Verbal Prayer

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. At the end of our long series of commentaries on the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and at the beginning of Holy Week, I would like to argue that words take us places inaccessible to pictures. Words are the heart of Christian spirituality.

The modern Church has come to like a sort of hierarchy of prayer, with “vocal prayer” at the bottom, “mental prayer” higher than that, and “contemplation” at the top. The Catechism takes up this threefold division at 2700-2724.

Many Catholics, whether familiar or unfamiliar with these names, have a vague idea that mumbling your prayers is for beginners, but people who “really” pray replace words with pictures, and then ultimately there’s nothing but silence. This division might have some basis in the Ignatian Exercises, I’m not sure. But it isn’t traditional, and I don’t think it’s right.

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Instead, we can read our threefold division in light of the famous chapter 19 of St. Benedict’s Rule, on the Discipline of Praying the Psalms:

“We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the bad in every place (cf Prov 15:3). Let us firmly believe this, especially when we take part in the Work of God [that is, singing the Psalms in the Liturgy]. Let us, therefore, always be mindful of what the Prophet saith, ‘Serve ye the Lord with fear’ (Ps 2:11). And again, ‘Sing ye wisely”’(Ps 46[47]:8). And, ‘I will sing praise to Thee in the sight of the angels’ (Ps 137[138]:1). Therefore, let us consider how it becometh us to behave in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”

That our mind may be in harmony with our voice: ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

In a too common reading, the “mind” (of mental prayer) is opposed to the “voice” (of vocal prayer). What Benedict reminds us of is that the mind expresses itself in words, and words are meant to express the voice. Mental prayer, then, is not prayer without words. Mental prayer is prayer where we pay attention to the words we are saying. Our mind should be in harmony with our voice.

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This traditional view is less elitist than the ideas we sometimes have about contemplation. Old ladies mumble their rosaries, read holy cards, and go to Mass: all verbal prayers. Children, too, learn to pray with words. But that doesn’t make their prayer immature, just because they don’t know the techniques of “meditation” or absolute silence.

Words are not for the elite. The Our Father and the Hail Mary – the prayers of the Rosary, and of children – are words that are available to everyone. And their depths are unfathomable. We all have them at our fingertips. We just need to practice paying attention to the words we pray.

So too is the Bible available. Now, the Bible is hard reading. But we needn’t understand everything. Indeed, we don’t understand everything precisely because there’s so much good stuff there. The problem with leaving behind words is that we reduce prayer to only what we already understand.

The traditional discipline of lectio divina is not a technique, not some trick you have to learn. It just means prayerfully reading the Bible. We bathe in its richness, we aren’t surprised that it is deeper than we are, and we get glimpses of riches we never would have imagined.

That’s really the point of verbal prayer: it is a recognition that we have much to learn, and that God has given us his word, in Scripture and in the Word Incarnate, to teach us.

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Holy Week gives us the opportunity for many words, and to discover the richness of those words. When we read the story of the Passion, we realize that pictures can see a man with bread, but only words can tell us this is his Body; pictures can show a man on a Cross, but only words can say, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

If we pray the stations, we will see images of Christ crucified – but use our words to express love, and to know how much he loves us. And we will pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary, many times, and discover that this is not just a mourning mother, but the Mother of God, full of grace.

Let us enjoy the words of Holy Week, and let our minds be in harmony with our voice.

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What words can you use to pray? Is your mind in harmony with your voice when you pray them?

eric.m.johnston

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