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Why Writ Prayers are Important
A number of years ago, while I was in seminary formation, one of my formators spoke to a group of seminarians preparing for ordination to the diaconate. This priest was a man of great faith, peace, and a source of encouragement to me when he taught and preached. I had never seen him angry until the topic of the importance of praying the liturgy of the hours came up. He called to mind an experience where some priests were boasting of not praying the office any more. I wasn’t given any context to their reasoning, but with a sharp and stern voice Father said, “I guess your promise means nothing” to his brothers.
This reaction had a positive impact on my formation. The importance of a promise made in the context of ordination is of grave importance. This formal way of prayer, seen by some as archaic and a nuisance or interruption to their daily toil or rest, was stressed as importance under the gravity of a commitment. In a sense, this promise carries with it a similar character of wedding vows - which means it relates directly to our relationship with God and the Church. As is the case with all promises, they build up for us integrity, and therefore trustworthiness. When I saw the passion and righteous frustration on my formator what I saw was a genuine love for prayer, and integrity. It meant that he was a priest for the younger to look up toward. To be inspired rather than enabled would be the fruit of learning from him.
Detachment from Control of the Narrative
Writ prayers are not merely something we do simply out of an empty imperative. There is valuable content within them, that instructs the soul, and moves the will in a right manner. In this way, writ prayers, approved by the Church, have an inflexible character to them that is often perceived as non-relational, cold, and useless.
In some ways I do relate to this approach to writ prayers. I remember a time when I approached prayer as though saying certain prayers were a “magical formula” for this grace and that grace. Prayer was treated like a leaver you pull, and hopefully get a prize. Thus, my heart seem to connect better to informal prayer, where I could be genuine, and the prayer seemed to be relevant to my own state in life.
The problem with informal prayer, however, is that it can devolve into something prideful and selfish. I can essentially be saying to God: stop talking, I’m talking now. That is, I can become the one who is complete control of the subject, content, and purpose of my prayer. It is entirely self-directed - and for this reason it can easily be displeasing to God.
Formal prayer chastens this temptation - it tells us: right now you are not to think about whatever whim or passion directs your mind - rather meditate on this Psalm, or this Creed. In this way, formal or writ prayers can teach us to chasten our need to control the narrative of our own prayer. Perhaps as we read a psalm about suffering and fail to relate, it is about other people suffering rather than our own. In this way, the prayer itself helps us transcend our own preoccupation with ourselves - and unite ourselves to God’s mind and His people.
Internalizing Writ Prayers
As mentioned, fulfilling a promise is not merely an imperative - it is about a relationship. When we have faith, and are not merely “doing prayer” but adding to the external activity faith, then we allow the very essence of that writ prayer to enter our soul and find consummation.
Consider something as simple as the creed. This Creed is not merely informational - it is a summary of who God is, and what he has done for us. When we pray it in this light, it chastens our wayward passions towards created things to Him who is all good, all loving, and all true.