Prayer has always puzzled me, and I’m finally to the point where I can admit it openly. Perhaps I’ll write more about that some day, but all I care to mention at this point is that it isn’t for lack of study or effort. Over the years I’ve looked into many different approaches to prayer, tried them all at least tentatively, and read many different writers on the subject. They’ve taught me many different things—though not to pray, at least comfortably—and I’m always open to yet another possibility. So I was glad to learn that Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and writer I much admire, had written a book about prayer, and I quickly ordered a copy.
Prayers Plainly Spoken isn’t the book I hoped it would be—which is fine, since no book on prayer I’ve read so far has been the book I hoped it would be, a strong indication that my hopes are misplaced. It turns out to be a set of prayers Hauerwas wrote and then prayed to open his classes on Christian ethics. I’m looking forward to studying them because they deliberately address God in plain, unpious language, and I’m hoping to more easily see the core of prayer without having to adjust for floweriness and pretense.
In his preface Hauerwas makes a penetrating observation about conventional approaches to prayer.
Notice, for example, how in spite of our best intentions our attention wanders when someone “drops” into the pious tones and set formulas we associate with saying a prayer. That we find it hard to listen, I suspect, is because the “holiness” associated with prayer makes the attitude of prayer more important than the words we way. All that matters is someone is praying. As a result, prayer becomes an emotive exercise that only confirms our anthropocentric needs.
Yup. I tend to tune out of spontaneous corporate prayer exactly because I expect it to be anything but the one thing it is meant to be, speaking to God. I’ve been preached to in prayers, heard sermons recapped, listened to recitations of poor health or difficult circumstances being endured by fellow parishioners, endured political opinions, been reminded of upcoming social events—but rarely overheard someone speaking to God in a natural manner, either individually or on behalf of the group. But I like to think it’s possible. Hauerwas offers the prayers in this book as examples of his own efforts to do exactly that, and so I’m looking forward to seeing exactly how he does that.