Where Have All the Prayers Gone?

"Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples" (Lk 11:1).
Then Jesus gave us the Our Father. But that was by no means the limit of His teaching or His example. We hear Jesus bursting out into praise, glorifying the Father for concealing things from the wise and prudent of the world, and revealing them unto babes. We see Him venturing alone into the silence of the mountains to fast and pray. We are with Him at the table of the Last Supper, when He gives the traditional Jewish blessing of the bread and the wine, and then transforms that prayer into the first Eucharist. We watch with Him in the garden, as He kneels and pleads with the Father that His cup of suffering might pass, though "not my will, but thine be done." We hear His terrible cry of loneliness upon the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And then the quiet, intimate words of faith and obedience, words that storm the kingdom of death: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
When Jesus is risen from the dead, prayer rises with Him, too. "Peace be with you," He says to the Eleven hiding in fear. When He parts from them, He blesses them, and instructs them to baptize all nations, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. They receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and speak in tongues. It is the birthday of the Church, and she has, throughout the centuries, in the power of the Holy Spirit, continued to teach us how to pray.
Yet here I am, Catholic from my infancy, and I am almost as speechless as an infant when it comes to prayer. No doubt I’m partly to blame. But during the dry decades of my youth, the Church’s rich heritage of prayer was quietly stowed away in some subterranean vestry. Formal prayers, except for the few that make up the Rosary, were out; but then so too were those devotional practices, like Eucharistic adoration, or fasting, or keeping silence, that lent themselves to spontaneous prayer, even to those prayers that are the groanings of a troubled heart, to be interpreted only by the Spirit. I recall years ago hearing the Angelus, and suddenly realizing that I could not say it by myself, since I had only a dim recollection of it from childhood.
It’s never too late to learn, but in these matters I feel sometimes like a person who is trying to figure out what baseball is — 30 or 40 years after I should have begun. I open the terrific medieval handbook of spiritual counsel, The Cloud of Unknowing, and read:
Feel sin in its totality — as a lump — without specifying any particular part, and that all of it is you. And then cry ceaselessly in your spirit this one thing: "Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!"
That isn’t meant to be a random impulse. The author attempts to lead his spiritual charges, step by step, away from admiring themselves as they mouth empty words, and into the mystery of the imperious love of God. For He "will brook no rival," says the author. "His will is that you should look at him, and let him have his way." I read these things and hardly know where or when to stand or sit or kneel. Such spiritual discipline as this — in one sense patient and formal, in another utterly thrown open to the cry of the moment — is a part of the Church’s spiritual heritage I can as yet only admire from without, not understanding more than a trace of what is there.
Or I open the Sarum Missal, and read this communion prayer:
LORD Jesus Christ, Who didst commune Thy disciples, eating in common with Thee, with Thy Body and Blood, and as a friend didst establish between them the communion of all their goods: grant me Thy wretched and unworthy servant that in the hour of my death, having worthily and savingly received the same communing, I might be worthy to feast in common with my brethren, the Saints and the Angels, at Thy table. Who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit reignest, God: through all the ages of ages, Amen.
And I know that never once in my life have I returned from communion with such thoughts; never once have I prayed that at the hour of my passing I might one final time partake of the wayfarer’s food, so as to be admitted to the feast that knows no end. I have returned to the pew, knelt down, thought in some perfunctory way of some intention or other, said in my mind one of the few formal prayers I know, and that is all. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. But there has been little else in my repertory. And so I have had to make an effort, in some sense an unnatural and awkward effort, to think the thoughts of Catholics who composed and said prayers such as the one above. The effort is far from entirely successful.
Or I open a book of the prayers of St. Anselm, selections of whose philosophy and theology I have taught for many years. And I read:
A thing to be wondered at —
at what a height do I behold the place of Mary!
Nothing equals Mary,
nothing but God is greater than Mary.
Then I understand, with a start, that I really know very little about this Anselm, who could conceive such a prayer. I recall my many years of shame: my being ashamed of what was looked down upon as the foolish devotion of simple old ladies. So I was taught by the theologians au courant, when, for sheer intelligence, not to mention fidelity, Anselm could have bought up the whole lot of them. I know now that the children of Fatima were right and the theologians were wrong; but knowing it still does not restore to me either my knowledge of the saints or a childlike turning to the woman full of grace.
I must exert myself, I know. And there are plenty of handbooks and prayer books now available to help. It’s a start, anyway, to admit that I know far too little for my own good, or for the good of those for whom I am praying. I write this essay mainly in the hope that it will move someone who knows more than I do, and who is in a position to instruct me and thousands of people like me, to get out the rusty keys, open the closet, and take out the Church’s treasures of prayer for all to behold.

Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a senior editor for
Touchstone magazine. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery).

Anthony Esolen


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).

  • Nick Palmer

    Anthony, I, too, struggle with prayer. My particular problem (among others) is disproportionate use of my “mouth” to the exclusion of my “ears.” I fear that my constant praying prattle is my not-so-subtle way of not listening for what God wants to say to me.

    At an AA meeting the other night, I heard a wonderful description of how best to pray. The speaker lamented that for so long his prayer was either asking for something from God, or praising God’s greatness. As you probably know, spirituality is the bedrock of AA success. The speaker praised the day when he finally figured out that the best way to pray is to ask God what he wants me to do (especially for others), then to listen attentively.

    While not inspiring, practical and realistic.

    And, on the inspiring side, I find Dante’s prayer to Mary near the end of Paradiso one of the most moving pieces of writing ever. On first reading it (trapped on a transcontinental flight), I needed nearly five minutes to clear the tears from my eyes.

  • R A S

    Ignatian Meditation and Contemplation:
    [Open in new window]

    The Examen Prayer:
    [Open in new window]

    Your translations of Dante have given me much pleasure. I hope these recommendations are helpful.
    With prayers,

  • Nick Palmer

    Anthony, from RAS’s post, I infer that you may be a tad more up on your Dante than this old man… 😉

    If so, let me take the selfish opportunity to ask an opinion. Are you familiar with the Teaching Company’s course on Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’? It’s taught by William R. Cook, Ronald B. Herzman. If you do know of it, or of them, would you recommend the course? I’ve taken a course on Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ by the pair which I found quite good.

  • M Pav

    Funny, I felt like that for years. Then I started attending the Latin Mass. Use a missal with plenty of prayers to lead me through the experience of the Mass, post-communion, pre-Mass, just any moment when I need a great prayer, its there.

  • meg

    I, too, am Catholic from infancy and experienced the “dry decades” in my youth the author mentions. When I started attending the Latin Mass a few years back (that alone helped me greatly) I am sorry to say that I was completely unfamiliar with Hail, Holy Queen and Saint Michael’s Prayer, the prayers that are said at the end of a Latin Mass; I had never prayed a rosary or recited the Angelus at noon. Of course I now know these prayers and others (some in Latin) but am so hungry for more.

    For what it’s worth, I’m looking into the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary – it’s filled with beautiful psalms and saints writings etc. to recite daily. Since the author mentioned Fatima, here is an excerpt (but there’s much more):

    Angel’s prayer at Fatima

    It is truly right to bless you, O God-bearing One, as the ever-blessed and immaculate Mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim and by far more glorious than the seraphim; ever a virgin, you gave birth to God the Word, O true Mother of God, we magnify you. O my God, I believe, I adore, I hope and I love Thee. I ask pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love Thee.

  • Tony Esolen

    Hello Nick,

    Don’t worry about it — Philistines are twice as much fun to be around as are stuffy academics! But no, I haven’t heard the Teaching Company’s tape on Dante. I’d probably just chew my lip and fume, “How come I’m not being paid to do something like this!” But you’re right about Canto 33. In my lecture on Paradise next week, for our Western Civilization class, I plan to end just by reading the whole canto aloud — if I can squeeze the time to do it.

  • Chrissy G

    Meg’s post with the angel’s prayer at Fatima (which I recognize from the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, celebrated by the Eastern Catholics and Orthodox) inspired me to contribute a few more prayers from that liturgy. It’s very good for those of us who weren’t raised on the full richness of Christian prayer from ages past, because it alludes to the mystical Otherness of God without obscure or complicated language. But the effect is really lacking if they’re not sung. Here goes…

    The Trisagion:
    Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.

    some response: One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen.

    Traditional Christian greeting: Glory be to Christ!
    Response: Glory forever!

