Prayer candlesSometimes I get asked which of the spiritual practices I undertook for Flunking Sainthood I still observe regularly. I’m certainly not fasting every day anymore. But there are several practices I keep doing, including Sabbath-keeping, the Jesus Prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Reciting the Lord’s Prayer each day is an unusual practice for a Mormon. But why is it so unusual?

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism says that rather than being a prayer that Latter-day Saints are to memorize and recite in full, the Lord’s Prayer offers a general “pattern” for our own spontaneous prayers. It speaks of cultivating a relationship with a divine parent who meets our daily needs, grants forgiveness, and can help us resist temptation.

That’s fine, but it does not explain why there is power in reciting the prayer’s words exactly as written (either in the New Testament or the Book of Mormon, where it also appears in a slightly different version). The Encyclopedia’s approach does not do justice to the transforming power of saying these particular words, no matter how we are feeling or what we are thinking about that day.

Perhaps it is true that Mormons unconsciously use the words of the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for prayer, but somehow I don’t think so, especially because most Mormons are never taught it. In fact, the manual for the Gospel Principles class, which teaches new members the foundations of a Mormon spiritual life, not only omits mention of the Lord’s Prayer in its lesson on prayer, but goes out of its way to caution against repeating “meaningless words and phrases.”

If Mormons don’t even learn the Lord’s Prayer, how can it be a pattern for prayer or spiritual formation?

The Gospel Principles manual reveals a Mormon suspicion of traditional, rote prayers, a suspicion that is sometimes justified by appealing to 3 Nephi 13’s warnings about “vain repetitions.” I once had a conversation with a woman in Relief Society who was highly skeptical that she could ever feel the Spirit through someone else’s words. Prayer should be extemporaneous, she felt; anything impersonal would be a violation of her own relationship with Heavenly Father.

I asked her to think about the temple ceremony and how it is exactly the same every time—and wasn’t she just saying that she learned something new each time she went to the temple?

And what about our sacrament prayer? That’s a prayer that has to be recited precisely as written every single Sunday. Any alterations will result in a red-faced teenage boy having to start all over again. And yet many Mormons reflect that the familiar words of the sacrament prayer have sunk into their souls so deeply that they can conjure them in any situation, often to their great benefit.

So the argument against rote prayer is not a valid one in Mormon tradition; our two highest ritual forms in fact rely upon such sameness as tool for spiritual growth. Mormonism has always blended personal, spontaneous prayer with repeated formal liturgy. Often, we just don’t realize that is what we are doing.

I’m puzzled that Mormons don’t do more with the Lord’s Prayer. I think it is our loss. This is the prayer that Jesus himself taught us to pray—the only one. For that reason alone we should be all ears. Mormons in particular should pay attention because the Lord’s Prayer is explicitly mentioned in the Book of Mormon from Jesus’ time among the Nephites. If Jesus thought this prayer was important enough to teach in two different settings when many of his teachings in the New Testament were apparently not given the same emphasis elsewhere, why would we not make the prayer a top priority?

In addition to its multiple appearances in Scripture, this is the prayer that the earliest Christians were taught to recite, as evidenced by the spiritual practices recorded in the Didache in the late first century. At that time, followers of Jesus said the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.*

I usually manage once a day. But when I do recite the Lord’s Prayer, it offers a powerful connection to the God I’m addressing, the Savior who taught me how to pray, and the global community of Christians both past and present who have drawn strength from this prayer in every kind of circumstance.

 

What also strikes me is how this-worldly the prayer is, how quotidian, how very Mormon. It is practical, not ethereal. It’s not about eternal salvation or theology. It’s about manna for today—just today—and strength to move forward. And I need all the manna I can get.

 

23 Comments

  1. As a British Mormon I agree with the Church’s extreme caution about repeating set prayers as part of personal rather than collective worship, but have grown up with the Lord’s Prayer as a regular feature of my life in school assemblies and any Church of England and many Catholic services attended. It’s probably correct to say that all the UK and Irish Mormons can recite it without hesitation :) at least those in their thirties and older who were at school before the daily collective act of worship rule got downplayed. It does feel special to be able to join in a collective prayer with people of other Christian denominations. We can connect on basic principles we all share, and as you say also connect with our spiritual forbears through the ages in a humble and simple act. It feels deliciously sonorous and ancient as well as deeply spiritual and relevant to here and now, and it gives you hope that your community hasn’t completely forgotten its Christian roots. The words say so much with so little – which perhaps owes a lot to the English translators who refined it since king Alfred the Great and other Anglo Saxons in the Dark Ages began making it accessible to ordinary people. I also usually chuckle much less humbly to myself that the Mormons in the room saying it probably actually believe every word and principle of it far more literally and personally than a lot of the Christians and ministers present in the progressively secularising Christian milieu in our Sceptred Isles. I also would point out that although I love Jana’s explanation of it being immediate and practical, the final phrases about “thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever” are a very powerful statement of doctrine and eternity. The Catholics tend to leave off the last bit and many scholars believe it wasn’t part of the original text, so maybe everone needs to agree what the Lords Prayer actually even is before we feel we are missing out too much. Thank you for another delightful and thought provoking insight.

