Monks pray often. But as we learn, many times over, quantity or frequency in prayer doesn’t equal quality or depth. Neither, as Jesus points out, does length or verbal sophistication equal substance. Even when the phrases of our prayer are full of meaning – such as those drawn directly from Scripture – it is possible to come to them with absence of mind or heart, or to miss their meaning because something in us is missing.
The Church, throughout its history, has sometimes wrestled to strike a balance between praying beautifully and praying simply, directly, and with purpose. Individual believers can struggle with the same temptation. When we “heap up empty phrases,” we ultimately miss the mark on both accounts.
You may be the type of person who crafts words because you love them. You may be that way by temperament, by communication style, by education, by vocational calling, by type of employment, by personal talent, by gift of the Holy Spirit, or any combination of the above. Maybe fine phrases follow you, are attached to your name, or the things you have produced. Maybe they flow from your mouth or pen: phrases with power to express, to articulate, to persuade, and to impress. I have had the privilege to meet, work alongside, and pray with many such people. Sometimes, I am told, I am one of them. A venerable company of monks, past and present, have been just such people.
If you are that type of person, you have probably experienced the occupational hazard – or the temperamental, communicational, stylistic, educational, vocational, or personal hazard – of heaping up an empty phrase or two. Maybe you’ve experienced that moment when the words sound smooth but ring hollow. Or when the undergrowth of verbiage obscures the path onward or homeward. Perhaps your words were beautiful, but lacked the gracious editing of the Author of Life.
It is quite easy to heap up empty phrases. In such moments, what hope do we have?
For me, it is the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer that Jesus taught is a simple, supremely effective tool to slice away anything in us that is not humble or sincere. It is the best, most straightforward antidote to all our articulate spiritual nonsense. Over time, it makes us real: real servants of a Savior with substance, which a world full of words desperately needs.