Posted by the Reverend Josh W. Hale (@expatminister)
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare famously admonished Hamlet through the character of Polonius. Would he also advise us that brevity is “the soul of prayer”?
If I had a penny for every liturgy or prayer service in which I’ve participated that equated excessive wordiness with superior faithfulness, then, well, I’d have a lot of pennies.
There’s a pernicious impulse that plagues our prayers and no tradition, group, or type of Christian is exempt. It goes like this: “If I just said a few more words so God would understand,” or “Using the most right words shows this congregation has the right attitude for prayers to be answered,” or so on.
St. Benedict knows too well our tendencies towards self-deception. He has been part of a Christian community too long to be unaware of the temptation to “heap up empty phrases.” This is something that touches not just on our own sinfulness but directly affects our community. Benedict is keen on rooting it out.
Indeed we must grasp that it is not by using many words that we shall get our prayers answered, but by purity of heart and repentance with tears. (RB 20:3)
He goes on to say that although the Holy Spirit may occasionally and uniquely move us to lengthen our prayers, this should always be done during our personal prayer time and not in communal liturgy. Why?
The faithfulness of our prayers is not indicated by their length!
Early North American theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote an entire treatise on “Religious Affections,” exploring what might indicate true, deep emotions motivated by God…and what doesn’t. He devotes an entire chapter to the ambiguity of abundant talk, and titles it:
“It is no sign that affections are truly gracious affections, or that they are not, that they cause those who have them to be fluent, fervent, and abundant, in talking of the things of religion.”
I would go so far as to say our own capacity for self-deception, coupled with our propensity for performance when around others, mixes a spiritually-lethal cocktail for Christian community. Long, formal, or even fervent prayers are not, by necessity, holy; in fact, they too often become an occasion for our lack of discipline and humility to take over even the most pious intentions.
I imagine that these two students of human frailty, Benedict and Edwards, might say that attention to the words by which we address God cultivates space for the Holy Spirit to work. As we pray together during Lent — and for long after! — may we observe the creative Spirit indeed making all things new in our soul through brevity of prayer.