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?
Lovely post Nate.
For me, it’s playing hymns. Over the last couple of years I have aquired several hymn/ worship song books, and once I have the fingering exercises out of the way, I will lead through my hymn books and play hymns or worship songs. There are some I will play more often than others, and some I haven’t yet tackled. But that’s when I feel closest to God. And it’s amazing to have so many more to choose from than the very limited selection in the LDS hymn book. One selection has two volumes with over 1400 hymns and songs. I also have a couple of books of hymn arrangements for trumpet with backing tracks which I enjoy playing from as well. Particular favourites in those are Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and Holy Holy Holy.
When I first ventured into this as a form of daily worship playing new hymns and reding the words I would sometimes be in tears at the release from the structures I had become accustomed to, and which had nothing for me for a long time.
Think of hymns as a form of rote prayer.
This was beautiful.
Maybe there are vain repetitions, and maybe there are meaningful repetitions. I feel great personal meaning in joining other Christians in a unison recitation of the Lord’s Prayer — deeply moving, entirely sincere. I am a convert, so I learned the Lord’s Prayer in my youth. It is sad that most Latter-day Saint youth cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer.
Yes, a hymn is a recited, repeated prayer.
Ji, I enjoy that too. when I attend the school services at the cathedral. I learned the Lord’s Prayer at school as a child, as have my children.
OK, I don’t get it. Marked fields have always had to have information in them before anything would be posted. The two fields, Name and Email, have always had the correct information in them, including the four or five times I’ve tried to post last night. Please enlighten me.
Richard Benson, I’m not sure why that is happening for you. You shouldn’t even need “correct” information in them, any name and any email should do. Let us know if you keep having trouble.
Hedgehog, you are right that hymns are rote prayers and for Mormons at least, these are our highest forms of collective worship and can be very powerful. When I was collecting my prayer list, I used some LDS hymns, but I discovered something. Because I knew our hymns so well, for me they had lost some of their power. It was the new hymns and prayers that were really moving for me. This shows me that most likely, any tradition with rote prayers can become stale, indeed “vain repetitions” as Jesus warned. It’s great that you are looking in new hymn books. This is something I want to do as well.
ji, a lot of members were impressed by the Ponderizing talk in General Conference last year. Even though the bloggernacle mocked it as “pondergate” I wonder if it wasn’t actually the most impactful talk of the conference, simply because it invited us to make scriptural memorisation a daily spiritual practice. Our kids SHOULD know the Lord’s prayer, and dozens of other meaningful scriptures which they should use to adopt to their own spiritual needs including prayer and meditation.
Such an interesting perspective and so far from my own.
To me, repetition and over-focus on my relationship with diety removes me from the entire reason for my earthly existence. If a person can focus on loving a God who cannot be seen, and then still hate their enemy who has a physical presence, the worship of that God serves no purpose other than narcissism.
To me, rote prayers and many hymns are equal to writing letters to myself that I then burn. They only serve me.
A prayer to ask how to help someone today, and then to go making the world a kinder place is how I prefer to worship. The God of my understanding prefers action.
It is interesting to think of the different viewpoints of how to best worship God. Is it better to focus inwardly and feel personally closer to diety or is it better to focus on bringing good to my community in God’s name.
Is there a best way to worship God?
AmateurParent, I think we need both.
I agree with Hedgehog that we need both.
Because of personal experiences in the last few years, singing the words in many hymns tend to hit close to home. I enjoy singing, but something about the music opens up the heart to allow the words deeper impact (like a musical score on a movie). I like that I can appreciate the meaning and yearning behind the hymns better. I don’t like how easily they affect me now, though.
In the OP it says, “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.” Like one of my visiting teaching companions put it, “I know God won’t give up on you because he didn’t give up on me.” There is something to that idea that personal experiences with higher powers motivate others to do good. It’s like how King Benjamin put it, when you recognize you feel indebted to someone, it motivates you to pay it back in ways that person would appreciate.
And God prefers we repay through service to others and doing good in our communities (like AmateurParent pointed out).
AmateurParent, its interesting that you equate worship of God with narcissism, which I actually agree with, in the sense that the experience of God is inseparable from the experience of our own true identity. God is, in some sense, ourself. The divine within us resonates with the divine without. Prayers ARE letters you write to yourself, or as Kahlil Ghibran put it: “God listens not to your prayers unless He Himself utters them through your lips.” The truest prayer is to become one with God, which is really to experience the fulness of our own identity.
