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Prayer – Devotions and distractions?

Prayer can be personal and social, these two expressions often overlapping but not always. Sometimes we just pray alone, other times while gathered together.

Both types of prayer – personal and social – are almost always spiritual, be they couched in traditional religious terms or not.¹

In the social sense, prayer is a gathering where people call out to a higher power for some kind of favor, comfort or remembrance. Sometimes these merge with the state (as in televised, non-denominational ceremonies like Remembrance Day), other times not (as in specific, denominational services).

Prayers often petition or communicate with a deity, higher being or power, to include deceased ancestors (as in ancestor worship).

Ideally offered with humility, prayer can be highly structured or unscripted and spontaneous.

Devotees usually pray through spoken word, thought, writing and song. Prayer is also found in the arts, multi-media or merely as an act of the will.

Bodily posture may or may not be important to prayer. Some pray, for instance, kneeling while others dance, as with the whirling dervishes of Sufism. Others pray while sitting or lying down. Or maybe while holding a yoga posture.

Christians believe that the Our Father prayer is unique because it is the prayer that Jesus, God’s only Son, gave to the world (Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4).

Another important distinction is between vocal and mental prayer. Like all kinds of prayer, these can coincide. But there is a shift in emphasis between them.

Sometimes after weekday Mass parishioners will continue on, reciting many written Catholic prayers from a printed page. Clearly this is important to them but for me it can be distracting.

After receiving Jesus Christ in the Eucharist I would like some quiet time to reflect on that momentous experience. But apparently some Catholics still need to recite additional vocal prayers to feel close to God—even then.

the prayer continued by ☻☺ via Flickr

At times like that I always remember the Biblical verse telling us not to reel off prayers like clanging a bell (my paraphrase of Matthew 6:7).

Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

¹ Occasionally we hear the phrase “a whim and a prayer,” meaning we’re in a tight spot and only luck will see us through. Technically the word “whim” is wrong. The original phrase is “a wing and a prayer.” Professor Paul Brians explains this common mistake:

whim and a prayer / wing and a prayer

A 1943 hit song depicted a bomber pilot just barely managing to bring his shot-up plane back to base, “comin’ in on a wing and a prayer” (lyrics by Harold Adamson, music by Jimmy McHugh). Some people who don’t get the allusion mangle this expression as “a whim and a prayer.” Whimsicality and fervent prayerfulness don’t go together.


The beauty of English, however, is that it evolves in different ways. So if “whim and a prayer” works better in a given situation, I say use it!

Related » AUM, Michael Brown, Contemplation, Faith and Action, Fasting, Hail Mary Prayer, Holy Rosary, Intercession, Meditation, Mental Prayer, Saint Michael, Mysticism, Rosary, Serenity Prayer, Vocal Prayer

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The Rosary – Aid or distraction?

The word rosary refers to any planned prayer recited on a string of beads. Rosaries in this sense have been prayed all over the world in different religious traditions for centuries.

Before the introduction of beads, prayers were counted on pebbles or fingers.

Some believe that the Catholic holy rosary was adapted from earlier Muslim prayer beads, introduced through the Crusades. Others say the holy rosary existed prior to the Crusades.

Probably no one really knows just how or when the Catholic rosary came into being.

According to Catholic legend, which many Catholics accept as fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary mystically appeared to St. Dominic in 1214. The story goes that Mary gave Dominic the holy rosary saying,”One day through the rosary and the Scapular I will save the world.”¹

Many other Catholic saints reportedly had subsequent visions, from the Middle Ages to modern times. These visions usually conveyed an urgency in spreading devotion through the rosary.

In October 2002 Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries.

The Catholic mysteries of the rosary are based on key moments in the life, death and afterlife of both Jesus and Mary as portrayed in the New Testament.

Crucifijos de los Rosarios

Crucifijos de los Rosarios by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr

To me, the rosary is a useful tool for quieting one’s thoughts, providing one needs that kind of help. When I first became interested in Catholicism in the early 1990s, I prayed the rosary fairly often for a while. Sometimes I would receive tangible graces that I associated with the Virgin Mary, sometimes I had slightly different types of experiences.

But over time, the rosary began to feel like so many rattling words. It became more of a distraction than a devotional aid. That’s probably because as I grew older, contemplation came more easily, and the repetitive words seemed like superficial chatter over the calm I’d already found.

However, I may still sit in church for a while if parishioners are praying a rosary. I may even join in for part of the prayer. Like other preset prayers, the holy rosary is a good backup for those stressful days when one is more distracted (from God) than usual or when, perhaps, one just feels called to pray that way.

Some Lutherans and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans pray variations of the rosary, but it remains a predominantly Catholic practice.²

¹ See these links.

² | For more about the Catholic holy rosary, see this.

Related » Goddess vs. goddess, Hail Mary Prayer, Virgin Mary

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What is a Saint?

