O Lord, Open Our Lips

It may seem strange to assert that Catholics have forgotten how to pray. Surely we still beseech the Lord in times of distress. We attend Mass, we say the rosary. More than that, simply because we are human, by the grace of God the Spirit works within us, with unutterable groans and longings. We pray sometimes without knowing we are praying, “O Lord, help me!”
And yet the same march of vandalism that has stripped our churches of their art, and our schools of their traditional symbols of devotion to God and country, has impoverished our language of prayer, too. We may call it the curse of the modernist box. We had to dwell in “machines for living,” said the modernist architect Le Corbusier. So he built machines all right, but whether human beings could really dwell in his blank concrete boxes was another matter. They were, I should say, apartment buildings for creatures with no felt connection either to the natural world or to the heavens above, but rather for functionaries within, or serfs beneath, the all-competent State.
Schools have been built in the same fashion. They do admit of a little bit of childish decoration, but the model of the machine for learning dominates all the same. It is not a place wherein one would hang, as a cherished memorial, a framed copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington. It is not a hieratic place. It neither dwells in the natural world nor aspires to contemplation of everlasting truths. It is instead a flat bureaucratic place, whose employees sometimes cheerfully and sometimes grudgingly and rebelliously submit to the demands of that same State.
And then there are our churches. Others can write more knowledgeably than I can about the loathing of the transcendent, which gives us bare concrete in place of stone, auditoriums instead of naves and sanctuaries, and stage platforms for hootenannies instead of galleries, clerestories, and choir lofts. What I should like to point out is that the same rejection of the transcendent, which is at once also a rejection of the natural and the human, is at work in the language of the prayers we have had composed for our disedification.
In Orwell’s 1984, the ultimate project of the State was more ambitious than to have people forget that they had ever been free. It was, of course, a wonderful thing that the records of people and events should be sent down the “memory hole,” where they would be distorted, shredded, or obliterated, never to be known again. But the most radical work was being done in the linguistic department, to ensure that the people would never again be able to form complex thoughts — about freedom, for example. Orwell was not predicting that such linguistic vandalism would go on; he was noticing that it had been going on. And it has continued to go on, as is made manifest in the blank concrete of the language of our worship.
Language is not merely a tool, or an artifact. It is the means by which man, who is capax universi, encounters all the world about him and fashions for himself a world of meaning for understanding it and dwelling within it. It is, to capture a glimpse of Eden, his way of encountering the animals: He names them, and when he does, he sees something true about them and enters into a relationship with them.
It’s legitimate to ask, then, what kind of “world” is summoned into being by the language we use. Consider this opening prayer from the Anglican Order for the Burial of the Dead:
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.
I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
I can see, in my mind’s eye, the site of the tomb where Lazarus was buried. And Martha came up to Jesus and confessed that she believed her brother would live again in the resurrection, to which Jesus replied in words of fire and thunder: I am the resurrection and the life. We know what would happen soon after; but our attention turns then to an old man sitting half-naked on a dungheap, his body covered with sores, crying out in anguish for his suffering and defending his innocence. It is Job, affirming that someday, somehow, he shall be vindicated, for he knows that his redeemer lives. Then comes the stark and plain judgment of our insufficiency. We carry nothing out of this world. And we end with the first patient sigh of that same Job, when he heard that his sons and daughters had perished: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.
They who learn this language have more than tools to pray with. They have a world of symbols and events, like mountains and plains and running streams, to pray in.
Or consider this prayer before the Pax, from the Sarum Rite:
O Holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God: grant us so worthily to receive this most holy Body and Blood of Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, that by this we may deserve to receive the remission of all our sins, and to be filled with thy Holy Spirit, and to possess Thy peace. For Thou alone art God, and there is none other beside Thee: Whose glorious kingdom abideth unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Again, to pray such a prayer is to walk into a world: one whose vast spaces and immemorial ages reach upward to eternity. We hear in the final sentence the great cry of Moses to the Israelites: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one!” It is not only a confession of the uniqueness of God, but of His mercies to Israel: He is the only one in whom they must trust. His kingdom — no abstraction, that, but a realm more real than what we know about us — abides, lives, dwells, in everlasting presence, not just “always,” but “unto the ages of ages,” within and beyond time, within what we can imagine, and beyond all our imagining. To that kingdom we journey, and that is why we pray that we might receive Christ’s body and blood worthily, so as to be granted the peace of God. Such peace is not mere tranquility of mind; it is the presence of the Holy Spirit living within us, granting us the friendship of God, which is our safe conduct to His glorious kingdom.
The “world” of such prayers is, we see, not compromised by language we now find archaic. That is because a world is not simply a passing phenomenon. It perdures; and though languages, like all human things, come into being and pass away, yet we naturally long for what does not pass away. Therefore our prayers should never follow the ephemeral skitters and shrugs of linguistic practice. If it is old, it will be all the stranger to us, like a world to be encountered anew. There is nothing more stale than what was new-and-improved yesterday, and nothing fresher to our hearts than what is old and venerable.
But that world does not depend upon the archaisms, either. It is instead a rich world of symbols and sacramental realities and ancient practices; a world you can, so to speak, feel against your bended knees.
Now compare with the sort of thing that is given to us as prayer these days. I will comment as I go along:
Gracious God and Father, we are your people embraced by your love.
In case God does not know that, we inform him of it. “Embrace” is a standard-issue verb of niceness; no actual image of an embrace is summoned up.
We thank you for your presence with us throughout all time.
Abstract, vague, and abrupt. And do “we” speaking this prayer exist “throughout all time”?
Create us anew through Jesus Christ, your Son. Liberate us from all that keeps us from you. Send your Holy Spirit, enabling us to recreate our world and restore justice.
All abstract, still. The tone is that of a memorandum, with the exception of the phrase “create us anew.” But that phrase is oddly applied. The ancient Church prayed Veni, Creator Spiritus: It is the great creating Spirit who remakes us. “Send forth thy Spirit,” says the Psalmist, “and they shall be created, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”
But here, the psalm is not on anyone’s mind. Indeed, God is not going to recreate our world. We are going to do it. God is not going to restore justice. We are going to do it. It is, of course, gracious of us to acknowledge that we cannot quite manage it alone. Let us continue:
Heal us from every form of sin and violence.
Abstract, vague. We commit sin, and sin is sometimes physically violent; otherwise violence is something we suffer. We are to be “healed” of violence. I have no idea what that means. Lawrence the Deacon, expiring on the gridiron, breathed out his last words of defiance to his tormentors, telling them to turn him over, because he was not done on the other side. Does that qualify for being “healed” of violence?
Transform us to live your Word more profoundly.
The vague lingo of a freshman theology essay. The image hidden in “profoundly,” that of the depths of the sea, is ignored.
Reconcile us so enemies become friends.
A plea with all the warmth and vigor of a dead fish.
Awaken us to the sacred.
You think? As, for instance, to the possibilities of sacral language?
Nurture our relationships; enliven our parishes; reunite our families.
Enhance our self-image; support our local initiatives; contribute to our retirement funds.
Fill us with joy to celebrate the fullness of life.
And, while you are at it, Lord, fill us with fullness to celebrate fulfillment more fully.
Empower us to be a community of love growing always in Your likeness by the grace of Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Empower” — the slang of political action. What it means to be “growing in your likeness,” I am not sure, since we are already made in the image and likeness of God. If it means “growing in holiness,” it should say so. But it is all vague; poor even for a college freshman, even for a school principal, even for a senator.
And so, our minds laid bare by language like that, which says little and means less, we lose the capacity to pray with that earthy strength that moved the prayers of our fathers of old. Compare, finally, with Pope Leo’s prayer to St. Michael:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan and the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
And let that cunning liar take a sheaf of memos with him. Amen.

