by Jen Hutson, CDA parent
If you are an X-gener like me, you might recall one of the most painful rites as a youth in the church – popcorn prayer. This torturous prayer ritual struck fear in my body and spirit. Besides the awkward silence in which everyone heard my nervous stomach, I was forced to form an articulate appeal to God. But still the trial continued! After assembling my thoughtful but not too vulnerable prayer, I then had to speak at just the right moment. Nothing compared to the ignominy of starting my prayer at the same time as someone else. Humiliation in front of the entire youth group. (It happened to me more than once.)
After graduating from high school, I joined the young adults’ group and was soon greeted by a new painful rite – prayer leader. This assignment was always posed innocently as a question – “will you lead us in prayer?” But everyone knew the social agreement that declining meant grave embarrassment. You might as well say “I’m totally afraid to pray in front of you all.” I tried to avoid eye contact with the group leader. But no matter, I found myself “leading the prayer” quite often. Hearing my prayer aloud was akin to fingernails on a chalk board. But, in time, and I mean a good deal of time, it became easier. And eventually, I began to enjoy praying aloud.
Most people have a painful prayer story, even without the trepidatious popcorn prayer. Some find prayer to be painful on a daily basis. While this is not a manual for prayer, it is a primer on incorporating ancient prayer into your life. Ancient prayer might evoke the image of a dried-up prune of a saint praying in Latin on cold stone floor. But these prayers are not antiquated or painful or rote. They are relevant, living, sincere, and often enough, just what we need.
Ancient prayers are valuable for several reasons:
1. They give us fresh words and expand our vision and application of prayer.
The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and God does not require eloquence in our prayers. But most of us welcome a periodic prayer awakening. Who has learned all there is to know about prayer? Or who has prayed all the possibilities? Surely none of us.
2. They unite us with the saints and believers throughout time.
There is a mysterious unity in praying words that were used for centuries. And they cross denominational lines. Likewise, they transport us from the boundaries of our postmodern prayer paradigm, lending us new perspective.
3. They develop discipline, especially if used in fixed-hour prayer.
Many ancient prayers were used regularly or repetitively. Our modern evangelical culture balks at liturgical repetition. But “…there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive…If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?”1
4. They grow our holy imagination.
God speaks to us through imagination, a kind of sacred dreaming. Ancient prayer can revive this part of our spirit, which often lies fallow in our culture of secular humanism. Is not God the source of creativity? He can surely use it to help us experience him. “Intentional, historic liturgy restores our imagination because it sanctifies our perception – it implants the biblical story so deeply into our preconscious that the gospel becomes the ‘background’ against and through which we perceive the world, even without “thinking” about it.”2 These ancient prayers could create the Gospel tableau your life is lacking.
PRAYERS OF THE SAINTS
St. Patrick’s Breastplate
Born during the 4th century in Britain, St. Patrick was kidnapped by pirates as a child and taken to Ireland. During his enslavement he was led to Christ. After 6 years he finally escaped and returned home to Britain. But God called him to return again to Ireland as a missionary, leading Irish pagans to Christ. How does the context of this prayer lend gravitas to its assertions? What drives a man to return to the place of his enslavement to give his life as a missionary? Ponder the story as you read this excerpt.
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.
Christ shield me today
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.
The Prayer of Manasseh
This penitential prayer is attributed to King Manasseh of Judah. He lived an idolatrous life as King, sacrificing his own sons to idols. After being captured and imprisoned by the Assyrians, he repented and returned to the Lord. Scripture attests Manasseh’s prayer moved God. Find the prayer in 2 Chronicles 33:15–17 and see how his words might elevate your own ideas on repentance.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta
Mother Teresa was a missionary nun who devoted her life to caring for the sick and poor. She began many clinics and colonies in this mission. She received a Nobel Peace Prize and was canonized as a saint. But the release of her journals in recent years revealed a common struggle with faith. This prayer demonstrates the singularity of her vision and her approach to God. How might this prayer encourage you during periods of doubt?
Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you. While all things fade away, God is unchanging. Be patient, for with God in your heart, nothing is lacking. God is enough.
St. Columba was a 6th century Irish abbot and missionary credited with bringing the Gospel to Scotland. He left his home, sailing in a coracle, after a family war for which he blamed himself. He settled on the island Iona which became a missionary center and place of pilgrimage for centuries.
Alone with none but thee, my God,
I journey on my way.
What need I fear, when thou art near, O king of night and day?
More safe am I within thy hand
Than if a host did round me stand.
St. Ignatius of Loyola penned this prayer. Once a knight who sought fame and fortune, he became an influential priest and mystic. During battle, a cannonball struck and shattered his leg, likewise destroying his plans for the future. While in convalescence, he experienced a spiritual awakening and committed his life to Christ. He eventually founded the Order of the Jesuits and wrote the Spiritual Exercises, which lead believers into a deeper, more imaginative prayer life.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
St. Basil’s Prayer to the Most Holy Trinity
St. Basil was a Greek bishop in Asia Minor during the 4th century. He was an influential theologian who supported the Nicene Creed and fought for accurate beliefs in an era of heresies of the early Church.
As I rise from sleep I thank Thee, O Holy Trinity, for through Thy great goodness and patience Thou was not angered with me, an idler and sinner, nor hast Thou destroyed me in my sins, but hast shown Thy usual love for men, and when I was prostrate in despair, Thou hast raised me to keep the morning watch and glorify Thy power. And now enlighten my mind’s eye and open my mouth to study Thy words and understand Thy commandments and do Thy will and sing to Thee in heartfelt adoration and praise Thy Most Holy Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Martin Luther’s Morning Prayer
The father of the Reformation prized prayer, and so he devoted a large portion of his catechism to daily prayer. Luther believed the family to be the center of spiritual development, and so using prayer at home was a daily responsibility to teach children prayer and devotion.
