'Moo like a cow?' Indeed I will!
I was recently scrolling through my Facebook feed when a post from a Unitarian friend caught my eye. Written in the style of a missal page you might find in church, the light-hearted post poked fun at call-and-response, formulated prayers. Here’s a bit of what it said:
Look! I can make you moo like a cow.
Or bleat like a sheep!
Repeat after me: I will never, ever, mindlessly repeat words that someone else has chosen for me.
— I will never, ever, mindlessly repeat words that someone else has chosen for me.
You get the idea.
I realize that part of the purpose of that social media post was to trumpet one Unitarian’s preference for independent, personalized prayer by using responsive readings in an ironic way. But it also gets at a criticism of Catholics that’s been around for centuries: the accusation that we promote a kind of prayer that creates spiritual automatons.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Many years ago, when I was part of a team of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at my childhood parish of St. Clare in Essex, I regularly brought Communion to an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The thin, mostly bald parishioner spoke hardly any words, and those that came arose only with great difficulty. But when we prayed the Our Father (a prayer, I might add, whose words were given to us directly by Christ himself), he spoke fluently, confidently and with great devotion.
I don’t think my friend was mindlessly repeating a string of meaningless words. I’m convinced his lifelong devotion to his faith was so deeply ingrained that the prayer became an expression of his love of God. They were indeed his words.
When my wife and I learned halfway through our first pregnancy that our son wasn’t likely to survive long after his birth, it was sometimes difficult to pray. Throughout that trauma — and again when Georgie was stillborn six weeks before his due date — I found strength in the common prayers we say at Mass.
There is beauty and power in proclaiming our beliefs together in community worship. When we can’t find the words to express our love for God, our thankfulness to God, our sorrow for our sins or our anguish in difficult life situations, we have countless structured prayers that give us voice.
Some of the most beautiful prayers offered by our church are found at funeral liturgies. During the final commendation and farewell, we respond to a series of invocations with, “Receive his soul and present him to God the most high.” At every funeral I attend, I inevitably get chills when thinking about those words and repeating them with other believers.
I try to begin each day by saying the Prayer of St. Ephrem, a saint especially beloved by Christians of the Eastern traditions. I often don’t live up to the words of the prayer, but they give me a focus for the day and a challenge to live what I profess.
“O Lord and master of my life, take from me the spirit of laziness, meddling, ambition and vain talk.
“But give me a spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love.
“Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and faults and not judge my brother.
“For you are blessed forever and ever. Amen.”
by George Matysek, Jr., the managing editor for the Catholic Review, where this first appeared.