    Christ is Risen- for Easter Season
    Christ is risen from the dead,
    trampling death by death,
    and to those in the tombs, giving life.

    Easter greeting: Christ is Risen!
    Response: Indeed He is Risen!

    From the prayer of the people before receiving communion:
    …Of Your mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Your mystery to Your enemies, neither like Judas will I give You a kiss; but like the thief will I confess You: remember me, O Lord, in Your kingdom.

    May the communion of Your holy Mysteries be neither to my judgment, nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body. Amen.

    (The website I linked is the full text of the Divine Liturgy. But like I said, reading it is nothing compared to hearing it and participating in it!)

  • Londiniensis

    A very dear Jewish friend, long dead, recounts in a memoir how when, as a student in pre-war Krakow, he asked his rabbi what was the most important morning prayer: “He took me aside and what he told me I have never forgotten: ‘The most important thing is the question man has to put to himself when he raises his eyes to heaven. Ma chovato b’olamo – what is my duty in this world? Every morning, before you begin your day, ask yourself this question. Do not try to answer it – there is no short answer to it, it will not come to you quickly, maybe it will never come to you – it matters not. The thing is to realise that the question is important, that you have a duty to perform and have to search for it.”

  • Kamilla


    The situation is even worse for those of us raised in low church Protestantism. We are speechless as infants and remain so because we have no teachers, no codes or practices that signal, “Yes, this is now prayer”. I am still amazed at how quickly the air in a room changes when someone says, “The Lord be with you” and everyone responds, “And also with you”. It’s a mood change that runs even deeper than that following the bell for recess. The call and response teach us and form us, reaching deeper than we know.


  • Ellen

    I grew up in the pre-Vatican II era and so my stash of prayers is very abundant. I know a million of ’em[smiley=happy].
    And yet I have met several Catholics who disparage the prayers I grew up with and love. They say that spontaneous prayers are the only good ones. While I am loathe to disparage any prayers, I have been in situations where someone offered a prayer that was long and rambling and never really got to the point. I do love my prayers, and when I can’t find my own words, I usually can find a prayer that says what’s in my heart.

  • Bill Sr.

    Sometimes we need to not just methodically repeat the prayers we

  • Tony Esolen


    You are right about that — but nobody, I think, is recommending the thoughtless repetition of rote prayer. If you know a piece of music really well, you know it by heart; nobody scoffs at “mere” memorization of music, because we still understand that once you’ve committed a piece to memory, you can then really examine it, think about it, play subtle changes on it, and even begin to appreciate its subtler beauties. What you suggest we do with the Our Father was in fact commonly done for centuries; preachers and poets and theologians meditated upon its clauses, one by one. (One of the most famous of such “expanded” prayers is the opening to canto 11 of Dante’s Purgatory.) But you can’t meditate upon something that you don’t know. I can’t dwell, with wonder or gratitude or even plain old curiosity, upon the words of a prayer that I don’t have in my mind, unless I’m staring at it on a page. But why should I be in the position of somebody whose experience of music is limited to whatever somebody else happens to be playing? Why should I NOT know hundreds of melodies and be able to whistle them as I walk down the street? Why should my experience of poetry be limited to what I can find in a textbook? Why should I NOT be the possessor of dozens of poems that give me satisfaction when I call them to mind, or speak them to someone? So why should I not know many prayers, too? Aren’t they works of theological art in their own right? Don’t they also help to exalt the mind and the heart?

  • Bill R

    If this evangelical Protestant isn’t intruding here, I would merely note that one problem, ironically, is the difficulty prayer poses for those of us with some facility in the English language. Others expect us to be–we expect ourselves to be–fluent, even eloquent. After all, the great liturgies and prayers can move us to tears, while banal, extemporaneous prayers may often move us to sleep….

    I am a member of my church’s choir, and we have an informal “chaplain,” an elderly black gentlemen with silver hair and beard, who prayers with a fervor that must surely move heaven as it moves us here on earth. I could listen endlessly to his prayers, which are simple but lifted up with a cadence that makes them more like song. It’s an eloquence born of the heart rather than the intellect. I wish I could pray like that. But I really believe that it’s effective because it’s unaffected. On paper such prayers probably wouldn’t impress. Given voice, his voice, they move me to tears. The secret, I think, is that he’s unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, or perhaps more accurately, to hold his heart up before God, unashamed to let others peek. That, I suspect, is the true power of his public prayer. I’ll be happy if I can accomplish that in my private prayer.

