Theologians make an important distinction between what they call “devotional” and “liturgical” prayer. “Devotional” prayer, they tell us, is private in nature and is meant to help sustain us personally on the spiritual journey. “Liturgical” prayer, by contrast, is public by nature, the church’s prayer (not our own), is universal in scope, and is intended for the needs of the world.
We don’t always grasp this, to the detriment of both kinds of prayer. Perhaps we might understand this better if we put different names to these. What helps clarify things for me are the terms “affective” and “priestly” prayer. “Affective” prayer refers to private prayer, prayer that’s about us, focused precisely on bringing us and our feelings to God. “Priestly” prayer, on the other hand, is not about us, is about the world, is public in nature, and it doesn’t have to be meaningful personally to be of value. But how can this be? How can prayer be of value if it isn’t personally meaningful?
An analogy might be helpful: Imagine you’re part of a symphony orchestra, playing an instrument that contributes to an overall musical score. Night in and night out, you’re playing the same piece in the same theatre, helping to create a beautiful symphony for the audience.
The public prayer of the church, priestly prayer, works exactly like that. It’s a symphony intended for the benefit of everyone and open to everyone.
This has a number of ramifications: First of all, it clarifies some age- old questions about who benefits from our prayer and who doesn’t. Are people who have others to pray for them more lucky than those who don’t? Imagine two people, both in pain and in need of prayer: The first is a very well-loved individual, part of a big and loving community, perhaps even a public figure, and he has many people praying for him. The second person isn’t as lucky. She’s alone, without family and friends, unknown to the world, with nobody to pray for her. Are we to believe that the first person has drawn a lucky straw and will benefit from all the prayers offered for him, while the second will languish alone, without the benefit of prayer since she has nobody to pray for her?
No. That’s not the way prayer works, at least not the “priestly” prayer of the church. It creates a symphony that’s intended for everyone, includes everyone, and benefits everyone, the loved, the unloved, the lucky, and the unlucky, all equally. When a symphony is being played it’s not selective or discriminatory, the music is for everybody.
Granted, in its explicit expression, our “priestly” prayer might sometimes be directed towards the needs of one particular person (“Let us pray for Martha who’s ill and in the hospital”), but everyone, Martha included, is given the benefit of the symphony. Indeed, such an understanding of “priestly” prayer should challenge us precisely to continually stretch ourselves in terms of the universal intent of our public prayer when we gather as church. Our public prayers on a Sunday are not so much intended for some individual Martha who’s ill and in pain, as for the whole world in all its ills and pains, Martha and her pains included.
This analogy of public prayer as a symphony sheds light on another issue as well, namely, on why our public, priestly prayer does not have to meaningful to us personally to be valuable.
Imagine again that you’re part of an orchestra that, night in and night out, plays the same musical score. You’ve played the same piece many times over and, most evenings, are bored with it. You’d love, for your own stimulation, to play something else which would give you more energy. But the symphony isn’t yours, isn’t intended for you, and depends on many things beyond your tastes and preferences. Your participation is in function of something else. You’re playing this for somebody else. So you play the same piece, night in and night out, not for your own benefit, but for the audience. You contribute your efforts to the symphony for the benefit of others, even as you yourself would prefer to be playing something else.
That’s how “priestly” prayer works, it makes a symphony of prayer for the benefit of everyone. That’s the intent of all Sunday services and all liturgical prayers of the church.
What constitutes “priestly” prayer? It’s the public prayer of our churches, the Eucharist, the Sacraments, Services of the Word, Sunday worship. It’s also the Office of the Church (the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary). All of these, by essence and definition, are public prayers, intended first of all not for the private nourishment of those praying them, but as a symphony of prayer for the benefit of the whole world.
The next time you’re at a church service and telling yourself that this isn’t nurturing you, remember that the function of an orchestra is, first of all, not to entertain itself but to make music for others.