Spontaneous Prayer, the Tuxedo and the Ball

COMMENTARY: Liturgical Christianity has given me everything my heart had longed for in prayer.

A spontaneous religion left the author to his own resources, and he had already seen the limits to that.
A spontaneous religion left the author to his own resources, and he had already seen the limits to that. (photo: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock)

I knew what was coming. The Southern Baptist minister hosting the meeting wanted someone to say the blessing before dinner. He and I had just met that morning, as the meeting started, my being there the result of a mutual friend’s recommendation. He knew I was a Catholic, and I knew he was going to ask me to pray, as a way of finding out if I was a real Christian. 

I would have bet our bank account he would, had anyone there been willing to bet. The other Catholic at the meeting knew that world well enough not to. The minister announced to the room that we needed to bless the food, looked at me appraisingly for a second, as I tried not to catch his eye, and then said something like, “David, would you lead us to The Throne of Grace.” (I end the sentence with a period because he did not ask a question.)

It’s a little predatory, and it colored my feelings about him thereafter. I think I failed his test. I rambled on for a bit, but then, as a small gesture of resistance, I did get all the pastors gathered there to say the Lord’s Prayer together, something Baptists rarely or never do. Maybe a little childish, but still, good for them to do it at least once in their lives.

As a teenager, I was never very good at the spontaneous prayers my evangelical Protestant friends liked so much and expected me to offer with them. They prayed with assurance and a degree of eloquence. My friends thought they prayed from the heart. The words, they insisted, just came to them.

As someone with verbal gifts, I noticed how much their prayers depended on set forms and ready-made phrases. And the same forms and phrases every time they prayed. Their prayers consisted “less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” as Orwell put it in one of his essays.

They meant well, and prayed truthfully, but they claimed more for themselves than they should have claimed. Praying out loud, “spontaneously,” is a skill like any other. You don’t need to believe anything to master it. I could master it if I tried, but I didn’t want to then and I don’t want to now. 

Many years ago, as a young Christian who did not feel comfortable in the religion of my evangelical friends, I talked to the writer Thomas Howard. Then still an Episcopalian, but a Catholic-minded one, he spoke of a different way of relating to God. He called it “contra-spontaneity.” 

You found your way to true feelings through forms, Tom said. In particular, established forms, like written prayers and liturgical worship. You didn’t rely on whatever you could produce yourself. You trusted the forms to say what you needed to say and to teach you what you needed to know, and more importantly, to train you to feel it. 

He loved the image of the dance. One of his earliest books was titled Chance or the Dance? The universe was itself a dance, a dance God had choreographed and was always directing, and we were dancers. We found our freedom, we found our true selves, in learning the steps. We couldn’t do what we felt like at the time. 

This I did not like. A child of the times, I thought the truest feeling, the truly authentic life, came from within, spontaneously, not mediated by anything outside yourself.

And this, by the way, my evangelical friends believed as much — as unconsciously — as the most secular people they knew. They held a more worldly faith than they knew. They warned me against Catholicism’s formal, lifeless, insincere faith, where people just read the words and didn’t talk to Jesus. And they effectively just read the words when they thought they were praying from the heart.

Tom was saying that we must keep putting on clothes, like a man who begins in shorts and T-shirt and winds up in a swallowtail tuxedo, which would look like everyone else’s tuxedo, and glided onto the floor to dance the same dance everyone else was dancing. You couldn’t have a proper ball unless everyone did what everyone else did. 

I thought that if anything, you needed (metaphorically) to take off the shorts and T-shirt. If you wanted to dance, you could just jiggle around as you felt like it. That felt more natural, more authentic, more individual. You might actually want to wear the swallowtail tuxedo and dance the set dances, but you couldn’t do that just because everyone else was wearing it. That would be unnatural, inauthentic and conformist. 

My evangelical friends’ prayers had made me suspicious of spontaneity, but the suspicion hadn’t changed my mind. Tom’s way seemed to me too binding, too stifling, too by the numbers. He was asking people to speak other peoples’ words. That couldn’t be sincere. Worse, you would be lying, because even if you meant them, they still weren’t yours.

My way out of the (allegedly) spontaneous life was easy. A friend took me to a high Anglican service and I was hooked when the procession was halfway down the aisle. Every baffling thing Tom had told me made sense. This, this, I thought, was everything my heart had longed for. 

I could settle into the long-refined forms of liturgical Christianity, developed by people who knew a great deal more about the spiritual life than I did. A spontaneous religion left me to my own resources, and I’d already seen the limits to that in my friends’ prayers, good people though they were. Now I could see the point of the tuxedo and the dance. I could join in the ball.