  • Scott Johnston

    Perhaps this thread is too old now, but I will go ahead with a few meager thoughts. . .

    I think Bill R above hits on something significant; it is similar to something I was thinking myself after reading Tony’s article. A characteristic of contemporary Western society, I observe, is a growing lack of ability to communicate one’s true heart to other people–and beginning, perhaps, with oneself to oneself.

    We are such complex amalgams of discordant and contradictory ideas, habitually self-doubting and second-guessing (while also self-aggrandizing and ego-centric), that we have only a weak and dim notion of our personal voice–the true, authentic core of our own personal individual self. Also, and especially for those of us younger than the boomer generation, American culture (such as it is), has groomed us to regard anything that resembles heartfelt expressions, romantic utterances, passionate effusions, etc., as ultimately shallow and/or as motivated by hidden and unworthy motives. A heartfelt expression such as the one by Anselm above enters our hearing as something in the same genre as a fake Hallmark card sentiment. We have made honest, simple, sincere expressions of the passions of our hearts something never seen or experienced. We either keep them to ourselves out of self-conscious embarrassment or self-doubt, or lose the ability to make sincere use of them at all through repeated and deliberate stifling.

    This has a very deleterious effect on our prayer. For, prayer involves a truthful, simple communication of the heart. On some level it is a union of hearts, a holding up of our heart before God–before the heart of Christ (perhaps a better way to think of it is as an entering in of Christ’s heart into our own in such a way that our own is not obliterated but is gradually healed and elevated to become more truly and wholly our own). But, I think in order for this to happen in a fruitful way that does not close in on itself as merely another of many possible wrinkles of self-absorption, is unselfconsciousness. It is vital that we be properly unconcerned with how we are perceived (how “holy” others may see us, etc.), and concerned instead with being truly self-revealing.

    We should indeed, as a start, ask God how to pray. Also, realize that merely the desire to pray already is a great gift from God and reveals the working of grace in our souls. A holy priest once remarked that the only grace we can be sure of is the grace to desire to pray. Other graces must be asked for–including, perhaps, how and what to pray.

    I have noticed that other people I have had the privilege of being around whom I would call especially prayerful people, and close to God, had this trait of being very unselfconscious in their prayer life. We contemporary Americans are the polar opposite–we are obsessively overly self-conscious about everything we do. But this is a sort of self consciousness that is not in the same category as, say, self-examination before God. The former is ultimately shallow, and obsesses about outward appearances and how we are perceived by others. The latter is deep, interior, and properly disinterested in the perceptions of others.

    Forgive my length here, but may I also suggest we keep in mind that there is a form of prayer that is especially sanctioned (and thus graced) by mother Church: the Liturgy of the Hours. And the primary treasure of the LOH is the Psalter. Perhaps it is a good school of prayer to take one of the hours (Evening Prayer, for example) and pray this hour each day. Or, just turn directly to the Psalms, making one of them our own prayer according to how our heart is that day.

    Another possible suggestion is the Song of Songs: to use it as a meditation on how our soul is meant to stand in relationship to God as a member of the Bride of Christ. The Psalms (giving words and phrases that become one’s own) and the Song of Songs (giving a rich font of images to dwell upon) loom large in the spiritual reflections of many Saints of a long stretch of Christendom. Perhaps they can help us to overcome the particular defects in our souls that afflict us, opening up a space for prayer in our hearts that we often struggle to find.

  • Scott Johnston

    I should say by offering the above remarks I do not imply myself to be adept at prayer. Quite the contrary.

    Also, It may be helpful (and I am simply repeating here common advice from the Saints about prayer) not to get into a rut of thinking that prayer ought to be subjectively experienced as something particularly great or elevated (though, objectively, it is), and then when our experience often suggests the opposite, to become discouraged. This can be to give in to a temptation from the powers of darkness who want to do anything they can to get us to stop praying (or to think our prayer of no importance). It may help our perspective about difficulties with prayer to recognize that our struggles are not simply against our own weaknesses, but that also there are forces beyond us trying to capitalize on our own individual faults to get us to convince ourselves that prayer is not worth it.