The Catechism of the Catholic Church #27
April 27, 1997
Brother John Raymond
Vocal prayer is a common way to pray. The Bible contains many examples of people praying aloud. Our Lady's Magnificat is one example. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, "Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life." (CCC #2701) Our Lord taught His disciples a vocal prayer, the Our Father. Jesus, along with everyone else, would have prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue. We also have many examples of Him raising His voice to express His personal prayer to the Father. "At that time Jesus declared, 'I thank Thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes...'"(Mt. 11:25-26) Even on the Cross Jesus prayed aloud to His Father.
It is very human to give vent to our deepest feelings aloud. We are both body and spirit. We have a need to translate our feelings externally. In a certain sense our prayer becomes "incarnate" by these bodily expressions of it. This is part of praying with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication. St. John Chrysostom said, "'Whether or not our prayer is heard depends not on the number of words, but on the fervor of our souls.'" (CCC #2700)
Normally when we are talking to someone we focus on that person. We are attentive to his or her presence. The same is true with vocal prayer. We need to be attentive, to be present, to Him to Whom we speak. St. Teresa of Avila taught that before we begin to pray we need to place ourselves in the presence of God. In other words, take the time to first acknowledge God's Presence. Don't just begin to pray. We do this automatically in our day-to-day encounter with other people. First we say "hello" or something else, thereby recognizing their presence, before we begin a conversation. Our vocal "prayer is internalized to the extent that we become aware of Him 'to whom we speak,'" St. Teresa of Avila advises us. (CCC #2704)
Vocal prayer should have some resonance with our daily living. It should be a living prayer that rises from the depths of the soul. Using many empty words with God will not get us anywhere. He knows what's in our hearts. He knows if we are being honest or not. In marriage we talk about being "open" with one's spouse. With God everything is open. So why waste His and our time with empty words?
Now someone may ask, "If God knows what I'm going to say why bother saying it?" Well, Our Lord Himself instructed us to ask that we may receive. He said this even though He affirmed that our Father knows what we need before we ask. (Mt. 6,8) St. Augustine advises, "Do not speak too much...He knows what you need...But He wishes you to pray for this reason, that He might give you desire, and that His gifts might not be lightly esteemed." (Confessions, XIII, xi, 10) Prayer is a two-way street. We ask for things from God while, at the same time, our prayer is asking things of us. Prayer is a transforming experience. As St. Augustine said, God works on our desires. He stretches our desires or charity. Encourages us to grow. And He guides us to desire good things, things that will really help us.
Sometimes here at the monastery we sing "Faith of Our Fathers" while praying the Divine Office. One of the verses says, "We will be true to Thee till death." When we sing that verse I recall the Apostle Peter's protestations at the Last Supper of remaining loyal unto death to Our Lord. Sometimes we pray things that we desire to do for God, even though we may not feel capable of doing them. This is still being honest with God because we wish to do these things for Him. Our words and our heart are in harmony.
God wishes us to pray vocally. He wants the external expression that associates the body with one's interior prayer. This renders to God that perfect homage that is His due. It is the form of prayer most readily accessible to groups. No matter how spiritual or interior our prayer may become, we never get "beyond" or should neglect vocal prayer.