Written Prayers: Vain Repetitions?

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There is a cultural aversion to written prayers within the Latter-day Saint Communion. As children, we are taught to avoid ‘vain repetitions’ in our prayers. Vain repetitions, or repeated empty or purposeless phrases, are linked in the Latter-day Saint mind to saying a memorised or “written” prayer. Yet, upon closer examination, there is no prohibition against formal “written” prayer. Indeed, some of the most important prayers in Latter-day Saint worship are formal and said by rote, like the Prayer of Consecration during the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Baptismal Rite, most every Prayer of Blessing, and the Ordination Rite. What prevents these prayers from being “vain repetitions” if they are literally the same prayers, repeated?

The issue with “vain repetitions” is not one of repetition but one of vanity. The Latter-day Saint is supposed to be unceasing in their prayers unto God—surely then, some degree of repetition is allowed; otherwise the host of prayers, “We thank Thee for this food and ask Thee to bless it that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies” must surely be repetitive and sometimes even vain. To avoid vanity, prayers must be imbued with sincere meaning. Thus, when the priest consecrates the Sacrament, the words are unchanged but the meaning is very much alive in the heart of the priest and the congregation.

In a Roman Catholic Handbook of Prayers published by the Midwest Theological Forum Catholic Truth Society, readers are encouraged to pray by Pope Benedict XVI and his words are quoted in full below:

This is what prayer really is—being in silent inward communion with God. It requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images, or thoughts. The more God is present in us, the more we will really be present to Him when we utter the words of our prayers. But the converse is also true: Praying actualises and deepens our communion of being with God.

Our praying can and should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, from our shame over sin, and from our gratitude for the good. It can and should be a wholly personal prayer. But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experience both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church. For without these aids to prayer, our own praying and our image of God become subjective and end up reflecting ourselves more than the living God.

In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a “school of prayer” that transforms and opens up our life.[1]

Pope Benedict XVI’s argument is that written prayers do not diminish the individual meaning and personal communion with God but that they help to keep our prayers from becoming a subjective reflection of our own understanding of God. I do not suggest that the Saints should wholly abandon the practice of individual and self-composed prayers—to do so would be a great loss to the spiritual life of the members and to the Church. I do suggest that where appropriate we enhance our prayer life by incorporating the ancient prayers of the faithful; that we gain from them, as we gain from the scriptures, a better understanding of the Living God, who has been praying with us since prayer began.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 130 (quoted in Handbook of Prayers (Midwest Theological Forum Catholic Truth Society, Illinois; 2013)

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In Defence of Dogma: The Anglo-Catholic Mormon’s reply to Thayne on Givens

Lead Kindly Light

In a recent LDS Philosopher article (Some Thoughts in Response to Terryl Givens on Doubt), Jeffry Thayne made some solid commentary on Terryl Givens’ Faith Matters article “Can Stronger Faith Emerge from the Crucible of Doubt”. Both Givens and Thayne are correct to acknowledge that it is in doubt that the sweet bliss of faith emerges and is strengthened. However, there are some niggling concerns and small critiques which I would like to raise; in the spirit of dialogue and mutual enrichment.

  1. Faith is not the “I Know” statement of an LDS Fast and Testimony meeting. Faith is trust in God despite ignorance. Faith is not only tested in uncertainty (it is a spiritual gift which can be given at any time)—rather it is the certain reliance upon Him when all about, and I mean all, is uncertain. This faith, certain hope in Christ, is the only faith which matters in any real way and which grows as it is exercised. It is this sort of faith which is displayed in the, soon-to-be-canonised John Henry Newman-hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’. John Henry Newman was an Anglican priest who had been visiting touring Italy with a dear friend when he became ill. Sick and stuck in Palermo, he longed for home. In those uncertain times, Newman was buoyed by his certainty that God had something for him to do in England. Uncertain when or how he would return to England, he penned the lines:

 

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

(In a gorgeous setting which expresses the doubt felt in the lyrics)

This Faith is not in opposition to Dogma—indeed it clings to the only real Dogma despite uncertainty.

