In Praise of Parrot Prayer

Somebody once said that we Americans honor prophets, not priests. That is, we believe, or at least respect, almost any religious message, as long as the person delivering it claims to base it on some ineffable personal experience of the divine or at least upon some conviction arising from private judgement. But if somebody comes bearing a message based on the authority of another, we tend to be suspicious and dismissive. The prophet is being Personally Authentic. The priest, on the other hand, is just “towing the party line.” The subtext here is that true spirituality is found only in the spontaneous outpouring of the individual heart, not in the enunciation of a Tradition.

This is why my friend Timothy got such strange looks. A friend asked him “what he believed” about some point of theology and Timothy replied that he didn’t know and would go home and look it up in the catechism. Whatever the catechism said was what he believed, he told his friend.

Americans find this sort of attitude absurd. Religion should be in the heart, not a book, shouldn’t it?

Well, yes it should. But it does not follow that whatever pops into our heads or hearts is necessarily The Word of the Lord. Sometimes, for instance, our efforts at spontaneous, deeply personal prayer land us in something that looks a lot more like rote, shallowly personal prayer. As a cartoon I once saw showed, we can find ourselves hunched over, eyes clamped shut in earnest spiritual fervor, praying, “Oh Lord, I just really want to just really pray that you would just really touch me, Lord, in a special way right now and that you would just really take the words ‘just’ and ‘really’ out of my prayer vocabulary.” Fervor does not always make for depth; depth makes for depth. And depth can, I believe, often be found, not by abolishing rote prayer (which is impossible since we like and need old and familiar things), but by learning deeper rote prayers.

This sounds strange until we consider how we raise our own children. Virtually none of the things we do as adults are spontaneous and authentic to us when we are children. We learn to cultivate civilized habits of speech, hygiene and social interaction by having them imposed on us by rote (“Say ‘thank you’, dear.” “Your nose is runny. Blow your nose.” “Cover your mouth when you burp, dear.”) until they become part of us. It is how we learned to read. It is how we learned to write. It is how we learned to be competent adults and not simply six-foot tall five-year-olds.

In the same way, “empty” rote prayers can, by disciplined repetition, pass from being “inauthentic” to becoming part of our spiritual makeup. This is precisely part of the reason for liturgy, in which we deliberately set aside how we happen to feel like responding to God and simply join in the work of worship which the whole Spirit-led Body of Christ is offering through the Eucharist. We stand, we kneel, we pray and give homage, honor, and oblation, not because we feel like it but because “we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And as we do, we find ourselves acquiring a vocabulary and a habit of outlook that we never would have been able discover had we been forced to rely on our own meager resources. We find that “parrot prayers” and “going through the motions” gift us with sight of a world that is vastly older, deeper and richer than our own limited vision could ever have seen. We discover with gratitude the truth of the medieval proverb which says, “If we see further than our ancestors, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.”


Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email