My earliest memories of prayer are wonderful.
Mom would sit on the edge of my bed and lead me through—if memory serves—an Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be, and a prayer for vocations (I’ve often wondered if that vocations prayer was my Dublin-born godmother’s idea, since she always wanted me to be the first Irish pope...the fact that I’m second generation American notwithstanding).
When I eventually left home to venture the two blocks uphill to grade school, my prayer experiences got a little less rosy.
You know what I mean. Any Catholic school kid who ever went to confession can remember slogging through a handful of Hail Marys and Our Fathers as if they were a cold pile of mashed potatoes Mom was forcing you to eat.
“Hey, what happened to Joey? I haven’t seen him around.”
“He’s doing ten to twenty.”
“Worse. Hail Marys.”
How can I say such a thing about the Hail Mary? Easy.
Hand a rosary to your average cradle Catholic who has grown up being told, essentially, “You’ve been bad. Now, you have to say prayers.” and see how excited he gets. He doesn’t see the rosary as a beautiful meditation. He sees it as five consecutive sentences of ten prayers each (not to mention the between-decades stuff).
Who ever came up with the idea of prayer as punishment? Granted, it takes some serious thought to figure out constructive penances for grade school kids, but setting up our most beloved traditional prayers as a price to be paid just doesn’t seem right.
Reinforcing it for the rest of our lives doesn’t seem right, either, especially when adults are capable of much more in the way of sacrifice.
Here’s something the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about penance, “It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (CCC 1460).
Not to sound all revisionist like the Jesus Seminar, but I just can’t bring myself to believe that the Our Father was intended as a cross to bear. There are a good number of options listed there, yet we still go to confession only to be rapped spiritually over the knuckles with prayer most of the time. In addition to ruining perfectly good prayers, it lets us off the hook much too easily.
Of course, maybe we—and even some well meaning souls who taught us—have all missed the point of those prayers. Maybe we should look at them less as old, cold mashed potatoes and more as a way to wallow in the presence of the Father we’ve just renewed our relationship with.
After all, the Catechism also says, “Prayer is the life of the new heart” (CCC 2697).