Lately I’ve begun Morning and Evening Prayer with a short confession: “What is about to happen will not go well, Lord. I’m sorry.” Almost two years into a regular routine of praying the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve learned I’m no good at this. Oh, I’ve learned when to stand, when to kneel, when to make the sign of the cross, where to find the Scripture readings for the day, which collects and canticles to use. It took a while to learn the mechanics of the offices in the Book of Common Prayer, but soon I learned the movements without thinking about them. Once I mastered the sequence and forms of these prayers, I discovered I was barely a novice at prayer. That is when I learned that I’m really bad at prayer.
The offices of Morning and Evening Prayer rehearse the same words day after day. These are not ‘vain repetitions’ but the very words of God being grafted into my memory. I’ve grown fond of ancient hymns like O Gracious Light (Phos Hilaron) and the Songs of Isaiah. I’m thankful that Psalm 95.1-7 has been committed to memory because it’s spoken everyday at the beginning of Morning Prayer. But knowing the words and praying well are two different practices.
Without effort or intention, my words of adoration for God are interrupted by distractions of the present moment. As I whisper the ancient words of the psalmist, praising the Lord who is “a great King above all gods” my mind drifts to email responses, wondering if my Amazon shipment will arrive today, or the stupid sinus infection I’m fighting. The words are easy. Sincerity and focus are not. Confession of sin begins Morning and Evening Prayer, but I repent from my wandering mind at least a dozen times throughout the offices.
G.K. Chesterton infamously said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” And anything that resists mastery bears the grain of holiness, demanding my reverence, humility, and discipline. So I’m not ashamed that I pray badly because Morning and Evening Prayer are worth doing. They resist mastery because they are not given to me to be mastered. They are given to me to train me as a servant of Christ. When I begin praying badly, I confess my desperate need for the aid of the Holy Spirit to help me pray. Prayer can be a humiliating experience. Thankfully Jesus’ eye is always turned to the one who prays “woe is me.”
Accepting the difficulty that prayer is, I see that prayer requires more energy than any other activity in the course of my day. Renouncing the urgencies of the moment and devoting my full attention to the worship of Christ is an imminent struggle. The goal of daily prayer is not that I have an emotional connection to the words we are praying. The goal of prayer is that I make a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
The nature of sacrifice is that I lose something of myself. Sacrifice requires an outpouring of my energy for the sake of another. It abandons other daily necessities to keep my vows of praising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and interceding for the needs of the world. That is the work of prayer. The offerings of praise and thanksgiving are poured out to God both in season and out of season, when my spiritual emotions are full and when they are empty.
The good news of praying the Daily Office is that when I acknowledge how bad I am at this, I receive the mercy and freedom of God to continue praying with sincerity. Tucked away in several intervals of the Daily Offices are a few quick phrases that seek forgiveness. Adjacent to those mini-confessions are prayers reminding me of God’s infinite grace and mercy. He hears, receives, and purifies my distracted prayers even as I’m training my soul to devote its full energy to God alone.
For all who struggle and fail and keep praying anyway, find comfort in the final collect of Morning and Evening Prayer from St. John Chrysostom. This prayer has been my comfort, my teacher, and my daily reminder of the Gospel of grace.
Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
There it is: Jesus joins me even when I pray badly–which is every day. It is his grace that keeps me praying. And day by day, with his grace washing over me in the words of Scripture, the shame of praying badly slowly dissipates and I learn that it is only by our Lord’s audacious mercy that I can pray at all.