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Kamilla

    Tony,

    Thank you, that was wonderful!

    As I was reading that thing that passes for a prayer now, and your comments about it, I was struck not only by how little it says but by to whom it is addressed. It’s the prayer of the pharisee on the busy corner, “Thank you God that I am not . . .” That prayer doesn’t address God, it addresses those praying.

    Blech.

    Kamilla

  • Mary

    when the Novus Ordo is governed by how many metric tons of Scripture can be fitted into a Mass, rather than by prayers, which are appropriate for the occasion, by the absence of any silence during the Mass, where the canon of the Mass is nearly an afterthought, when contemplation is something that people sneer at? And what can one expect when the art that helped to make contemplation possible has been banished as “old hat” or “pre-conciliar”?

  • Monica

    …and the corporate me, which is us!

    The old prayers used exalted language and actually said something about God. The new prayers use pedestrian language and mostly just tell God what we want Him to do for us. Boring boring boring.

  • Deal W. Hudson

    I would be interested in Esolen’s take on the use of the word “just” in improvisatory prayers by Evangelicals. “Lord, we just want to say….” “Lord, I just ask you to …..” What is the “just” supposed to signify? Sincerity? Conviction? Humility? It seems to play the role of some kind of intensifier but I have never been able to figure out what precisely is meant by it.

  • Margaret Cabaniss

    I would be interested in Esolen’s take on the use of the word “just” in improvisatory prayers by Evangelicals. “Lord, we just want to say….” “Lord, I just ask you to …..” What is the “just” supposed to signify? Sincerity? Conviction? Humility? It seems to play the role of some kind of intensifier but I have never been able to figure out what precisely is meant by it.

    Deal, some of my Protestant friends call those “Jesus Weejus” prayers — “Jesus, we jus’ want to thank you…” Apparently it’s widespread!

  • Kevin in Texas

    I would be interested in Esolen’s take on the use of the word “just” in improvisatory prayers by Evangelicals. “Lord, we just want to say….” “Lord, I just ask you to …..” What is the “just” supposed to signify? Sincerity? Conviction? Humility? It seems to play the role of some kind of intensifier but I have never been able to figure out what precisely is meant by it.

    Deal, some of my Protestant friends call those “Jesus Weejus” prayers — “Jesus, we jus’ want to thank you…” Apparently it’s widespread!

    I never consciously noted that usage before, but now that I think about it, how true! I spent about 10 days at a Christian mission down in Baja, Mexico last month with two close friends who are missionaries there, and this was a regular feature of their prayers. In their defense, though, I think a strong case can be made that they are expressing humility before the Almighty God of the universe when they use “just” in this way. At the very least, that was the distinct sense I took away from it.

    By the way, as a cradle Catholic, I have also come to appreciate the tremendous value in spontaneous vocal prayer like theirs, especially when done with a humble heart and a clear purpose. The beauty of so many of our Catholic prayers notwithstanding, simple and spontaneous vocal prayer undoubtedly moves the hearts of Our Lady and Our Lord, and sometimes, as Mr. Esolen acknowledges here in his piece, it is what comes to our lips spontaneously that most accurately reflects the state of our soul in the moment.

  • Marguerite

    Adding to the plethora of banal language at Mass, lame jokes by the “presider” have been added to the social gathering. Hymns, now called songs, most times than not, put emphasis on the congregation and not on praising and worshipping the Lord. The Mass has become all about us. HELP!

  • Sue Sims

    As I’m sure Mr Esolen will know, ‘just’ used adverbially in this way is known as a ‘hedge’. It generally expresses a degree of uncertainty, modifying a statement or request which may seem too abrasive or definite. I’ve always assumed that this habit of Evangelicals (11 years a Catholic, I still note it in my own prayers) is a token of humility – or was originally. Obviously it’s now become pure reflex, like the use of the vocative ‘Lord’, often several times per clause (‘Lord, we just ask, Lord, that, Lord, you’ll bless and keep, Lord…’

  • Maypo

    Thank you Dr. Esolen for another fine contribution to this site. Your inclusion of the Sarum Rite prayer before the Pax, along with your insightful following paragraph, was the highlight of my day. I will cut both out, carry them in my wallet and pray the prayer (and read your paragraph) during the Mass before receiving our Lord.

    As a side comment, you are an inspiring spiritual writer. Your essays cut through the fog that is modern life. Chesterton is brought to mind with every new one that I read. Thanks for writing.

  • Tony Esolen

    Thanks, everybody, for your words of encouragement, which as it turns out come at an especially opportune time for me; I am deeply grateful for them.

