For centuries, there has been an artificial argument developed by some of our non-Catholic Christian brethren against liturgical worship in favor of personal devotions or prayer. Unfortunately, many Catholics have adopted this philosophy as if liturgical prayer and personal prayer were at odds with each other. This misunderstanding is many times based out of a lack of knowledge and proper understanding of Sacred Scripture.
It is not a case of one versus the other but rather a complementary relationship. Each serves its purpose to strengthen the Christian and the mystical body of Christ. Cardinal Arinze, then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, provided the Keynote Address at the 13th Annual Lenten Symposium, presented by the Holy Trinity Apostolate in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. on 6 March , distinguished three types of prayer: liturgical, community and personal. For most, community prayer and liturgical prayer are one and the same. As we shall shortly see, they are clearly different.
Cardinal Arinze expounds that,
Liturgical prayer is the official prayer of the Church in which Jesus Christ is the chief person praying and in which he associates his Church with him. The Eucharistic celebration is its fount and apex. Liturgical prayer embraces the seven Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Sacramentals or the Prayers and Blessings instituted by the Church for various occasions. The exalted and supreme character of liturgical prayer follows from the fact that Christ himself leads his Church in every liturgical act. Because of its public and official nature, the texts of liturgical prayers, and even the gestures and postures, are prescribed and fixed by the Authority of the Church (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, nn. 7, 10, 13, 22).
Community prayers are such prayers as the Way of the Cross, the Holy Rosary, various devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Saints, particular prayers of Religious Orders or Congregations, or of Catholic Sodalities, Associations or Movements. Such prayers are generally prayed by a group of persons, although individuals also use them. They differ from liturgical prayers because they are not public, official prayers of the whole Church.
Personal prayer is the prayer of an individual. It wells up from the depths of the heart of the person. It can indeed be inspired by liturgical or community prayer. But it is personal and peculiar to that person. Personal prayer can be in words. But it can also take the form of “inexpressible groanings” (cf. Rom 8:26), as the Holy Spirit may guide each soul.
With these differences in mind, let us continue our discussion.
The life of the Christian (whether Catholic or otherwise) is bound up with the sacred liturgy. It is here that we obey the commandment of the Christ to “do this in remembrance of me” by participating in the new covenant He offered on the “night before He died”. Through the covenant we are reconciled with God, man and even creation. Through the oaths or sacramentum (sacraments) we are grafted into the mystical body of Christ. It is the Eucharist that feeds us and transforms us into His very image.
The very “communion” brought about by the Eucharist through which the marital embrace finds its context is the primordial form and model for our personal prayer. All personal prayer flows either to or from this sacred communion. Through personal prayer we prepare the bridal chamber of our hearts to encounter the Bridegroom – the living God. It is also through personal prayer that we also bask in the afterglow of that communion.
The question we should then ask ourselves, “Which is better, liturgical or personal prayer?” Liturgical prayer and personal prayer are not independent of each other rather, they are interdependent. Liturgical prayer defines our relationship and provides the parousia or real presence of Jesus in the life of the Christian. Personal prayer on the other hand provides depth and fosters the relationship. No marriage sustains or grows without spending time with each other.
The modern challenge, though not a challenge unique to modern culture, is forgetting that prayer is not an action upon object or a letter to a distant friend in hopes they may read it one day. Rather, it is a response to a person who is ever present and attentive to our every need and desire of our heart (Ps. 37:4).
Formal prayers have always been necessary for their instructive nature as well as providing a context and structure for our prayer lives. Formal prayer, yes, even liturgical prayer must give way to the love song of our hearts. Who would ever speak to their spouse or significant other through quotes? Wouldn’t we want to hear the joys and trials of hearts? Doesn’t the lover want to hear the singularly unique voice of His beloved?
Let us not be deceived. We need and must be steep in liturgical prayer. That prayer can only deepen through personal prayer. Let us put aside the artificial constructs that pits liturgy and devotion against each other and experience how they profoundly deepen and cause each other to exist.
Next Step? Let us consider how this relates to married couples and families.