Said Prayers are Dead Prayers

Morning prayer - Pinkhassov

Why do you write and use written prayers I was asked at a recent workshop? Aren’t said prayers dead prayers? Aren’t spontaneous prayers the only living prayers? Isn’t the Bibe the only acceptable written word to be studied, memorized and quoted?

These are important questions that all of us need to think about as we shape our prayer life. I grew up thinking that spontaneous prayers were the only acceptable form of prayer. After a while I noticed that some of these prayers were rambling, unfocused and a little like the babbling of a child – without real meaning or purpose. At first it didn’t seem to matter. Speaking in tongues reinforced this. Praying without understanding was seen as a mark of deep spirituality, but it wasn’t always satisfying. 

Praying the psalms helped, but I realized there are other prayers that can be just as relevant and enriching. I slowly started adding written prayers and liturgies, some of them hundreds of years old, to my prayers. Their meaning resonated in my heart and my prayer life took on new meaning. Then I started adapting these to better meet my own needs and finally I started writing my own.

I love the times when spontaneous prayers bubble up from within me. I still love to speak in tongues, but there are times when prayers written by others are more powerful than anything my mind can produce. This is particularly true when I am grappling with pain and suffering, disaster and disease. The pain in my heart seems to incapacitate my mind. Grasping for the words that others have written is the only appropriate offering to God.

There are other times when writing and reciting my own prayers is even more enriching. Especially when I want to establish a new habit, I find that writing prayers I then recite to remind me of that habit helps move it into my heart. Like this prayer I wrote a couple of years ago when I was trying to establish boundaries in my life:

God may I live within limits,

Of my body, my mind, my spirit.

God may I live within limits,

Of my calling ,my community, my capacity.

God may I live within limits,

Of who I am, and who you call me to be.

Said prayers and spontaneous prayers can both be dead prayers and they can both be living prayers. It is how we use them that breathes life into the words we say and personally I think that variety is the spice of life – a spontaneous prayer here, a written liturgy there, an ancient prayer somewhere else. All have their place and I encourage you to experiment.