 

  1. This brings me to Dogma and dogmatism. Dogma is not, in the Church, to be based on culture, pride, nor is it opposed to humility. While I largely agree with Thayne’s conclusions about practical improvements to behaviour, his understanding of dogma leaves much to be desired and attributes a noble quality—dogmatism—to those who are not really dogmatists. The word dogma comes from the Greek δόγμα, meaning both opinion and tenet. In the Christian context dogma is used to convey two ideas 1) the immutable Tenets of the Church and 2) the necessity that the corporate body of the Church, her members, must bring their opinions into conformity with her teachings. Thus, dogma is the Church’s expression of the Divine Will and the members conformity to that Will. Dogmatists and dogmatism cannot be negative because they are people committed to positive faithfulness. Indeed, dogmatists are those who, though uncertain and living in uncertain times, rely on the Church’s teaching to form their faith into the Faith of Christ—that which is the one and only Faith which matters.

 

  1. My third point requires me to make an assumption about Thayne’s meaning, which is, I hope, not uncharitable. Those who Thayne calls dogmatists, he means to distinguish from the Faithful because they are not in conformity with Divine Dogma but fanatically relying on the whited sepulchre of an imagined Mormon culture that exists independent and sometimes in opposition to Divine Dogma. These claim their behaviour comes from Church Tenet but it really relies upon localised culture, the infernal arcana of “deep doctrine”, and a proud but false insouciance regarding the uncertainty of looking through a glass darkly. I agree that these behaviours can be harmful, as either they can be a false security which obscures true doctrine with a comfortable sleepiness or they can be a pernicious weapon deployed to the dismay of the sincerely searching. This pharisaic Mormonist must be distinguished from the Latter-day Saint, who is humbly dogmatic in doubt, faithfully uncertain, and desperately hoping, through the Church, in Christ.

 

Conclusion: Dogma is not the enemy of faith. What is the Dogma of the Church but Salvation in Christ; the existence of a loving God; the restoration of His Church and the promised deliverance from the crucible of doubt? Writ plainly, the Dogma of the Church is the Faith in and of Christ unto Repentance (humble conformity to the Will of God), which leads to Baptism and spiritual regeneration Confirmed by the Gift of the Holy Ghost; enabling the Saint to endure to the end. The other Tenets of the Church pertain only and directly to these. The real complaint should not be against the dogmatists—they are benign—it is against the improperly catechised cultural zealots who in their pride claim sovereign will for themselves and set the Dogma of the Church at naught.

Reflexions on the 2019 Update to the Word of Wisdom: Have We Lost the Plot

wedding-feast-a-cana09sm

The recent update to the Word of Wisdom puzzles me. The prohibitions against vaping, recreational use of marijuana, and green tea do not seem new or revelatory—indeed, it would have been more shocking had the Church released a statement expressing that these activities were within the pale of acceptable interpretations of the Church’s policies around the Word of Wisdom. Even more bizarre than the update, the New Era article, ‘Vaping, Coffee, Tea, and Marijuana’ is almost farcical in its advice, ‘if you’re in a coffee shop (or any other shop that’s well known for its coffee), the drink you are ordering probably has coffee in it, so either never buy drinks at coffee shops or always ask if there’s coffee in it’; one cannot help but wonder if the author has ever been to a coffee shop.

Despite the rather unimpressive New Era article and the unsurprising clarification to the Word of Wisdom, I cannot help but wonder if we’ve lost the plot. The Church, her sacraments, her teachings, and her policies are supposed to be focussed on one thing: ‘inviting others to come unto Christ by helping them to receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end” (Preach My Gospel). Every action of the Church reviewed against this goal. Therefore, the renewed emphasis on the Word of Wisdom begs the questions, 1) how does the Word of Wisdom help bring people to Christ; 2) what is the purpose of the Word of Wisdom; 3) what is the relationship between the Word of Wisdom and sin?

