December 07, 2005

The Words We Pray, by Amy Welborn

Jane and I have been reading Amy Welborn's weblog for some time now, so when I ran across this book at the Border's in Newport Beach I grabbed. It's an interesting book, and I'm glad we got it.

First, some context. When I was a kid, my mom taught me to pray. Prayer usually involved the Our Father, and "God bless"'s: you know, "God bless Grandma, God bless Grandpa," and so on. In catechism class (I was raised Roman Catholic) I learned a number of other prayers, especially the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. And except for those "God bless"'s, pretty much all the praying I did took the form of one or more of these traditional prayers.

During high school my faith lapsed for a time; and though I remained Roman Catholic when it came back I also got involved with Protestants. (Mostly Episcopalians, but still, Protestants.) And in some Protestant circles, traditional prayers have a bad name. How can you pray sincerely when you're using somebody else's words? You should always, or at least mostly, pray in your own words. Have a conversation with God, I was told. And that's how I mostly prayed all through college, during which I was still Catholic but mostly hanging out with Protestants, and it's how I mostly prayed after I got married and joined the Episcopal Church, and it's how I've mostly prayed until now. I've prayed the Lord's Prayer fairly often during all of that time, but other traditional prayers very seldom, except as part of the normal Sunday liturgy. The Hail Mary I prayed very seldom; if Protestants are down on traditional prayers, they are especially down on Mary.

In the last few years, though, thanks largely to the efforts of certain lunatics in my denomination who shall remain nameless, I've been re-examining my faith, and especially the roots of my faith. One of those roots is liturgy--I'm simply not comfortable attending a non-liturgical church. And really, in light of this, it's surprising that I absorbed so much of the Protestant attitude toward traditional prayers, because that's really what the liturgy is. And the joy and delight of the liturgy is very simple--it's always there, it covers all of the bases, and it makes sure you don't miss anything. The liturgy isn't there for those days when it's a joy to go to church; it's there for those days when you'd rather be anywhere else, and when trying to focus on the service is nearly impossible. It's there, it's an anchor, and because it's always the same it helps you to stay focussed.

Standard prayers are really the same thing--but for every day, rather than just on Sunday mornings.

So this book came into my hands at just the time when I'd find it the most useful.

The Words We Pray is a survey of nineteen traditional Catholic prayers, many of which I learned as a child, and many of which were new to me. Only a few are specifically Catholic; most are used by Christians of all traditions. Each chapter begins with the text of one of the prayers, followed by Welborn's commentary. She discusses the origin of the prayer, how it evolved over time, and how and when it is usually prayed; and the purely factual material is leavened with her own personal reminiscences about occasions of prayer. (As fellow parents, Jane and I felt right in tune with many of them.)

The old familiar prayers include the Sign of the Cross (about which there is more to be said than you might think), the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed, the Act of Contrition, and the Prayer of St. Francis; I was also already familiar with the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner), and St. Patrick's Breastplate, though I learned both of those as adults--that one's particularly stirring, and I need to spend more time with it. Of those that were new to me my favorite is the Anima Christi, which somehow I never learned as a kid.

Anyway, it's a quietly joyful book; and if reading it has turned my prayer life upside down, that's rather a good thing.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 7, 2005 06:45 PM