  2. Jana, this post of yours is certainly thought provoking. The biggest point that is provoking my thoughts is, “…it does not explain why there is power in reciting the prayer’s words exactly as written.”

    Not having recited the words of the Lord’s Prayer myself, possibly ever, I guess I don’t really know what the power of reciting them is. I only know that praying from the heart, whether vocally or mentally (silently,) has been of major impact in my life strengthening my faith and testimony, adding wisdom to my thoughts, and increasing my abilities to meet the challenges I face from day to day, often while I am in the midst of the difficulty.

    There is another thing akin to a “recitation of prayer” that is encouraged, at least in the Doctrine and Covenants, with the Lord saying, “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads” (D&C 25:12), which is also reprinted in the preface to HYMNS. I have also had experience with having the prayers in the form of a song of the heart being answered with a blessing.

    As to the pattern of prayer being taught in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has been my experience growing up Mormon and on my mission that we are taught 1- to address our Father in Heaven (as in the Lord’s prayer), 2- to thank Him for our blessings (less evident in the Lord’s prayer), 3- to ask for the blessings we need such as “forgive us our debts” and to “lead us not into temptation” (whatever that means), and 4- to close in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. The Lord’s prayer ends with the Amen, of course, but doesn’t reference Jesus’ name, that might have been a bit awkward if it had, with Jesus being the one saying it.

    There is one other thing included in the Lord’s prayer which is not directly taught, but is quite important, in my opinion. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” … “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever….” That expression of humility and submission to the will of God in all things is what we also learn from scripture study and an awareness of following Jesus’ example, because that is exactly how He lived and accepted His bitter cup to offer us the gift of His atonement.

    Yes, what we are taught is different in ways from what and how other people in other churches are taught, but it is not necessarily better or worse, in my opinion.

  3. Having grown up in the Lutheran (Missouri Synod) faith where we memorized the Lord’s Prayer, I tend to think that the danger is in the vain repititions that occur when it is just recited without any contemplation and heartfelt desire to hear the Lord’s acknowledgent. . . maybe that is partly the reason I am now a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  4. Most 12-step recovery meetings I have attended include a group recitation of the Lord’s prayer. (LDS addiction recovery meetings, however, are an exception, and rarely, if ever, include the Lord’s prayer.) I have felt power and the Lord’s spirit in the group recitation, just as I feel power in singing hymns together with others. The group recitation of the serenity prayer also carries great power and feeling.

  5. Jana- I think some post-modern Methodist ministers are starting to move away from reciting the Lord’s Prayer, saying much the same thing that we say as Mormons that it is simply a memorization and that is was likely never meant to be recited verbatim over and over. The fact that you can say it over and over and get great benefit says a lot about your spirituality, I think, because most folks simply get up and mumble the words.

    (As a side note, I am currently taking two classes at United Seminary with Dr. Horace Six-Means {Horace Means} who said he went to Princeton with you. He directed me here/your other sites, said it might be beneficial for me to reach out to you.)

  6. I remember some time ago our Stake Patriarch was going over Priesthood ordinances and he asked us to list the prayers that were to be said verbatim (Sacrament, Temple, etc) and the Lord’s Prayer made the list. He said that we could read it in any of the three forms it is written in the Scriptures (Luke and Matthew do not match each other, 3rd Nephi’s reading reads more like Matthew’s version). I was taught in an LDS home to pray by reading this with my parents and after reading it, I would say my own prayer modeled after that one. Eventually I was told I was praying correctly and didn’t use it any more. I am unsure when we are to read the prayer, other than to teach our children. I have no problem with the idea of using it, but you didn’t really give me a clear idea in your article of how or when you use it, just that you do. I wouldn’t mind reading more from you on this. It appears you use it as a form of meditation? I could see using it if I felt the need to pray but a loss of words. That’s really about it.

    • Jana Riess

      That’s a great question. I tend to say it in a few different ways.

      First, when I’m about to pray my own spontaneous prayer, I sometimes begin by saying the Lord’s Prayer. It settles my heart and prepares me for connecting with God. Then I continue with my own prayers, like praying for someone who is sick, etc. The Lord’s Prayer sets the tone.

      Second, frankly, I pray it when I am anxious about something. I particularly resonate with the idea of daily bread, because I am a worrier by nature and tend to get anxious about daily things.

      And third, I pray it when I’m with my husband and daughter at their Episcopal Church. The prayer helps to unite me with other Christian believers even though I don’t take the Eucharist with them.

