Growing up in evangelical churches, I was repeatedly taught the conversational nature of prayer – e.g. “just tell God whatever’s on your heart – talk to him just like you would a friend.” The relational orientation of such prayer made a lot of sense – especially as I grew to understand God as covenantal and reciprocal in his dealings with us. But in my earliest years of religious upbringing, the very notion of “praying” out loud – especially in a group – was a fearful and intimidating thing: what if I prayed incorrectly or said the wrong thing to God? What if my friends laughed at me or thought I had prayed stupid?
In time, I began to realize that the "evangelical" path to prayer – despite it’s relational orientation – was often a stumbling block for people, and especially for those whose spiritual lives were just beginning to develop.
Fast-forward to an article I read in Christianity Today over three years ago, which helped me to finally articulate what I had been increasingly starting to feel over the years – namely, that my growing up in an evangelical faith-tradition had eventually left my prayer life feeling overly individualized and shallow.
Discovering common prayer and the praying of the offices has since revolutionized my prayer life. It has connected me to the body of Christ which transcends time or place – for I am often praying the very prayers that believers before me have prayed for 1000 years or more – and it helps to remind me that not only am I connected to the Body-of-Christ-throughout-time, but that I have SO much to learn from the way those before me have prayed and lived out their faith.
It is so easy for us to view our own time as spiritually more "enlightened" or superior than of past centuries or millennia – and frankly, I've come to see there’s not much truth in that. Praying the offices and other ancient common prayers constantly reminds me of this and humbles me.
Alongside all of this, ad-hoc prayers have remained an important part of my life. I see extemporaneous prayer as hugely beneficial in many ways. Although the prayers of others sometimes help me to best express the contents of my heart to God, there are other times when nothing can come close to my own thoughts and words. In addition, when practicing lectio divina (praying the scriptures), praying extemporaneously helps me to contextualize the power of the written word within my life and present circumstances. And it’s in ways like this that I think extemporaneous prayer becomes tempered and thus more effective/rewarding – especially for those of us who were raised in non-liturgical communities of faith.
Prayer should ultimately not be limited to an extemporaneous vs. liturgical choice. Jesus likely practiced both (e.g. praying the Shema AND pouring out his heart in Gethsemane), and the early church followed his lead, observing set times of prayer as well as praying extemporaneously (e.g. Acts 2:42 and Phil.4:6).
We would do well to embrace a similar blending of prayer. I suppose that even as praying the offices helps to “temper” our extemporaneous prayers, so our praying extemporaneously might help to “temper” our observance of the daily office and the use of common/liturgical prayer.
So, what has YOUR experience been like concerning extemporaneous prayer? Has it been similar to mine, or significantly different? I’d love to hear about it.