The discrepancy is not a discrepancy. Like so many other things, it is a matter of intention Now, lest some people cry out a famous old epigram regardin intentions, I shall repeat what Chesterton says. It is necessary for us to be dogmatic, just as it is necessary in painting to discuss the nature of light and dark and color, or in music the nature of pitch and duration - and it is helpful to both the many Arts and Sciences, as well as to the Chief of All Arts, which is Language, and the chief work of that Art, which is prayer:
To understand the medieval controversy, a word must be said of the Catholic doctrine, which is as modern as it is medieval. That 'God looked on all things and saw that they were good' [Gen 1:31] contains a subtlety which the popular pessimist cannot follow, or is too hasty to notice. It is the thesis that there are no bad things, but only bad uses of things. If you will, there are no bad things but only bad thoughts; and especially bad intentions. Only Calvinists can really believe that hell is paved with good intentions. That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with. But it is possible to have bad intentions about good things; and good things, like the world and the flesh have been twisted by a bad intention called the devil. But he cannot make things bad; they remain as on the first day of creation. The work of heaven alone was material; the making of a material world. The work of hell is entirely spiritual.Yes - this is why a computer or a parrot cannot pray, even though they "speak" the words of prayer. They cannot have any intention in their action. Therefore, once one has the intention of praying, any action subsequent to that intention can be, and is, a prayer.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:485]
Indeed, this is a bit hard to grasp for us, since we are used to so many pre-arranged formulas. But we need to repeat the definition: prayer is "the lifting of mind and heart to God". Yes, any action at all can be a prayer.
Now, what about formulas? Well, we use formulas in our every-day discourse, it's how we do things. We greet others in formula, we use them in letters and e-mails and on the phone. Whole new truncated formulas - "shorthand" or "tachygraphy" - have arisen to reduce the button-pressing on cell-phones. The ancient Egyptians actually had a shorthand, and both Greeks and Romans had forms: Plutarch says that Cicero introduced shorthand at Rome, calling it the greek term dia shmeiwn, suggesting that the Latin version derives from the Greek. ["Tachygraphy" in The Oxford Classical Dictionary 876] But we are talking about formulas in general. The Greek caire is readily translated as "Greetings" but has a fuller sense "rejoice, be glad". The Latin greeting Salve! is "Be healthy!" and the farewell Vale! is "Be strong!" We say "Hello" and "Good-bye"; in the days of Morse Code, there is "CQ" a kind of broadcast greeting; "73" means "best wishes" and "88" means "love and kisses" - but there are more rigorous rules, akin to those we use in written communication. For example, the letter "K" is sent at the end of a transmission and means "go ahead" to the guy on the other end. Finally, if you study even the most elementary parts of network computing, you will learn that there are messages just like these which keep the various computers working in harmony with each other.
So there are formulas in human discourse, and even in mechanical "communication". But prayer?
Let's look and see what Jesus did. The first observation is His response when the disciples asked "Master, teach us how to pray". The "Our Father" or "Lord's Prayer" is repeated countless times a day by Christians - the Church uses it in Holy Mass and also in the two cardinal "hinge" points of the official daily prayer, the "Divine Office" or "Liturgy of the Hours" which we'll discuss in a future column.
The second observation is to see how He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemani. It was a very simple prayer, and He said it again and again: "Father not My will by Thine be done." Here, we find the simple deflating of any possible rebuttals against "repetition" of prayer - if any could possibly exist after having heard His other comment about being steadfast in prayer (See Luke 18). Some may propose the words of Mt 6:7 against this, but there is a difference - and the difference is where it really is: in the intention and not in the volume (that means the quantity, not the decibel level). Or, to use a Gospel parallel: if a mother would not tire of hearing her little child make "ma" sounds over and over - how much more will our Heavenly Father not tire of hearing us repeat our heartfelt prayers? We are adults, yes, and can think with our minds and feel with our hearts - sometimes there are other works of Art which we are constructing while our mouth repeats simple but meaningful words, in the way Jesus did.
The third observation is to see the greatest and most profound use of prayer in the entire Gospel. It was while Jesus was suffering on the Cross. It is not readily recognized, but He quoted Psalm 21(22), which begins "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" You need to read it. The people who heard Him begin it knew how it went, and some of them must have stared, aghast, at seeing the prophecy fulfilled. And that was not the only Psalm He quoted. His very last words were these: " Into thy hands I commend my spirit" which are from Ps 30:6(31:5). If Jesus could quote someone else for His dying words, we surely can also resort to quoting others when our own words fail us. Henceforth, if anyone complains about using formula-prayer, just point out that you know a worthy example Whom you're imitating.
Obviously, the simple fact that prayer is an Art, and hence has multiple levels of meaning, suggests that we can pray in more than one way at a time. When we hear one of our favorite songs, we might attend to the tune, or the rhythm, or the words - or we might recall where we were, who we were with, how we felt, when we first heard it. This is the key to the great formula-prayers, in particular the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Office, and the Rosary - but we shall explore those in future episodes.