The word saint (Latin sanctus = sacred or having been made sacred)  has several meanings. In everyday usage, saints are unusually kind, ethical people who perform good works on a local or grand scale which almost everyone can understand and appreciate. Examples would be, “That lady at the charity drive is a real saint” or “Bob’s wife is a real saint to put up with such a grouchy old man!”

The term also denotes the faithful Jews of the Bible and the body of Christian believers. A priest at a parish I attend says in homily that the main point of being a Christian is to become saints in heaven. So going to Mass isn’t only about the social aspects. That’s a part of it, for sure, but the main point is to become a saint worthy of heaven.

For some, saints are Buddhist arhats (monks having achieved Nirvana) and bodhisattvas (monks forgoing entry into Nirvana in order to help others reach that threshold). However, it seems dubious that the realms these saints achieve are the same, qualitatively speaking, as realms created by God. Recall that, no matter which way you slice it, Buddhists don’t believe in God, which is a huge theological difference from religions that do believe in God. And no political correctness will change that difference, not even well-intentioned political correctness.

English: Image of Saint Adalgott. Source Cropp...

Image of Saint Adalgott. Cropped from an image at (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term saints also refers to Taoist, Confucian and Hindu sages and gurus (Skt. guru = teacher), African and Amerindian elders, as well as the Shamans of Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, North America and the Arctic.

In Islam the righteous departed are said to mediate between heaven and Earth.

Robert Ellsberg regards great figures like Galileo Galilei, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Biko and Dante Alighieri as saints in his book, All Saints.

Some believe that all public figures called “saints” are equally holy but this view is probably more about human preconceptions than God’s assessment of individual holiness.

In Catholicism, the canonized saint leads an exceedingly humble and holy life serving God, is often persecuted, may be martyred and performs by the power of God at least two verified miracles. Some critics of the Catholic process of canonization say that the alleged miracles are, for the most part, cooked up by the Vatican when they want to make someone a saint, mostly for political reasons.

Catholic sainthood often involves the idea of intercession. Intercession is the belief that God’s divine power and grace is mediated by souls in heaven to souls on Earth, purgatory and hell.

Catholics also believe in the communion of saints, the idea that all souls, except for the damned, are united in a “mystical body” with Christ as the head. So the idea of interconnected souls is not necessarily something of the occult (unless one views Catholicism as a Satanic cult, as some do).

Another aspect of the Catholic faith is the belief that individuals cooperate with God’s plan of salvation through vocal and mental prayer (interior contemplation). Prayerful saints cooperate with the divine plan but do not effect salvation through their own power.

Catholics may pray for one another but again, they request God’s help. They don’t play the role of spiritual “big shot” or “guru” like some in other religious paths do. At least, they shouldn’t. This unsavory element arguably creeps in with hot shot charismatic preachers who make the rounds in Catholic circles, charging considerable fees for inspirational speaking or guided retreats (some retreats seeming more like middle class getaways, social events or fundraisers than serious spiritual sanctuaries).

Some Protestants object to the idea of the Catholic saint, saying that the saints are nothing but manmade gods or goddesses—that is, pagan. Catholics reply to this misguided charge that saints are friends and servants of God, not a god nor God. Many Protestants pray for others but object to the Catholic idea of interceding saints. To this the Catholic replies: If someone on Earth can pray for another person on Earth, why cannot a soul in heaven pray for someone on Earth?

According to Catholic teaching there are innumerable unrecognized saints. These unsung heroes of the spirit are said to achieve a great degree of spiritual purity without ever having set foot in a monastery or abbey.

This is good to remember. Otherwise we might misunderstand or judge harshly some individuals in contemporary society not primarily concerned with sex, wealth, status or raising a family. In fact, there seems to be a recent trend to call people “mentally ill” if they don’t conform to prevailing norms which, perhaps, are not always in line with trying to follow God’s will.

In a nutshell, the true individual is often misunderstood and sometimes persecuted by the crowd. Considering the tremendous diversity of individuals and spiritual paths throughout our ever changing world, to insist on rigid criteria for sainthood seems both arbitrary and unwise.

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Serenity Prayer

Scott Shatto Peace Church

The Serenity Prayer is a Christian prayer written in 1943 by the American Protestant theologian and man of letters, Reinhold Niebuhr, here in its most familiar form:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

In 1951 Niebuhr added the concept of “grace” to the opening lines, which I think was an unnecessary clarification. Wikipedia also notes that the prayer didn’t come out of nowhere. There are many antecedents throughout the world’s wisdom literature. Also, and quite interestingly, there was even a case of plagiarism with this prayer. Quite ironic considering the subject matter! For details see the excellent Wikipedia entry.¹


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The Our Father or The Lord’s Prayer

English: Lords Prayer in Aramaic(Syriac)

Lords Prayer in Aramaic (Syriac) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a central prayer that the Christian tradition says Jesus, himself, gave to his disciples and, through them, to mankind.¹

The version in Luke 11: 2-4 differs slightly from that of Matthew 6: 9-15, probably because the two were written down in different contexts.

