Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This chapter opens with the questions Scot assumes most will ask (and that he also asked) about stepping out of our own Portiuncola two or three times a day to pray with the Church in the basilica. “What will we be saying? Did Jesus teach anything about that? Won’t it get repetitive to say things over and over?” His answers are the ones found throughout the history of the Church. “We’ll be using the prayers of the Bible, of Jesus, and the Church. Yes, it will be repetitive but in a good way. Praying with the Church might lead to vain repetitions, but it is meant to lead us away from them.”

In order to understand the guidance Scripture offers, Scot guides us first through the Jewish form of prayer in use at the time of Jesus. We’ve already seen that Jews prayed at fixed hours — “morning, afternoon, and evening. This was the sacred rhythm of the temple and of Israel at prayer together. But what did they say?”

The Jews prayed (usually by singing) the Psalms. They are a collection of 150 (or 151) prayers. These were at the root of their prayers. “Everything Israel and Jesus learned about prayer can be found in the Psalms.” They also recited other set prayers and creeds. The Shema, of course, was recited by any observant Jew at a minimum on rising and on retiring. However, they also did everything Moses wrote for them to do (Deuteronomy 6). Memorize them – ‘Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.’ Teach them — ‘Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.’ Make it physical — ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.’ Publish them — ‘Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ The Shema was so interwoven into the “ancient faith of Israel that it would have been impossible for followers of Jesus not to adopt (and adapt) the custom of turning to God at sundown and sunup.”

In addition, the Jews of that time probably recited the Ten Commandments along with the Shema. We have a document from about a century before Jesus that appears to link the recitation of the two and it also makes sense in the context of the Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler.

And finally, we also know of a prayer that was called by three names, “the Amidah (standing prayer), the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), or the Ha-Tefillah (The Prayer). They had other prayers and certainly also prayed spontaneously, but their sacred rhythms of prayer were formed and shaped by the Shema, the Amidah, and perhaps the Ten Commandments. These “expressed the central dimensions of Israel’s faith and concerns with clarity and aesthetic simplicity.”

Scot has an amusing way to think about it for someone concerned about ‘vain repititions.’ (That’s never been any particular issue for me, so maybe it’s not as funny to someone with whom that is a significant worry.) Repitition can be a mindless routine, but it can also be a rhythm for daily renewal. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider explaining to your spouse that you’ve been saying “I love you” far too often and you’ll have to stop or it might become a vain repitition. I’m sure that will go over well.

However, Scot sees this concern as actually possibly masking a deeper one, a hesitation to use prayers written by others. His section exploring that is a good one, so I’ll just quote from it in closing.

Our tendency is to go to the Bible for something new, to read it in the expectation of a fresh discovery of something we did not know or had not heard or had completely forgotten. As a professor who teaches the Bible, I know the experience.

But the discovery of something new is not the sole, or even the main, purpose for reading the Bible. The longer you look at the idea that we read the Bible to find new meanings, the sillier it becomes. We read and return to the Bible not (just) to find something new but to hear something old, not to discover something fresh but to be reminded of something ancient.

What we find in the sacred rhythm and sacred prayer tradition of Israel is the wise recitation of those passages in the Bible most central to spirituality, passages we need to be reminded of daily because of their importance for how we are to conduct ourselves before God and with others. The reason psalms are repeated in the sacred rhythm of prayer is that they continue to teach us how to pray; the reason the Shema is repeated so often is that it summons us to the central orientation of our heart: to love God with every molecule we can muster.

Jesus was spiritually nurtured by pious parents in a world where the sacred rhythm of prayer shaped spiritual formation. Jesus didn’t adopt that rhythm without reflection or alteration. One might say that Jesus actually re-shaped the sacred rhythmical prayer practices of his world so that they would reflect his own kingdom mission.

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