster daughter, who had been living with us about two months at the time, listened with interest.
“I’ve never heard that prayer before, Mom,” she said. “Did you make it up?”
I told her I hadn’t, even as Jacob, 13, tried to convince Teenasia that I had.
“Don’t be modest, Mom. You know you wrote that prayer. In fact, weren’t you there for the original Annunciation, to hear what the angel said to Mary?”
Liam, 9, not wanting to be outdone, added that my prayer seemed to be growing in popularity and perhaps I would be famous for it someday.
Jamie, 4, noticed a rare chance to show more knowledge than her older sister, and simply started saying the Hail Mary again, just because she could.
Teenaisa caught my eye in the rearview mirror, and we smiled, then rolled our eyes at all three of them.
I have a strange relationship with memorized prayers. On one hand, I like them, because they quickly organize my fragmented mind into prayer mode. Memorized prayers mean you don’t need to reach for any words—the words are given to you. Memorized prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, Bless Us O Lord and Glory Be also serve as connectors. I know that any time I may be saying one of these prayers, there are likely thousands of others saying them as well. They also allow for building of community-- rather than just me spontaneously talking to Mary about the person in the ambulance, the prayer allowed the whole family to join in.
On the flip side, I’ve wondered about how memorized prayers fit into a real relationship with God. I would not approach anyone else with whom I’m in relationship with a formal, well-worded message written centuries ago. If I, for example, called a girlfriend and began with a sixteen-line sonnet greeting taken out of Shakespeare, she would gently remind me that she had things to do, and could I please get to the point. Another problem with memorized prayers is that I have the ability—and I doubt I’m alone—to say them flawlessly while not thinking about them at all. I have mindlessly said memorized prayers in church while mentally repainting the bathroom or planning a grocery shopping trip. The Lord be with you. And also with you. (Do we have syrup?) Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. (I know we have frozen waffles.)
But the question of memorized prayers point to the bigger question of what is prayer, exactly? Prayer is being in relationship with God—living in such a way that we are in tune with the nudges of the Holy Spirit. The mystics tell us we do not need words at all. The ancient practice of meditation or centering prayer is the complete absence of words—and even thoughts— in God’s presence. The labor of saints remind us that work itself can be a prayer, when that work serves God — again no words necessary.
Yet, mystics and saints also went to church. They prayed aloud before dinner with their families and before bed with their children. I have noticed that even among the spontaneous “un-official” prayers we have in our family, there is repetition and rhythm, two attributes of memorized prayer. As Jamie prays each night for great grandma, she phrases it the exact same way. And each night as I tuck each child into bed, after our “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer (where we skip the line about dying in the sleep), I say something to God in my own words about that child. Yet, even my own words have become their own predictable prayer. I always pray that God blesses Liam to become “the Liam God wants him to be,” and I say the same for the other children. It’s unchanged every night, but truly, I can’t think of a better way to say it. This is what I want from God for my children, and I want my children to know this, so I say it each night.
As for my mixed feelings about memorized prayers, I have mixed feelings about exercise and broccoli, too, but both keep me healthy. My questions about memorized prayers prevent me from becoming stagnant; keep me searching. My simultaneous comfort with them keeps me grounded in a tradition that unites me both with my immediate community and with millions around the world. Grounded and comfortable; yet searching for even more. It’s not such an unusual place to be — it’s a place I know well enough to bring my children.