Direct Address

Sometimes the pastoral prayers we ministers offer in church sound more like essays about the sorry state of the world, or commercials for the great things our church is up to, or great long laundry lists of needs, or sneaky sideways sermons disguised as prayers. It’s not often that they sound as if we’re engaged in authentic direct address, that we’re actually talking to God. We just talk away, inserting God’s name into these disquisitions every five or six sentences to remind ourselves and the congregation that all the stuff we’re saying is a prayer, or maybe to justify it as one.

It’s no wonder that people in the pews have a hard time when it’s their turn to pray aloud. Most of the time, people who are invited to offer prayers during the set-aside time in Sunday services don’t even start out by addressing God, but say indirect things like, “A prayer for my friend, Jim, who’s being operated on today,” or “ A thanksgiving for my niece who made the swim team last week,” or “That there might be peace in the world.” Hardly anyone says, “Thank you, dear God, for the great joy my niece feels after making the team,” or “Gracious God, I’m worried about my friend, Jim. Please be with him,” or “God of Love, make us stop warring and learn to make peace.” It’s hard enough to talk in public, let alone really pray in front of everyone; harder still if you don’t have the proverbial role model to give you a sense of what prayer could be like, if only.

Of course, there are, or I hope there are, many exceptions to my observation—pastors and worship leaders and basic regular people in the pews who have a talent for praying deeply and openly to a God they love and trust, who enter the mystery of prayer with a kind of anticipatory awe; and who don’t really care all that much if their prayer—even the prayer they may have written out ahead of time—is syntactically all put together or even all that intelligible or lovely or meaningful or earnest, just as long as it is really prayer, really a conversation with the Holy about the deepest things the people have on their hearts; a prayer that the whole assembly will, of course, overhear, but one that they don’t necessarily have to grasp fully with their brains in order to know that prayer is happening, that God is the addressee and the interlocutor, that the conversation is real, and that it matters.

A great mystic of our day, South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, was once asked to offer prayer at the start of a big anti-apartheid event. And so he raised his hands and prayed. Then he did a little dance and prayed some more. When he was done, he grinned and sat back down. Afterwards, a woman in the receiving line said to him, a little annoyed, “I didn’t understand a word you said!” Tutu shot back, “Of course not, ma’am. I wasn’t talking to you.”

Ah.

6 thoughts on “Direct Address

  1. The Rev. Edwin T Chase, IV ("Fr. Ted Chase")

    I agree wholeheartedly with the authors’ recognition of the serious problem of ineffective clerical/pastoral “proverbial role model[s]” for praying aloud, particularly in the non-Catholic traditions where a “pastoral prayer” is a significant element of the Sunday assembly. During my years of Sunday choir-singing at the college chapel, I discovered that almost invariably the “pastoral prayer” was the occasion of an additional homily/sermon, couched in the literary form of prayer but generally opining on the Viet Nam war or the government’s conduct, or promoting some cause. As sympathetic as I usually was to the pastor’s criticism, opinion or cause, it was difficult to feel we were actually praying, and even more difficult to discover a “literary” model for my own prayer, aloud or in silence. My subsequent 40 years of experience with “pastoral prayers” has not been significantly different.

    It seems to me, however, that in the Catholic traditions the General Intercessions/Prayers of the People (as the designated “set-aside time in Sunday services,” especially the Eucharist) are not designed to be, and generally do not work well as moments of individualized, personal, “direct address” prayer, prayed out loud and pretty much disconnected from the rest of the assembly. Public prayer (“common prayer”), even at this juncture, is not a collection or sum total of independent, individual prayers (“Gracious God, I’m worried about my friend, Jim. Please be with him”), but rather the united prayer of the Body of Christ for intentions which are of moment to the praying assembly–and its individual members as well. I believe the most effective models of these involved requests, directed to the assembly not to God, to pray for the diverse collective or individual concerns, each followed by time for the members of the assembly to pray–in silence, quietly, out loud, in tongues, but all at the same time. Each brief silence can be ended with a communal dialogue, e.g. V. Lord, in your mercy. R. Hear our prayer!, and the whole “collected” by the presider, in the briefest and unopinionated manner possible, with a stylized prayer.

    But there are many other occasions in which we clerics are called upon to offer less formal, “direct address” prayer from the heart. Some of these are private or semi-public; others, like prayer groups, Bible studies, intercession groups, ad hoc gatherings, wakes, sacramental catechesis, are more public. On these occasions, our failure to use the opportunity “for praying deeply and openly to a God [we] love and trust, [to] enter the mystery of prayer with a kind of anticipatory awe” is a serious disservice to our people. We must develop the self-effacement of those “who don’t really care all that much if their prayer—even the prayer they may have written out ahead of time—is syntactically all put together or even all that intelligible or lovely or meaningful or earnest, just as long as it is really prayer, really a conversation with the Holy about the deepest things the people have on their hearts; a prayer that the whole assembly will, of course, overhear, but one that they don’t necessarily have to grasp fully with their brains in order to know that prayer is happening, that God is the addressee and the interlocutor, that the conversation is real, and that it matters”. For this gift and art, O God, I pray, for myself and for others. Amen.

    Reply
    1. sicutlocutusest Post author

      Thanks for this thoughtful reflection! I was addressing my thoughts to Protestants, of course, who often are tasked with composing prayers, not having a fixed liturgy (which is sometimes a great blessings, and others a great bane). I agree completely with your characterization of the General Intercessions in the Catholic traditions, and often wish we on the other side of the fence would return to this practice for the Sunday assembly, leaving more spontaneous and personalized prayer, which has great value, to other gatherings. In any case, even more stylized ‘common prayer’ could benefit from more than rote recitation, short of overwrought drama, of course! Again, thanks so much for this… it adds a lot to what I was trying to say.

      Reply
      1. The Rev. Edwin T Chase, IV ("Fr. Ted Chase")

        Thank you for your prompt and generous reply. For Sunday Mass we try to edit the Intercessions each week, varying the petitions for Church, Civil Authorities, World in General, General Needs, Specific needs, Local Community, Departed, including phrases based on the day’s readings and current public concerns. In the Specific Needs we name those who have, or for whom others have, requested prayer, and we pause for: “and for our own intentions this morning….” In weekday masses and at “The Prayers” in the Office, we have a couple of “prefab” petitions in “direct address” form and then “free time” for other intercessions, ending with the Little Litany (Kyrie eleison, etc) and the Lord’s Prayer.

  2. Robert Brown

    Thank you dear God for Rev. Mary Luti and the gift that she is to us who struggle for words to describe your awesome, ferocious, untamable, Spirit, unstoppable love, and abundant grace. Help us to hear the words of this prophet, and never forget to dance in your presence. Blessings upon you Mary.

    Reply

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