Pray with One Voice

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5-6)

“Wherever friars live or come together, the Liturgy of the Hours is to be their common prayer and as a rule it is to be celebrated in common.” (OFM Constitutions Article 23 §2)

As members of the Catholic Church, we come together on a regular basis to glorify God. There are times to do this privately, but as Christians, and certainly as a member of a religious fraternity, it is critical to who we are that we also do so together. But as I said in the conclusion of my last post, doing things together isn’t always the most efficient way to do something: there will almost inevitably be disagreements. Sure, where two or three are gathered, God will be there, but so will about two or three different opinions about how to worship “him”! (A word that I will get to shortly).

One can imagine, then, that prayer is not always easy, even in a religious house of friars. Quite the opposite, actually. Prayer can actually be the most contentious time of our day if competing values are pitted against one another. What does one do in this situation? Which value is “right”?

Universal Church

I think the starting point of every conversation related to communal Church participation has to be with the official, universal statements. What does the Church proper say about prayer? How has the wider Church, people of different times and places, decided to pray? As members of the Catholic Church, we must always remember that the worshiping community expands far beyond our walls, and as the “universal” Church, Catholics are privileged to be able to take part in the same prayer as people all around the world. This is a tremendous gift as well as an honorable duty to our brothers and sisters to maintain solidarity with them. Because of this, it is a great value of mine that one not stray far from the rubrics at mass or the instructions for daily prayers, even if it means losing a bit of creativity.

That being said (you knew this couldn’t be a post about following rules!) it is important to note that  “universal” Church and “uniform” Church are very different notions, and that the Church has rarely sought uniformity as a value. Besides an emphasis on praying in one’s own language and from one’s culture, the existence of more than ten liturgical rites indicate that there are many “official” ways to give praise to God, and that pastoral concerns to the immediate community are as important as uniformity to the wider church. Liturgy is a living, ever-changing expression of our faith, something that must change and adapt to new understandings. What causes this tension?

Multicultural issues

In the three years that I have been a friar, I have lived with men from the Philippines, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Columbia, Canada, and many regions in the United States. For many of these men, English is not the language that speaks to their heart. What do we do?

One answer would be to say, “Well, in American houses we speak English. Learn English better and it will speak to your heart.” This is a common answer, and while it seems harsh, it does have a strong practical dimension to it. On the other hand, how can we as English-speaking Americans be so inconsiderate to the needs of our brothers that we wouldn’t make sacrifices for the sake of their prayer lives? Obviously we can make compromises so that everyone feels included. But how, and to what extent? A tagalog song (that no one else would know)? Mass in Spanish (that would leave some unable to participate)? Liturgical dance (that would seem foreign and even a mockery to many Americans)? Culture is critically important to one’s prayer and makes for a very tricky situation when multiple cultures come together. Where are lines drawn and expectations set?

Style: Words and grammar that make sense

Once a community has chosen the language, there are still major problems with translations and word choices. One look at the new translation of the Roman Missal reveals a world of words unfamiliar to our daily speech (consubstantial), images that do not make sense (dew fall?) or sentences that follow Latin grammar rules rather than English ones. For many, there is a sense that the words we use are not the words that we understand or that speak to our hearts.

For instance, here is the final prayer of the Angelus prayer:

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord.

What did we just ask for? I challenge you to find a person that has used “beseech” in common language in the past year (or better yet, randomly ask the next person you see if they even know what it means!) The same can be said for the Our Father in which we begin by saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” When we use words that do not speak to our hearts, they will not speak from them either; prayer that is memorized but not understood is prayer that lacks the meaning we desperately need in our worship.

Inclusive Language

Which brings us to our final point of contention: what happens when we understand the language, but the images they invoke are contrary to our conception of God. What do I mean by this? Gender-specific language. When we speak of God, God is always masculine. “He” is Father, “He” is Creator, and “He” is Brother. But does this reflect the totality of our theology of God? The official Church says that God is neither male nor female, that words such as “Father” are analogous that attempts to explain what we know about “him”. If that is the case, that human language could never fully capture the essence of God, why not mix in a few feminine words for God to express God’s motherly, sisterly, comforting, wise nature? I’m sure God would love it if we called her our Mother. What did he say?! Our sensibilities have been questioned! How dare he?! God is not feminine! Right. But God is also not masculine and we seem to be okay with that.

For many friars, there is a sensitivity to the fact that neither God nor God’s people are ever described with feminine words despite the many feminine images of God found in the Bible, and the fact that the majority of the people in our Church is female. Even when it would make much more sense to be inclusive (such as praying for “humanity” rather than “men” when there are clearly women present) masculine images prevail over even neutral words in the official prayers. Placed as a high value, one can imagine how this has caused many problems in the way that we prayer.

So what do we do?

What I have presented is three of the MANY ways in which we find ourselves not praying in one voice (along with disagreement on tempo, song choice, frequency of prayer, level of solemnity, and so on). It may sound cynical, but prayer is never going to be a perfect experience in which everyone is in full agreement about what to do. That, then, is not the issue: the issue is how we handle the inevitable conflicts.

On the one extreme, some could say that the community should pray exactly what is said in the book at all times because that is what we’re supposed to do; while I would definitely err on the side of obedience to the larger Church and is the easiest solution, it fails to acknowledge that there may in fact be true stumbling blocks in our prayer and never allows for the liturgy to grow organically through the Spirit.

On the other extreme, some have chosen to simply pray the words that are in their heart and expect everyone around them to do the same; at any given psalm, then, this leads to multiple words being spoken at one time (the one, man, him, woman, her, humanity), failing to ever come together for the sake of the immediate community.

Honestly, the only thing that we can ever do is to engage these issues as a community in a prayerful and open environment. What is it that this community needs to authentically praise God? What can we do as a community to hold ALL of these values in our hands at the same time? These questions are by no means easy to answer. What’s important, it seems to me, is that the conversation be had. As brothers and sisters in this together, nothing could be worse than allowing the cornerstone of our life, communal prayer, be something that is dry, emotionless, exclusionary, incomprehensible, or means for contention; when it is a place of passive aggression or apathy, we have missed the point. Prayer is a unitive activity. Done right, prayer is the activity in our communities that forces us to engage one another around a profoundly important focus, to share what we truly need and to be there to provide for the needs of our brothers and sisters. Thus, it is only when we are able to come together as a community in this way, speaking from the standpoint of commitment, sacrifice, and mutuality, that we truly able to pray with once voice. Let us not be many voices clamoring at once, let us pray with one voice, the voice of a community profoundly committed to God and one another.

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