  7. Garson Abuita

    Suspicion of Catholicism can be found in several post-Protestant American new religious movements of the 19th century. Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism come to mind. This attitude came at least in part from the broader surrounding culture which was suspicious of Catholic immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Does this have anything to do with it?

  8. I don’t see anything wrong with memorizing and repeating the Lord’s Prayer any more than I see repeating any passage of scripture. It is uplifting and beautiful. Do I want to repeat it as my own personal prayer? No way! I’ve a lot more personal things to discuss with the Lord every morning and evening. The Lord’s Prayer would do me no good.

  9. Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.

    The Church does not object if any of its members wants to recite the Lord’s Prayer. As one who seeks to pray from what I think and feel I gain so much good and feel closer to God and great love for others by so doing.

    We do have set prayers when it comes to making covenants with God.

  10. There is no power in merely reciting the Lord’s Prayer as if it is a kind of magical incantation. The power is in PRAYING the Lord’s Prayer, and in trusting God’s promises to hear our prayers and answer them – in the way that he knows is best for us. Why we cherish the Lord’s Prayer and pray it often is because it is the prayer that Jesus taught us. Our Lord and Savior, the Son of God, knows the Father’s will perfectly. This prayer that he has taught us is a wonderful blessing, as Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism so beautifully teaches and explains.

  11. Jeff Cunningham

    Jana, Love the name, Flunking Sainthood! I am flunking a lot, but still trying! I agree we should teach this prayer in our church, I remember being taught by my Mom & Grandmother ( I’m 54) and have always remembered it. It is special to me, especially so, as I read the Book Of Mormon as I got older.

  12. My impression has always been that Mormons read the Lord’s prayer fairly often, though daily recitation of it is a personal decision. It was certainly influential in my congregation growing up.

    I’m also surprised the article doesn’t mention Elder Nelson’s (a Mormon apostle’s) talk on the Lord’s Prayer not long ago. He devoted an entire general conference talk to the subject, “Lessons from the Lord’s Prayer” and there’s alot of good insight:

    http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/04/lessons-from-the-lords-prayers

  13. I get what you are saying about the Lord’s Prayer, it is beautiful, and I love reading it frequently. However, please do a little more research on the subtle difference between ordinances and prayer. The Sacrament, Baptism, and Temple ordinances are not ordinary prayers, rather they are exercises of the priesthood. What that means is that the person performing the ordinance is acting in place of the Lord Jesus Christ as if He were performing the rite Himself. These ordinances have been specifically revealed to effectuate the redemption of mankind; they are essential for salvation. Recitation of The Lord’s Prayer is not a saving ordinance, however beautiful it may be.

  14. The best prayers I have ever prayed, as I think back on them have included words like:

    1-”What should I do, in order to…?”
    2-”I need HELP, and I don’t mean ‘Hundreds of Everyday Low Prices.’ ”
    3- “What is the best thing…?”
    4- “I am tired of imperfect doctors making mistakes in treating me. Wilt thou please be my ‘Dear and glorious Physician?’ I will put up with anything, if it be thy will.”

    Besides the Lord’s prayer as an example, there are many instructions on prayer in the Bible, including the one that started Joseph Smith on his own road towards organizing this church: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” [James 1:5]

  15. Where I live, most members are “converts” from other Christian churches, and so most know the Lord’s Prayer, inside and out. (When I was growing up, visiting other denominations, I remember asking a member “Are you debtors, trespassers, or sinners?”!) One sister I know always starts her prayers with the opening verse “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name”.

    So, I agree with the comment that it can be a very powerful prayer, if it is sincerely prayed, and not just recited as part of the weekly collect. It gets to be monotonous after a while.

    We LDS are not forbidden from reciting it for our own prayers, if that’s what we feel is what we want to say to our Heavenly Father, but when we pray in open, we should pray our own words.

  16. If you want to know how Jesus really prayed look at John 17. Try memorizing that. I learned the Lords Prayer at school where we recited it daily standing by our desks. That policy was eventually abandoned by the school board as the teenagers became more sophisticated and the prayer became less relevant. Sure it is the teaching of Jesus but in most situations today it is casting pearls. TFGlenn

  17. Charles Smith

    One of the reasons for not saying the Lord’s Prayer revolves around the idea that prayers are for getting out in the open those things that are in our hearts. By specifically telling our Father in Heaven what is bothering us can be therapeutic in and of itself. Sometimes it allows US to see if there is anything to our fears or even our conclusions about certain issues in our lives.

    Again prayer is the getting out in the open for you to see what might only be a feeling or unexpressed desire. Saying them can help you to see clearly what they are and then our Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost can give you his feeling on the matter.

    I don’t think your parents would like you to greet them with a set paragraph of greetings. Nor would they like to hear of your concerns in a pre-written statement as you coming into their presence. Our Father in Heaven is the same. Prayer is a child speaking to his or her parent. Heaven Father is our parent in heaven and wants to talk to us like the child you and I are.

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