I wouldn’t burn these letters to myself however. I think, far from being a state of vanity, to enter into a state of love for God is to experience living water, the water that endureth forever, not that which causes you to “thirst again.”
You seem to have a very pragmatic view about your purpose on earth, which is to simply get good things done, like serving other people. But through this work of service, you also experience the same kind of relationship with the divine that others find through prayer, in that, “inasmuch as ye have done unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” You serve others, which is really service to God, which has the same benefits as praise to God, inasmuch as God rewards it with His Spirit and love.
the sacrament weekly is what we use to pray and complete an ordinance. It works, if we use it.
Not all repititive prayer is vain.
It is all based on faith and where our heart is.
I am currently trying to determine if I feel love from God. I believe there is benefit from believing in goodness and god and my devotion to it, even expressions of my heart to keep loved ones safe, or to find peace. There is something in believing it enough to express it in thought and in audible expressions to others to unite hearts, which is prayer.
But do I feel God’s love? Or do I just feel good about things that are right and good? Maybe there is no difference. I believe god loves me. I don’t know how I can feel it. Perhaps I’m agnostic…I don’t know how I can know. But I still want to believe.
I do think others who are really devoted are intoxicated by it. They are not thinking about it as much as I do, it is just emotional and enthusiastic with temporary diminished mental control and more focus on feeling….like a drunk. Perhaps that is what Saints in the Kirtland temple were doing as intoxicated worshippers.
I use prayer when I feel moved to do so. It works better for me than to have it rote or to have it programmed at times of day, or in the morning or before bed. I just do it when I want. Probably because I don’t think it is anything but for me, and so I should do it for how I think is best for me, without magical powers around it. Right now in my life I am not interested in trying to be dedicated to a disciplined approach or to show others I’m dedicated. But I understand others who want those benefits.
Nate: I do agree that we need to incorporate worship of God into our very beings .. But when do we stop? A dear friend worships in a Reformed Jewish tradition. Her extended family is Hasidic. The young men in the Hasidic family have been raised in the US, but speak English as a second language. They were send to Canada to circumvent NY laws about schooling. They have spent their entire lives caught up in the rapture of Talmud, prayer, and worship. They have no marketable skills. Their families exist on public assistance. They see themselves as putting God first.
I remember a family member playing LDS hymns at the bedside of a critically ill family member .. They were certain that hymns would increase the godly spirit in the room and increase healing. That person thought LDS specific songs were more loved by God. I looked at the situation, and I couldn’t imagine God needing to be lured in like some wild animal to a baited trap.
I am indeed a very pragmatic worshiper.
Does God care so much about what music we choose or how many hours a day we spend reciting prayers? For me, the song that gives me the greatest connection with God is truly the sound of someone’s joy in being helped in some way. That is my favorite music.
Does it make me a narcissist that as it is my favorite, I assume it is God’s favorite too?
AmateurParent, of course you are right that some traditions go overboard, like Hasidic Jews, and begin to loose touch with reality. Worship seeks to bring transcendence, but transcendence is only good if you can use it to inform and inspire your practical life once you’ve come back down from the clouds.
A female Jewish teacher once said, after someone complained, “I’d like to have a spiritual practice, but I don’t have time. I’m a mother with a houseful of kids!” “Well, raising children is the greatest spiritual practice. You don’t have to meditate or say prayers. Just folding towels in a loving way is a spiritual practice.”
Yes, i have used rote prayers. In fact i use them often when i meditate and yes, sometimes they are useful.
I don’t deserve God’s love, but yet he loves me anyway. I have told him i hate him – I have told him to go away and leave me alone – i have told him he doesn’t exist – but yet he still loves me. No matter what we do, whether we turn against him and his truth or we stay faithful, he will still love us, broken, smashed to pieces, sinful and undeserving he still loves me, us, all of us.
Beverley, you might enjoy what Saint Peter Julian Eymard wrote, who is the Saint for today, August 2nd:
“How kind is our Sacramental Jesus! He welcomes you at any hour of the day or night. His Love never knows rest. He is always most gentle towards you. When you visit Him, He forgets your sins and speaks only of His joy, His tenderness, and His Love. By the reception He gives to you, one would think he has need of you to make Him happy.”