Last May I wrote this post about my visit to my brother’s Catholic Seminary. You can go read it first… I’ll wait… (I am still shocked that out of the almost 38,000 visits to this blog (as of today) since I started, about one third of them were this one story.)
I was blessed to be able to visit again this past weekend. And yes, I’m just as impressed with the seminarians and with the future of the Catholic Church as I was then. In fact, if denominations were publicly traded commodities, I’d recommend you dump a few of those and invest in the Catholic Church… (I’m just kidding… I think…)
This year when I visited, I got to attend an evening prayers (Vespers) service. Now I don’t usually do evening prayer, even though I’m a humongous fan of fixed our “prayer offices” and actually use the Catholic rite for morning prayer even though I’m not Catholic (but was raised in the Catholic Church). I love how very wise men have picked excellent portions of Scripture and wonderful prayerful responses to help guide me as I seek after God.
But at the seminary, they go totally off the deep end with the Sunday evening Vespers, which means we are led by a choir and organ and chant basically the whole service, which more than doubled the time it would take if I were doing this alone or even with a group praying aloud. It was very ceremonial and exact and carefully done, in a way the most of my Evangelical brothers and sisters find onerous, ponderous or even offensive. And I could tell that the (mostly) young men who were participating were indeed doing so with a full heart of love for Christ and His Church.
Often my fellow Evangelical Protestants complain that these kinds of prayers are “vain repetition” such as Jesus suggested we never ever use. I do not concur, although I have no doubt that for some it can become this. The full cycle of fixed hour prayer contained in the full Liturgy of the Hours (You can read a version of today’s prayers here if you’re interested) that these seminarians practice while they are at seminary, and many “religious” practice all through their lives, takes the “pray-er” through the entire cycle of Psalms (which is, btw, a prayer/hymn book, let us not forget) multiple times a year.
But may I suggest that it is far more likely that when we sit down and use our own words to pray to God without thought to any intention, petition or emotion outside of our own temporal feelings and remembrances, that our extemporaneous prayers become the kinds of vain repetition that all who live a life of faith would love to avoid. I find that often when I use my own words, that I get lost in my own selfishness, in the same words and petitions and prayers over and over again… and my prayers become… yes, you guessed it… “vain repetition.”
So, I rely, most every morning, on “non-vain repetition” as I pray (along with millions all over the planet) words that have been generously given to me by centuries of tradition, not to mention Scripture (which is primarily what these prayers consist of). Sure, I talk to God on my own… a lot, these days as He and I are sometimes “having it out”, if you will. But I always return to the words of Morning Prayer (and occasionally evening prayer) to bolster my faith in a way in which, after over 3 decades of following Christ, my own words have simply proven incapable. (I use this little book, which I’ve recommended before. This series from Phyllis Tickle is excellent, too.)
I continue to wish my Evangelical brethren would stop caricaturing our Catholic brothers and sisters, most often condemning their beliefs in a way that shows far more ignorance of what they actually believe than they have of what we do. (I recently had a discussion with someone who was criticizing Catholic doctrine, and he had every single one of the doctrines he was criticizing very wrong… and it’s not the first time I’ve experienced this.)
But, more than that, I hope that some who read this will consider it a good idea to “stand on ceremony”, take a break from your extemporaneous prayers (especially if, like me, you feel like they are getting nowhere more often than not), and try something a little different, a little older, a little more formal. If you’re like me, you’ll be glad you did.
P.S. If you’re interested in knowing more about this, from an Evangelical Protestant perspective, check out this amazing book by Scot McKnight.
Also, as was the case last year when I blogged about it… no slamming, no theological debates here. I only had to delete a handful of comments last year. Hopefully, fewer this year.