A few summers ago I visited Jerusalem. I hadn’t been very keen on it because I thought Israel was a desolate land of hatred and fundamentalism, certainly no place to waste a vacation on. But my wife convinced me that I would enjoy it and that it would give me a new perspective on the scriptures. Little did I know just how true this would be and how profoundly the trip would effect my spiritual life.
Jerusalem is awash in the spirit of prayer. Early each morning the haunting strains of the muslim call to prayer echo through the hills. Orthodox Jews are everywhere seen staring into their little book of psalms, leaning back and forth to the cadence of the verses. Groups of Christian pilgrims from all over the world swarm into the holy sites praying and singing hymns, many falling down prostrate in places like the Garden of Gethsemane or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I was particularly moved by the thousands of graffitied crucifixes left behind by medieval pilgrims and crusaders. As I witnessed these prayers day after day, I felt my heart turning towards God, not in prayer, but in a spirit of wonder and desire. What was it about this dusty, unsettling place that made it so consumed with the worship of God?
When I came back from Jerusalem I embarked on my own practice of “vain repetitions.” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with these rote prayers. What could possess someone to waste so much time every day on them? I began by collecting hundreds of prayers from the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions and tried to recite at least 100 of them each day. Although I’m not very good at follow-through on goals like these, during the times when I did manage to recite these prayers, it opened up a whole new spiritual world for me.
I was immediately struck by the extraordinary feeling of love for God these prayers kindled in my heart. Although the prayers were not my own, they still felt like mine, even without my having to psych myself into it. I had read the Book of Psalms before, but never as my own prayer, and when doing so, the experience of reading it was completely transformed.
And so with that, I discovered the intoxication of worship. To love and worship God through prayer is addictive. To add one’s voice in a common prayer with the voices of millions of others is to enter into a transcendent state of being, to join with broader humanity as it yearns for God. My prayers had long grovelled in the most pedantic of repetitions such as: “please help me to have a good day…in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.” But to adopt a rote prayer as one’s own, a prayer lovingly crafted in the fires of passion for God, there is real power in that kind of worship.
To Feel God’s Love, or to Feel Love for God?
For many years, I had struggled to love God, or rather to feel love for God. I was raised to think of love as a verb, something one must prove through obedience. We interpret the scripture “if ye love me, keep my commandments” as “if you want to PROVE that you love me, keep my commandments.” But I’ve long suspected the true meaning of the scripture is “if you love me, keep my commandments (if not don’t bother)”. So if I don’t feel a love for God, does this mean I’m exempt from obeying the commandments? Obviously not.
My old theory was that feeling a love for God can only come after we experience His love for us. 1 John 4:19 says “We love him because he first loved us.” LDS testimonies often recount a spiritual experience of feeling the love of God. This inspires many Mormons to love God in return, and obedience is a natural outgrowth of that love. But for me, although I had felt God’s love through the peaceful experience of the Holy Ghost, I still struggled to return that love for Him. After a spiritual experience I would simply forget all about God after a little while.
But my experiments with rote prayers have shown me that there is another way to come to love God. Feelings of love can come directly through collective praise and worship. We can immerse ourselves in collective prayers and the spirit of those prayers will begin to work upon our hearts and our love for God will begin to grow. We don’t have to wait around for God to love us first.
To feel God’s love for us is a beautiful experience. But to feel our love for God is just as incredible. I’m reminded of a Hermann Hesse quote: “No, to be loved is not happiness. But loving—that is happiness!” The first great commandment is “to love God with all your heart, might, mind and strength.” But once you’ve practiced this kind of love through prayer and worship, you realise this is no commandment at all, but the purest expression of joy.
When I first got to Jerusalem and saw all the Jews and Muslims praying, I was suspicious. Were they doing it “to be seen of men?” What was really in their hearts? But now I think that for many of them, it is, as the prophet Samuel says, “a fire in their bones” and they cannot but pray to the God they love so deeply. In the TV show Homeland, many Western viewers are baffled at the American protagonist’s conversion to Islam and his intoxication with prayers to Allah. But once I embarked on a similar practice myself, I recognised just how powerful this practice is. In the case of some Jews and Muslims, their love for God may not translate to love of neighbour. They may still hate their enemies and go out and commit acts of terror. In fact the Book of Psalms is full of terrible curses, asking God do things like “dash their little ones against the stones.” But even if some Muslims and Jews hate their enemies, their love for God is real, deep, and truly intoxicating. That is the power of prayer. It can cause you to cultivate love for a God of compassion, or a God of violence.
A Few Favourite Prayers
When I first collected my sets of “100 prayers a day” these were some of my favourites. For my rote prayers these days, I use Book of Common Prayer apps on my iPhone, of which there are many excellent ones, which include Psalm readings and “collects” which are particularly beautiful individual prayers.
O Allah, you are the most forgiving, the one who loves to forgive, therefore forgive me!
O Allah, with your name I die, and live.
O Allah, just as You have made my external features beautiful, make my character beautiful as well.
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.
Hold not our sins up against us
But hold us up against our sins,
So that the thought of Thee should not remind us
Of what we have committed,
But of what Thou didst forgive;
Not how we went astray,
But how Thou didst save us!
- Have you ever tried using rote prayers in your personal worship?
- How do you cultivate love for God in your own life? Has it come after you’ve felt God’s love for you? Or have you felt it through rote expressions like temple worship or hymn singing?