I thank you, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.
Prior to his conversion in the 4th century, St. Augustine lived a life of debauchery and in pursuit of worldly success. He went on to be one of the most prolific scholars and philosophers of the early church. How does knowing the context of his life and repentance give significance to the words of this prayer?
Grant me, even me, my dearest Lord,
to know you, and love you, and rejoice in you.
And, if I cannot do these perfectly in this life,
let me at least advance to higher degrees every day,
until I can come to do them in perfection.
Let the knowledge of you increase in me here,
that it may be full hereafter.
Let the love of you grow every day more and more here,
that it may be perfect hereafter;
that my joy may be full in you.
I know, O God, that you are a God of truth,
O make good your gracious promises to me,
that my joy may be full;
to your honor and glory,
with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
FIXED HOUR PRAYERS
Morning Prayer – BCP
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is a wonderful resource of prayers throughout the year. The first iteration of this prayer book dates from 1549.
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do, direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Evening Prayer – Divine Hours
The Divine Hours is another excellent resource for daily and seasonal prayer, and one of this author’s favorites. Prayers come from various sources such as the breviary and the Book of Common Prayer. Children can easily memorize this prayer to use at bedtime.
Protect us Lord as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep,
For awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep rest in his peace.
Compline (Evening Prayer)
The compline are prayers for evening or nighttime within the practice of fixed hour prayer. Here is one example. Some believers use the compline on the nights when they just can’t sleep.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.
PRAYERS FOR OCCASIONS
Prayer of Confession
You have likely heard this confession from the Book of Common Prayer, or some iteration of it. It stands as a generous model of prayerful confession.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Glory Be (Gloria Patri)
This doxology’s origin is dated around the 4th century when the Trinitarian Gospel was under attack by Arian heresies. It is speculated the Glory Be was first used in affirmation of the Trinitarian God. As you pray this tiny doxology, consider the magnitude of its assertion, especially during a time when believers were fighting to preserve truth over perversions of the Gospel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The Jesus Prayer
Ancient prayer need not be lengthy. The origin of this brief prayer is speculated to be the 4th or 5th century. It can be used in repetition or as a breath prayer, one you speak in moments of need.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Prayer for the Dead
This prayer reminds us from where we came and to whom we belong and shall return. If you lose someone in the future, or in the long past, let this prayer serve as a reflection in the midst of grief.
God our Father,
Your power brings us to birth,
Your providence guides our lives,
and by Your command we return to dust.
Lord, those who die still live in Your presence,
their lives change but do not end.
I pray in hope for my family,
relatives and friends,
and for all the dead known to You alone.
In company with Christ,
Who died and now lives,
may they rejoice in Your kingdom,
where all our tears are wiped away.
Unite us together again in one family,
to sing Your praise forever and ever.
The Universal Prayer
St. Clement was a leader in the church of Rome in the 1st century. This prayer is taken from his letter to the church at Corinth, which is considered to be one of the oldest surviving Christian documents outside the New Testament. This is an excerpt from the much longer complete prayer.
We ask you, Master, to be our helper and protector.
Save those among us who are in distress;
have mercy on the humble;
raise up the fallen;
show yourself to those in need;
heal the sick;
turn back those of your people who wander;
feed the hungry;
ransom our prisoners;
raise up the weak;
comfort the discouraged.
Let all the nations know that you are the only God,
that Jesus Christ is your servant,
and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture.
PRAYERS FROM SCRIPTURE
The Lord’s Prayer
You are certainly familiar with this most ancient of Christian prayer, found in Matthew 6. Let this serve as a model. Memorize it if you have not, and lead your children do the same. 4 or 5 years of age isn’t too early!
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
David’s Prayer of Confession
David penned Psalm 51 after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. How is this Psalm a model of penitential prayer? You may find the words to a familiar camp and worship song in this Psalm.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
The Magnificat is Mary’s prayer of praise found in Luke 1:46-55. Mary spoke this hymn of praise after cousin Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit inspired greeting. Mary’s prayer inspires us to recognize God’s good works in our lives today and throughout history.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
Jesus’ Final Prayer
John 17 contains Jesus’ final prayer before his betrayal and crucifixion. The prayer demonstrates Jesus’ deep and abiding love. Imagine his feeling of urgency as he prays for the keeping and unity of his followers.
Prayer for the Revelation of Christ
This prayer from Paul is found in Ephesians 3:14-19. In it, Paul asks God to impart a personal experience of him, rather than only a knowledge. Notice his focus on love. He asks the Father to give an understanding of him that only comes through experiencing his love: “Transformational knowing of God comes from the intimate, personal knowing of Divine love. Because God is love, God can only be known through love.”3 Paul asks for a knowing of the love of Christ as it is then followed by a full indwelling of God. This is a good and holy prayer for anyone, and especially for youth as we intercede for their future walk with God.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now with your spiritual eyes enlarged by the ancients, let me leave you with what may be the oldest doxology of all, from Numbers 6. Let the poetry seep into your bones as you go on your way.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.
And if you’re still hungry for more? Check out this compendium of prayers from the early church.
- Smith, James K. A., You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 80.
- Smith, James K. A., You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 90.
- Benner, David G., The Gift of Becoming Yourself (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2015), 34-35.
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