My four-year-old is starting to get interested in the liturgy. He generally stands up and sits down when he’s supposed to. He checks to see what page we’re on, and holds his hymnal accordingly. He looks to see what color the paraments are. Sometimes he hums along with the hymn melodies. He’s learned the ending bit of the Psalm, which goes, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” He also knows the Lord’s Prayer.
Yesterday, as we were standing together praying the prayer the Jesus taught us, along with everyone else in church and every other Christian on earth and throughout history, I started thinking. (Yes, I know. I should have been thinking about the prayer I was praying, but…)
Lots of people are down on memorized prayers. I actually had a student once that asked why I was teaching the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, since, after all, don’t prayers only “count” if they’re spontaneous and from the heart? Worse yet, I’m guessing, would be the “vain repetition” of a four-year-old who was saying a bunch of words he doesn’t even understand. Trespasses? Hallowed?
But then it occurred to me, as it has probably occurred to many parents throughout history: what difference does that make? How much does it really matter that Sean doesn’t understand what he’s praying for? After all, how often do I pray for things I don’t really understand either?
Do I have some lofty and vaunted claim to having prayed a better prayer just because I can define all the words I used?
Do I really know what it means to pray “as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Do I have any idea what I’m saying when I pray “Thy will be done”?
Is the prayer of a 32-year-old prayed with any more real understanding than the prayer of a 4-year-old? Am I really that much closer to understanding the transcendent sovereign creator of the universe, just because of a paltry 28 more years on this spinning rock? Are my words any more “genuine” or “meaningful” than his just because I think I can understand what I’m saying?
I’m not saying that rote memory and verbatim regurgitation of set prayers is all that’s necessary for a healthy prayer life (because the Holy Spirit will just fill in the blanks, right?). I’m just urging caution, that before we look down on (or worse ― patronize) the “cute” little prayers of a small child, we come to grips with the fact that our own prayers are often said with the same lack of understanding and naïveté that we see in kids just learning to pray.
And that maybe that’s how God wants it, after all.