    I’ll note that the prayer I quoted is so banal that my excellent editors — and I mean that without a trace of irony; they are excellent! — didn’t notice that I was parodying the prayer in the sentence “enhance our self-image, support our local initiatives, contribute to our retirement funds”. And now that I read the passage over again, I see why. You can imagine, without a whole lot of difficulty, that sentence being inserted into the prayer — and if you did insert it, I doubt that anybody would notice. “Retirement funds” might give it away — and might not.

    On “just”, that verbal tic: I agree that it’s born of humility, and that now it’s jes automatic, jes somethin’ I say, like. It’s a childish or infantile habit — and I don’t mean to criticize it when I say so. The prayer I quoted above is neither childish nor infantile. If only it were! If only I could get my college freshmen to write like sharp-witted fourth graders, about shiny cars and mudpuddles, rather than about nurturing relationships and suchlike.

  • Margaret Cabaniss

    I’ll note that the prayer I quoted is so banal that my excellent editors — and I mean that without a trace of irony; they are excellent! — didn’t notice that I was parodying the prayer in the sentence “enhance our self-image, support our local initiatives, contribute to our retirement funds”. And now that I read the passage over again, I see why. You can imagine, without a whole lot of difficulty, that sentence being inserted into the prayer — and if you did insert it, I doubt that anybody would notice. “Retirement funds” might give it away — and might not.

    Banal indeed! That was the result of a formatting error, but it speaks volumes that it took us this long to catch it… It’s fixed now. Thanks.

  • MJS

    Somewhere years ago, I saw a cartoon of someone praying, “Lord, we just ask you, Lord, to just reach into our prayer vocabulary, and to just take the word “just” right out of it….”

  • Criffton

    This is another reason I have been drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass. As Deal noted earlier, beauty in the liturgy is meaningful. And now this article about the beauty and content of the prayers and ‘songs’.

    At my student ministry, we have booklets from the sponsoring parish for music – all of it is Contemporary Christian Music. While emotionally inspiring, it is virtually devoid of content. Compare that to Tantum Ergo or the Salve Regina.

    Come on, why are we singing “Heart of Worship” at Mass. This is the heart of worship, the Eucharist present on our table. It is a very Evangelical song that talks about the often distracting emotional appeal of Evangelical songs. This is not about the Eucharist.

    And to make everyone jealous – we had a sung Latin Requiem Mass this morning. Not happy because it was a funeral, but the liturgy is amazing, especially the prayers.

  • Sam

    This is another reason I have been drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass. As Deal noted earlier, beauty in the liturgy is meaningful. And now this article about the beauty and content of the prayers and ‘songs’.

    At my student ministry, we have booklets from the sponsoring parish for music – all of it is Contemporary Christian Music. While emotionally inspiring, it is virtually devoid of content. Compare that to Tantum Ergo or the Salve Regina.

    Come on, why are we singing “Heart of Worship” at Mass. This is the heart of worship, the Eucharist present on our table. It is a very Evangelical song that talks about the often distracting emotional appeal of Evangelical songs. This is not about the Eucharist.

    And to make everyone jealous – we had a sung Latin Requiem Mass this morning. Not happy because it was a funeral, but the liturgy is amazing, especially the prayers.

    Someday I hope some Church historian will look back on this period and ask the question: “What were Church liturgists thinking when they insulted the intelligence of countless young Catholics and thought they couldn’t grasp Latin, transcendent hymns, beautiful prayers, Gregorian chant, etc?” I’ve heard the lame excuse so often that young people today don’t want those things and rather prefer Life Teen, etc. A friend of mine who grew up like I did in the post-Vatican II Church said that he saw youth retreats and guitar Masses as simply more ways to meet girls, not so much grow in his faith. This emotion-laden, sentimental, hard-to-sing pap doesn’t lift the soul to God.

  • Joe C

    What a fine article. I wish that I had Professor Esolen as a teacher at Providence College when I was a student there in the 1980’s. He is clearly a worthy colleague and successor to the Dominicans I had there who taught me to think logically,communicate clearly, and love thoroughly Western Civilization and its crowning glory: the Mass. The many brilliant, wise, and pious friars I had as professors, advisors, confessors, and friends who now patiently occupy the little cemetery at the center of the campus would be pleased.

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