Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the blast of the ram’s horn;
Praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe.
Praise him with resounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
Praise the Lord. Hallelujah!
(Psalm 150, Book of Common Prayer translation)
There is a classic formula for Christian prayer whose acronym in ACTS: Adoration, Confession,
Thanksgiving, Supplication. (Some versions include a separate category for Intercession, which
Is otherwise included as part of Supplication–or as I prefer to call it, Petition.)
I have never really understood the need for Adoration. “Why does God need our praise?” I
wondered. Surely such a thing is superfluous. Which, of course, only illustrates how easy it is
(for me) to know something without bringing (my) knowledge to bear.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised. (Ps. 145:3)
Earlier this week, while preparing for intercessory prayer with the Franciscan Crown Rosary (a
practice I wrote about in my last entry) I decided that my usual modes of address at the
beginning of a prayer were becoming more than a little pat. So I cast around for some other ways
to address the Eternal: All-Pervading Energy, Ground of Being, Source of the Universe, Fountain
of All Being…there were many more, but I can’t remember them now because I very quickly
entered an exalted state as my efforts to put God’s reality into words brought me a fresh, vivid
sense of the unfathomable vastness of that reality. Praising God–which any meaningful form of
address to the Divine will almost necessarily be–brought home to me the hitherto purely
intellectual knowledge that “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Here’s an example: I used to require students–non-music-majors–to attend a live musical
performance and describe what they heard. Most often, whet I got instead of descriptions were
labels: heavy metal, techno and the like. When I’d insist on actual descriptions of musical
parameters like volume, rhythm, melody and timbre, they’d object that, as non-music-majors,
they weren’t able to talk about music in that way. This, I maintained, is untrue; you needn’t have
access to specialized jargon–just use your own words.
Over Thanksgiving break, my wife’s godfather opened two bottle of red wine and removed the labels, offering each for sampling and our estimate of what they were. “That tastes like a Chianti,” I said of the first. My wife, who’d been listening to me bitch about my student’s papers all morning, shouted from the next room, “That’s not a description–that’s a label!” “I don’t speak wine!” I rejoined. “You tell your students they don’t need to speak music,” she answered.
She had me there, so I applied myself to describing what I tasted without recourse to jargon.
“Well…on top, it kind of tastes like flowers.”
Holy Moly, I thought: Distinct floral notes!
“But underneath, I can taste herbs.”
Hey—would that be “herbal undertones”?
Two remarkable things were happening as I tried to describe what I tasted: 1) I paid closer
attention to what I was drinking, and 2) the argot of professional wine critics began to make
sense for the first time. Phrases that had previously washed over me like some foreign language
suddenly yielded up their meaning as I verified their accuracy by experience.
That’s what praising God does: sharpens our attention to the Divine, and elucidates the
descriptions used by those who have gone before us. "The old words of grace are worn smooth
as poker chips,” wrote novelist Walker Percy, “and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a
poker chip after it has been cashed in." Groping for our own words restores the texture of the
I used to wonder why we should praise God, because I had forgotten a cardinal rule of prayer, as expressed by C.S. Lewis: “It doesn't change God- it changes me.” The more we dwell on God, the more surely we come to share in the Divine nature. “What we think,” said the Buddha, “we become.” And surely this is why Paul exhorted the Christians at Phillipi, saying:
…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. (Phillippians 4:8)
We don't know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. –Romans 8:26
Some people are good at intercessory prayer. They remember, not only those who have asked them for prayer, but also those whose situations simply seem to warrant it. They pray fluently, simply and without over-thinking things, and they make their needs known without seeming to micromanage God.
I am not one of those people.
In a group setting–in church, during the Daily Office with my fellow Franciscans, after Morning Meditation–it’s easy to simply ask for prayer for someone and briefly describe their situation and needs. But when alone, I feel the need to “pray something,” and find myself either talking too much, or feeling like I’m just going through the motions. I wonder whether to pray for a particular outcome, or simply “Your will be done.” Then I get caught in a “your Father knows what you need before you ask” loop, wondering if there’s even any point to intercession.
For those who may have similar difficulties, I will share a technique I have developed to deepen my intercessory prayer life using the Rosary.
Before beginning, I spend about five minutes in silent meditation, being aware of my intention to use the practice as a vehicle for intercession. Then, during each Hail Mary (or Jesus Prayer–I may use either) I allow the remembrance of some person or situation to come into my awareness. I then simply “hold them in the Light,” as the Quakers say, for the duration of the prayer, trusting that God will take it from there.
And that’s it.
The “allowing” is key; if I sit down with a pre-determined list of people to pray for, the whole practice takes on a mechanical, even frantic aspect–and once I’ve prayed through the list, my mind goes blank.
Over-thinking is deadly. It’s important to be like Pooh, and wait for things to come to us, rather than Rabbit, who takes it upon himself to go out and get them. This requires trust, but the trust is always rewarded; I have never done this practice without a steady stream of friends, enemies, relations, colleagues and situations coming to mind to be held up in prayer.
I do this practice with the Dominican Rosary, because each group of beads (or “decade,” because they are arranged in groups of ten) is associated with a particular “mystery” from the lives of Jesus and Mary. The mysteries are
THE JOYFUL MYSTERIES
The Annunciation of Mary
The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth
The Birth of Jesus
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The Finding of the Jesus among the Elders
THE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES
The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The Scourging at the Pillar
The Crowning with Thorns
The Carrying of the Cross
THE GLORIOUS MYSTERIES
The Resurrection of Jesus
The Ascension of Jesus
The Sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
The Assumption of Mary
The Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven
In the traditional practice, one thinks about these events while praying the ten Hail Mary’s in each decade. But I have never gotten used to such discursive meditation; I don’t like “thinking about” things during contemplative prayer time. So while I soldiered on with the Rosary off and on for years, brief seasons of great fruitfulness alternated with endless stretches of mechanical recitation, and I would often abandon the practice for long periods.
When I use the Rosary as an aid to intercession, however, the practice comes powerfully to life, because the mysteries themselves guide my intercessions. While praying the Annunciation, for instance, ten people or groups of people who are struggling with issues of vocation may come to mind; during the Birth of Jesus decade, I remember expectant mothers and new parents; as I pray the Carrying of the Cross, I remember people who have taken on extraordinary burdens. And while you wouldn’t think you know 150 people, groups or situations in need of your prayer, you would probably be surprised. Just relax and refrain from grasping (as the Buddhists say) and they will come to you. And don’t worry–you will not forget those people who have particularly solicited your intercession.
So this practice has not only grounded and freed my intercessory prayer, but it has also enlivened my use of the Rosary. For me, holding people in the light whose situations connect them to the mysteries is a much more meaningful meditation on those mysteries than forcing myself to think about the events in some more literal way, while remembering those for whom I pray in the light of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives and ministries enables me to pray for others without getting tangled up in what to say.
Finally, when I rise from my prayer bench after this practice, I have a vivid sense of the “great cloud of witnesses by whom we are all surrounded on our spiritual pilgrimage; I feel more connected to “all the faithful of every generation” in the Communion of Saints, and am powerfully reassured that I am not alone.
 Matthew 6:8
 I also use the seven-decade Franciscan Rosary, which also invokes different “mysteries” for the various decades.
 Pope John Paul II added a group of ten “Luminous Mysteries” that reference Jesus’ public ministry, but they are not in universal use.
 Because, as a non-Catholic, I do not believe in the Assumption–or taking up bodily into heaven–of Mary, I substitute the Orthodox “Dormition”, or “falling asleep” (death) of Mary for this mystery.
 Hebrews 12:1
 Book of Common Prayer