How I’ve Come to Like Praying Without My Own Words
Words are hard.
I might have a master’s degree in communication, but I can fully embody with this sentiment. We all struggle to share our feelings and emotions accurately and well. It’s one of the reasons great literature resonates with us — seeing depth of feeling and insight on the page helps us better understand ourselves.
And in that vein, sometimes having your own words for what you are thinking or feeling is overrated, though. I think we’ve all been in situations where we can’t find the words we need to fully express ourselves — or when we don’t even know what we’re feeling in the first place. And this is especially the case for me when it comes to prayer.
That’s why I’m such a fan of praying morning and evening prayer. Morning and evening prayer are part of a broader routine of prayer that can be offered every day at specific times — priests, brothers, and nuns often use this kind of prayer to pray together.
This method of prayer employs an organized arrangement of Bible verses, psalms, hymns, and more. The readings and prayers are offered together in the same way each day, and you rotate through a series that lasts four weeks. Morning and evening prayer can be found in a book called Shorter Christian Prayer for old-school folks like me who like the feel of paper; they’re also available online through many Catholic apps or websites.
I first learned about praying morning and evening prayer in college and my first reaction to this kind of prayer was: man, this is boring.
And honestly, it is. You read the same words every four weeks and follow a consistent routine every day: song, psalm, psalm, song, reading, prayers, etc. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity.
But that’s actually what I’ve come to love about praying morning and evening prayer: I don’t choose what psalms are spoken each day. I am given the words to speak to God. Some days, I find that the words that are given to me are exactly what I want to say that day.
When words are hard, I know that I can lean on the prayers of the psalms, that I can speak the words that the community of the Church has relied upon for thousands of years. I know these words can identify and speak to my emotions and help me say what I’m trying to say in a way that I cannot on my own.
The psalms, especially, help me develop a personal relationship with God by articulating movements of the heart that I can identify with —I’m just not very good at perceiving these movements (let alone putting words to them) on my own. When I use the words of the psalms to speak to God, I’m using the same words Jesus relied upon in his own prayer.
When done correctly, those words and the spaces between them — the moments of silence that fill me as I pause in between prayers and readings — allow me to speak to God and to listen, to give God my feelings and emotions without the need for my own words.
On the flip side, though, there’s something to be said for the days that the psalms don’t exactly jive with what I’m feeling. For example, sometimes I’m having a good day, and then I get to this prayer: “Eternal God, for whom a thousand years are like the passing day, help us to remember that life is like a flower which blossoms in the morning, but withers in the evening.”
There aren’t many days when I’m feeling that prayer. I’m in my twenties, and I don’t really want to be reminded of the fleeting nature of life most days.
But that’s why praying these pre-written prayers with the community of the Church is so important. It takes me out of myself, from my own self-centered worldview that makes my prayer about me and only what I want. Instead, I’m entering deeply into the prayers and the voices of people in the whole community of the Church. I’m speaking to the greater seasons of the Church, to the moods and moments of the world, rather than dwelling in my own desires and what feels good to pray about.
And I’m also reminded that there are those throughout the world who are feeling that fleeting nature of life really intimately right now. Or when we pray more sorrowful psalms, for example, I can identify more deeply with those who are suffering — even if they are on a different continent.
I’m praying in one voice with all Catholics throughout the world when I pray morning and evening prayer. My voice is joined with the voices of living people throughout the world, and also with the communion of saints. I’m not just myself in morning and evening prayer — I’m part of the fuller Church. I know that even when I’m praying alone, I am far from it.
Some days, that means I’m praying words that feel strange to me, but I also know that on other days, the words that fit my life perfectly are also being prayed by someone across the world — even if they’re not feeling that way just then.
So I pray morning and evening prayer even though it’s kind of boring because it connects me to the greater Church and gives me words when they’re hard.