Some versions of the prayer add an ending line: “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, now and forever (or forever and ever).”

Our Father, Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. Amen.

English: The lord's prayer in Manchu

The lord’s prayer in Manchu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Different translations of the original Greek Gospel treat the Lord’s Prayer differently, perhaps reflecting the conscious or subconscious convictions and agendas of the team involved in a given Bible’s publication.

Jesus, himself didn’t speak in Greek or English but in Aramaic. An Aramaic version of the prayer exists, but scholars generally agree that it is based on early Greek New Testament sources and is not the “original” as some believe. Like the Buddha, Jesus was probably too busy being a spiritual person to actually write anything himself.

As Christianity spread throughout the world, the Our Father would usually be translated into different languages well before the entire Bible translation would be completed. Almost like a preview or “trailer” of what was to come with the full Bible, the Our Father is usually deemed as the most important Christian prayer.

English: Lord's Prayer in Persian(Farsi) in th...

Lord’s Prayer in Persian(Farsi) in the Convent of Pater Noster in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More recently, Feminists have taken exception to the apparently sexist language of the prayer. Many say that masculine, paternal images of the divine (i.e. “Father“) reflect and reinforce an unhealthy and unfair patriarchy that has existed for millennia.

The depth psychiatrist Carl Jung thought that the passage “lead us not into temptation” was telling. Jung believed that part of the Godhead was unconscious. And through interacting with mankind God becomes increasingly self-conscious. So in this part of the prayer, mankind is begging God not to lead them down a dark alley. Why, Jung wondered, does the prayer not simply say, “protect us from temptation”? For Jung, the answer lies in his belief that God had a dark side, a shadow

In 1973 the Australian Sister Janet Mead, a nun, helped the Christian pop music scene move into the mainstream by singing the Our Father to, at that time, funky music.

¹ This is so taken for granted in Catholicism that, during the Mass, many priests say, “let’s say the prayer that Jesus gave to us” before the recitation of the Our Father.

² See

Lord's prayer in Coptic language

Lord’s prayer in Coptic language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord's Prayer in greek in the Pater Noster Cha...

Lord’s Prayer in greek in the Pater Noster Chapel in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: The Our Father as used in Catholic li...

The Our Father as used in Catholic liturgy painted on tile in Chinese. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord's Prayer in danish in the Pater Noster Ch...

Lord’s Prayer in danish in the Pater Noster Chapel in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Prayer our father in Bliss language F...

Prayer our father in Bliss language Français : Prière du Notre père en langage Bliss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lord's Prayer in hebrew in the Pater Noster Ch...

Lord’s Prayer in hebrew in the Pater Noster Chapel in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Vocal Prayer

Prayer A Powerful Weapon by abcdz2000 via Flickr

In Catholic usage vocal prayer is a form of prayer that is vocalized, often (but not exclusively) in public groups such as the Eucharistic celebration (i.e. Holy Mass). In personal, private practice, vocal prayer may be standardized or impromptu.

Vocal and mental prayer may alternate and overlap. And both forms of prayer are generally directed towards personal petitions, seeking forgiveness or intercession.

Many Catholic and non-Catholic advocates of vocal prayer seem to misunderstand the efficacy of mental prayer, especially in its contemplative-intercessory form.

Great saints like St. Faustina Kowalska say that even a brief but sincere inner, contemplative prayer from the heart is far more effective and pleasing to God than the endless, superficial repetitions characteristic of much vocal prayer.

Related Posts » Catholicism, Contemplation, Meditation


Hail Mary Prayer

Madonna and Child (Galleria Borghese, Rome) Oi...

Madonna and Child (Galleria Borghese, Rome) via Wikipedia

The Hail Mary Prayer (Latin = Ava Maria) is a Catholic prayer directed to the Blessed Virgin Mary and central to the Holy Rosary. It’s essentially a prayer of praise and a request for intercession.

The first part of the prayer is based on a visitation of an angel to Mary, as told in Luke 1:28. The second part relates to Mary’s subsequent visit to Elizabeth while carrying Jesus in her womb (Luke 1:42).

The prayer’s unofficial form existed as early as the eleventh century. The closing supplication arose in the 14th to 15th centuries. And the entire prayer was incorporated into Roman Catholicism by Pope Pius V in 1568, and still undergoes minor modifications, keeping step with contemporary idioms. A recent form is:

Hail Mary Full of Grace, The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women. And Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us sinners, Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Some Anglican churches use a variation of the Hail Mary, and the classical composers Franz Schubert and Johan Sebastian Bach, among others, have featured the prayer within their work.