The traditional narrative of the Word of Wisdom is that Emma Smith was tired of cleaning up the chewing tobacco left behind after every time the Elders of the Church met with Joseph Smith. She complained to Joseph Smith and he prayed to God asking what should be done about the situation. The response was what would later become Doctrine and Covenants 89. The Word of Wisdom begins with a statement that it is ‘for the benefit of the council of high priests. . . the church, and the saints’, was not revealed as a ‘commandment or constraint. . . showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days’ (Doctrine and Covenants 89). This then answers the question concerning the relationship between the Word of Wisdom and sin. The Word of Wisdom was never intended to define a rigid set of morals or behaviour. It lacks specifics that typically characterise Divine pronouncements on what is good or evil. The rather facile response, ‘It lacks specifics to emphasise our agency’ does not fit the pattern of the Unchanging God who announced that ‘To look upon a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in your heart’ (Matthew 5:28) and who gave the Ten Commandments and the Law which governed their application (Deuteronomy 5-6). Elsewhere in scripture God is unambiguous, He said ‘as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God’ (3 Nephi 9:17), not ‘think about whether this might be the right or wrong way to live and make a decision, I will honour your decision’. The final nail in the argument that the Word of Wisdom outlines a list of sinful and righteous practices should be that Christ, who was and is Sinless, drank wine and promised to do so with His disciples in Heaven. If perfect Christ could drink and remain perfect (His first public miracle was to make good wine) and we are to drink wine with Him in Heaven, then drinking cannot be a sin sui generis. Is this permission to break the Word of Wisdom? Heaven forbid, we of the Church are required to submit to the guidance of the ecclesiastical authority. Rather, this is a call for Church leaders to re-examine the emphasis placed on establishing “worthiness”, as if one could ever truly be worthy of Christ, on a dietary law. For dietary laws, though present in the Old Testament, were explicitly ended in the New Testament (Acts 10 and Romans 14) because their purpose—to ritually demonstrate the consequence of the Fall and the transmission of the sinful state—was accomplished in the Atonement of Christ.

What then, if not to divide wicked practice from righteous practice, is the purpose of the Word of Wisdom? A textual analysis gives several reasons to follow the Word of Wisdom, temporal salvation from conspiring foes, some basic medical guidance before the Latter-day Saints left the civilised confines of Nauvoo for the wilderness of Deseret, and the promise of increased wisdom and knowledge. These blessings are contingent, not on following a part of the guidance but on following the entirety of it. Some are clearly time-specific—the Church has not made its own wine for Sacramental use for a very long time. Similarly, there do not seem to be bands of conspiring individuals attempting to overthrow the Church through smear accusations of drunkenness, like they who made accusations against Joseph Smith. The wisdom and knowledge, the health, and the medical guidance are not about dulled senses, addictive behaviours, or slavery to vice—rather they are blessings coming from obedience to the cautions of God as revealed by His Church.

Finally, does the Word of Wisdom lead people to Christ? Not of itself. It might be a convenient addition to those searching for something to scratch that itch; conversely, it can be a stumbling block to those who do not easily submit to its rule. Is the addict to be barred from baptism, and the Grace necessary to overcome all, because he is stuck in a foolish practice? Should the smoker be denied salvation because she cannot quit? Would this extend to all the different components of the Word of Wisdom? Should the fat be excluded from Heaven? Those who eat meat and fruits out of season? I do not argue the abolition of the Word of Wisdom; but in focussing on the Word of Wisdom as a litmus test of moral “worthiness” to participate in the Grace-giving sacraments of the Church seems a monstrous abuse. Indeed, the Word of Wisdom as a list of “do nots, sometimes do, grey area, and dos”, as it is treated in LDS culture and occasionally in policy, seems out of place and off plot.