When I was younger I thought the only genuine prayer was a spontaneous prayer. I grew up in a congregation where prayer was free-flowing and formulated on the spot. As an extroverted, chatty kid, it was comfortable praying aloud whenever asked.
When I would visit my grandparents’ more traditional congregations, I would often check to see if the pastor or worship leader was reading their prayers.
I could usually tell that prayers were being read because the speaker’s voice sounded measured and monotone. To me this way of praying was both boring and lacking in spiritual strength. I was also not impressed when the entire congregation read a prayer together. I thought: “How can this be meaningful to anyone?”
These notions about prayer continued with me through college. They only began to be challenged as I noticed that not all people who prayed with spontaneous spiritual fervor were living lives of integrity.
My childhood understanding of spontaneous-prayer-equals-good-Christian whereas prepared-prayer-equals-less-passionate-Christian, was not holding true. I even began to question my own ability to pray articulately off-the-cuff. Was I being genuine or just saying a bunch of key words that I thought people (or God) wanted to hear?
For a time I stopped praying aloud altogether. Instead, I communicated with God through journaling.
While in seminary I had the opportunity to explore different kinds of prayer. In one class we were assigned to use a prayer book. I chose Celtic Benediction by J. Philip Newell. From the tradition of Celtic Christian spirituality, these are morning and evening prayers for seven days.
This means you repeat the same prayers each week. While I was skeptical of this kind of prayer, I began to appreciate the repetition. I realized that every week, though I was reading the same words, I was bringing a different set of experiences. So the words spoke to me in new ways.
During a particularly difficult time in my life, I memorized some of these prayers and repeated them often to myself. At this time I was living in the Mennonite Voluntary Service house in Elkhart, Ind., and I would join with a few of my housemates for morning prayers three times a week.
In seminary I explored centering prayer, from the tradition of Catholic monasticism, which involves silent meditation on one idea or intention. I realized how relentless my thoughts are. It was difficult to quiet myself to hear what God might be speaking to me.
I also began to appreciate written prayers from the Mennonite hymnals, as I thought about all the people who had prayed them with me and before me. At the same time, I opened myself to pray spontaneous prayers again.
As I think back on my charismatic upbringing and my journey since then, I am glad for the opportunity to embrace a wide variety of prayer forms, honoring what they can tell me about my community and what it means to follow Jesus. No matter my form of prayer, I lack integrity if I don’t listen to what God might be saying to me.
I do not assume that these experiences with prayer are unique to me. I am grateful for the many different and vibrant ways Christians pray across North America and in the rest of the world. May we continue to learn from each other and deepen our prayer lives.
Joanna Shenk is associate for interchurch relations and communications for Mennonite Church USA.