The Rhetorical Significance of Liturgical Prayer

Last week I discussed the importance of examining what our prayers communicate about our theology. I have been attempting to be more aware of the implications of my own prayers — whether borrowed (ones commonly used in liturgy) or original (my own impromptu daily petitions). In doing so, the rhetorical significance of liturgical prayer has become apparent to me. There is formative theological richness to prayers that have been part of church history for centuries. Assuming that these prayers encase vital elements of our theology and faith, it follows that our habitual incorporation of these prayers will begin to influence our impromptu ones, as well as various other actions in our daily lives.

I have become aware that my own daily petitions, and I suspect those of other Christians as well, often include imbalanced language when it comes to important doctrines and theological concepts. An example that illustrates this phenomenon is found in the often ego-centric petitions for forgiveness in our prayer language, de-emphasizing or excluding altogether confessions of forgiveness for the transgressions of others. Two prayers used regularly in Christian liturgy express a “collective” and “communal” theological understanding of forgiveness.

The first, The Lord’s Prayer, most of us know by heart. The second, is the well-known and often recited Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The Lord’s Prayer certainly carries a great deal of theological and rhetorical significance, as it is the primary example of prayer that Jesus gave to His followers. The line that applies to forgiveness has been spoken tens of thousands of times by believers over the centuries: “…And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Other translations use “trespasses” as the synonym for “sins,” but the meaning is the same — our own forgiveness is absolutely conditional on our act of forgiving others. 

We see this illustrated and emphasized again in Matthew 18 with Christ’s “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” St. Francis’s prayer echoes Christ’s command to forgive “seventy times seven” with the phrase, “in pardoning we are pardoned.” I think the poetic context is significant in this piece of rhetoric — so here is an excerpt from the prayer:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The entire prayer is beautiful; but more than that, the concept of acknowledging how our individual forgiveness by God is directly connected to how we deal with the transgressions of others is powerful in its daily application. If our own forgiveness is conditional on us forgiving others, then it would follow that our daily petitions for our own forgiveness should be equally matched by our expressions of forgiving others — which is precisely the example of prayer language that Christ left with his followers.

If this is the case, then we can see how the theologically rich prayers of liturgy have an important place in our daily lives. They serve as a theological compass for all our other personal prayers and petitions. They force us to interact with and question the theological significance and validity of our own original, impromptu prayers to God.

Living By Memory

This morning I’m listening to Chopin while I work. His “Waltz No. 7 in C Sharp Minor” came on, and I was instantly transported back to the living room of my 8th grade piano teacher. I fell in love with this piece by watching her fingers float across the keys, needing no sheet music or prodding; she knew the piece by memory because she had played it frequently and recently. I knew this was the piece I wanted to play for my next competition, and so I started the work of committing it to memory myself.

Today, years since I have play the waltz, it still ignites a deep emotional and cognitive connection for me. I can “feel” every note as if it were my fingers touching the keys. However, if I sat down at the piano I would not remember how to play one note. I remember playing this piece; I do not remember how to play it. Why? Because I haven’t played it in years, and no amount of listening to it makes up for that lapse in practice.

This seems a poignant analogy for spiritual disciplines and faith practice. There are plenty of cognitive memories of significant moments in our faith. But stored memory of the mind is not the same as “active memory,” a concept similar to the principle of “muscle memory” in physical activity. Stored cognitive memory is what allowed me to recognize that waltz as soon as it began to play, and it is also cognitive memory that ignited associated emotions about playing the piece. But cognitive memory stops short of allowing me to actually play that piece again. I can remember everything about playing it; but I cannot play it. I would have to re-learn how to play the piece from memory, and that requires behavior associated with discipline and ritual — re-establishing active memory.

In our spiritual lives, and consequently our rhetoric about the spiritual, I think we confuse these two kinds of memory. Both have their place, and both are needed. But it would be unwise to hold our cognitive and intellectual memory responsible for delivering the how, the action. It would be analogous to me sitting down at the piano after all these years and saying to myself, “Play it! You remember the melody; you remember the emotions ignited from the melody — play it!” I can tell myself to “play it” all day long, but I don’t remember how to play it. Through practicing (with various instructional guides) I could once again be able to play it by memory.

I want to live by memory too, but I often find myself relying on cognitive and intellectual “memories” of my faith — thinking that those are enough to give me the how, to produce the action. It’s as if I’m taking those cognitive memories and saying to myself, “Live it! You know what scripture says; you remember the emotions you felt when you lived it before — live it!” I don’t remember how to live it; I’m out of practice.

Jamie Smith gets at this phenomenon in his book Desiring the Kingdom (2009). He talks about the fact that we are desiring beings — we are created primarily to be beings that love, by the design of the creator. Therefore we are what we love, and what we love is what we ritualistically practice loving on a daily basis. When we are practicing the ritual of our faith, the ritual of spiritual disciplines we are creating active memories. When faced with a situation of prescriptive Christian living or ethical/moral dilemma, the muscle memory takes over. We have done this before (frequently and recently); so we know how to do it again. We are living by memory.

The Long-Awaited Sequel…

A couple of years ago I got a hold of a book that dramatically shifted my paradigm on how Christians live out their faith when it comes to education and worship. That book, which I have recommend to many since then, is Desiring the Kingdom. Since I finished it I have been impatiently waiting for the sequel — Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (working title). It won’t be long now. Apparently Smith has just sent the manuscript to his publisher. Let’s hope the editing process goes swiftly — I can’t wait to read it!

Check out Smith’s blog for more information: http://forsclavigera.blogspot.com/