The Readings for Tuesday, 1st Week of Ordinary Time (B2):
Now Anna spoke in her heart, and only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard at all.
So, our Ordinary Time thoughts open with Hannah praying for a child. Her lips are moving, but Eli can’t hear anything so he thinks she’s drunk.
How do you pray? For most of my life – including my “spiritual but not religious” Neopagan Days, and my Protestant journey and also a lot of my Orthodox time – I practiced the things I learned in the Methodist Church of my youth: bowing my head, closing my eyes and, in my brain, saying things to God. Praying out loud seemed unnecessarily pious. Now, the Charismatics prayed out loud! They did so with great alacrity and in many sorts and conditions of tongues. And when I became Episcopalian I learned to read the hours in Church, but, generally, on my own, I stuck to reading them silently.
So I was surprised, when I began to study in the Benedictine Tradition, first as an Oblate, and later as an monastic novice, that we were required to say something when we pray, even if it’s only ultra soft whisper. And our lips should move.
This was explained as to avoid those odd, misty, mental shenanigans that happen when we “close our eyes and bow our heads in prayer.” That’s really something only the greatest, advanced mystics can do. The rest of us are left using our bodies and our souls in concert. We see it in the Russian instructional text, The Way of the Pilgrim as the pilgrim recites his Jesus Prayer over and over, even at dinnertime, his lips keep moving.
This is also the teaching of the Catholic Church! Paragraphs 2701-4 of the Catechism:
2701 Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life. To his disciples, drawn by their Master’s silent prayer, Jesus teaches a vocal prayer, the Our Father. He not only prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue but, as the Gospels show, he raised his voice to express his personal prayer, from exultant blessing of the Father to the agony of Gesthemani.
2702 The need to involve the senses in interior prayer corresponds to a requirement of our human nature. We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication.
2703 This need also corresponds to a divine requirement. God seeks worshippers in Spirit and in Truth, and consequently living prayer that rises from the depths of the soul. He also wants the external expression that associates the body with interior prayer, for it renders him that perfect homage which is his due.
2704 Because it is external and so thoroughly human, vocal prayer is the form of prayer most readily accessible to groups. Even interior prayer, however, cannot neglect vocal prayer. Prayer is internalized to the extent that we become aware of him “to whom we speak;” Thus vocal prayer becomes an initial form of contemplative prayer.
Our bodies are required participants in our prayer! O, heavens, how liberating this is!
It’s such a blessing to be at the door of the Church when it opens at 6AM. As folks filter in, leading up to Mass at 6:30, there is a quite, pious whisper that builds. All the folks praying their rosaries or other devotions, quietly, but making noise. Their lips moving, their souls and bodies working together to reach out to God. This is the prayer of the Church. And yes, there are times of total silence, of bliss and waiting, but these are opened and closed with the voice. Even the devout practice of sacred reading, of Lectio Divina is properly done out loud and slowly. The various offices in the Liturgy of the Hours can be read silently to oneself in about 5 minutes, I think. But that’s not properly doing them: read in a whisper, they are longer. We are not mute before our God, who wants the external expression that associates the body with interior prayer, for it renders him that perfect homage which is his due.
Our bodies are required participants in our prayer!
Why is this liberating? Because our bodies are God’s gift to us, our station in the great chain of being: the Angels being pure spirits, and the animals being only flesh, we are both spiritual and fleshly. We are a spirit-suffused fleshly hybrid, and in our nature we are wholly God’s creation, a unique essay in what it is to be created by and for love and worship of him. We must not fall prey to the demonic, gnostic myth that our bodies are (mostly) useless tools that can be replaced, destroyed, changed, etc without any harm to our Spirit. We have a body as fully invested in our identity.
This is me: so long as by “this” I mean both seen and unseen, spiritual and fleshly. This is who I am.
And so when I pray all of this must pray.
It is, of course, possible for a prayer to be all on the lips and no deeper at all. I know how to read out loud, liturgically while making up a shopping list, or listening to conversations around me. I can read psalms perfectly well (from the outside) without ever once noticing the words that are passing from my eyes to my lips. I am a very loquacious ventriloquist. I have no idea how I do it. It’s impossible to listen that way and to respond that way. But I can read out lout that way!
We are required to bring our interior voices to our vocal prayer as well. When we pray our brain should be “saying” the same thing as our lips. We must unify the entire created person in intercession before the throne of Christ. We cannot be reciting the Rosary, the Jesus Psalter, or the Jesus Prayer and, at the same time, be looking around in Church, driving the car, wondering what’s for dinner, or (as I was this AM) designing a new rosary. I’ve also designed bookshelves…
This effort to unite mind and voice (and later heart as well) is the on-going ascesis, podvig, jihad, or struggle of Prayer. Like athletes we are training our bodies not to do whatever they want but to only do what is needed to worship and love God. Every prayer must be part of this struggle. Every action must be part of this prayer. Hannah was quite well advanced. I am not. I can’t pray a rosary while driving (although I can piously listen to one, also a good action). I can’t listen to Mass while making mental notes about liturgical errors – this is a very common problem for me.
We must come out of the mental fogs, out of the misty onanism of heads bowed and eyes closed, into the glorious light of fully incarnated prayer. We have the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication.
When we pray all of this must pray!