Why Memorized Prayer?

One of the questions asked in response to the live Shameless Popery series was “What is the Catholic response to Protestant/Fundamentalist ‘push back’ regarding memorized prayer?” This is a question that’s been tackled before on this blog, but I wanted to address it from a different angle.

Last time, the focus was on the fact that Scripture contains lots of pre-written prayers (like the Psalms), and that Christ tells us to pray the “Our Father” (or “Lord’s Prayer”) in Matthew 6:9.  But in the Office of Readings for yesterday, I read a great explanation of why we’re called to pray memorized prayers: it’s so that the Body of Christ can pray as one.  St. Cyprian, writing on the Lord’s Prayer in 252 A.D., makes this point:

St. Cyprian of Carthage

Before all things, the Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not “My Father, which art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread;” nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one.

This is a great point. One of the major errors that many modern Protestants fall into is envisioning salvation as atomistic: there’s simply “me and Jesus,” a King without a Kingdom. This view pits the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ against full participation in the Body of Christ, the Church.  Christ warns against this impulse explicitly in John 17:20-23, calling His future followers to total and indivisible Oneness.  But as St. Cyprian notes, the Lord’s Prayer itself implicitly calls us to the same thing, to pray as One Body.  This is the same theme that St. Paul treats in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 (see especially 1 Cor. 12:12-13, 1 Cor. 12:20, and 1 Cor. 12:27).

But if we’re all to pray (a) together, and (b) as one, we need to be praying the same thing.  If each of us simultaneously bursts out into whatever is on our mind or heart, we end up with cacophony.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for offering our own personal intentions, and bringing them before the Church.  But as Cyprian notes, there’s also a place for the Church to pray altogether, and for all.  And for that reason, this, the Lord’s Prayer, is the ideal prayer that Jesus left us.  But as Cyprian notes, this is hardly the only time in Scripture that we see united prayer:

Cappadocian Icon of the Archangel Michael
Protecting the Three in the Furnace (13th c.)

This law of prayer the three children observed when they were shut up in the fiery furnace, speaking together in prayer, and being of one heart in the agreement of the spirit; and this the faith of the sacred Scripture assures us, and in telling us how such as these prayed, gives an example which we ought to follow in our prayers, in order that we may be such as they were: “Then these three,” it says, “as if from one mouth sang an hymn, and blessed the Lord.”

From a Protestant perspective, there’s only one problem with that Scriptural support… it’s from Daniel 3:51, which Protestants don’t think is Scriptural (it’s the opening line of the Song of the Three Holy Children, which Protestants removed from their Bibles).  As an aside, it’s telling that back in 252, Cyprian could refer to that verse simply as “sacred Scripture,” and quote it with the expectation that his readers would know which part of Scripture he referred to.  It’s further proof that the early Church didn’t use the Protestant Bible.

Of course, even if one doubts the canonicity of Daniel 3:51, it certainly establishes an ancient Judeo-Christian view that we should pray as one.  This passage also points to another way that we do that: hymns.  Which explains why the Bible contains 150 of them in the Psalms.

This brings me around to the last point: even those who criticize pre-written and memorized prayer typically worship God with pre-written and memorized songs and Psalmody.  I’ve yet to hear anyone object to the great Protestant hymns on the basis that they’re written down. In fact, that’s consider a feature, since it means that the hymn can be sung by the whole congregation.  But it’s wholly inconsistent to object to the one while praising the other.


  1. Great post. I never quite made the connection between the hymns, memorized prayers, and the Body of Christ. Have you done a post yet on the Liturgy of the Hours and the Body of Christ? It seems to run parallel with the topic.

    On personal note, I’ve always found that a group prayer, be it grace or a blessing, always is more meaningful when the leader, priest or layman, opens with a more “conversational” prayer addressing the day, people, event, or reason for thanksgiving first, and then goes into a memorized prayer. The group seamlessly joins in an almost harmoniously way. I think it is a good example of the ubiquitous Catholic “both and” response to these types of objections.

    1. Absolutely brilliant observation! The preceding “conversational” prayer is exactly what I was looking for. Some time ago, I was taught to avoid memorized prayer and that our prayers should be unique. From the information gathered from this article along with your example, it seems that by combining the “conversational,” or prayer for others portion, and the memorized prayer you achieve what James 5:16 tells us to do.

      “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

  2. So perhaps “we believe” wasn’t such a bad translation of “credo.”

    “I’ve yet to hear anyone object to the great Protestant hymns on the basis that they’re written down.” – This is an excellent point. Can we have J.S. Bach infallibily declared to have been a Catholic all along?

    Also bravo to Shane D for the most quotable phrase “the ubiquitous Catholic ‘both'” – as in does the Church want peaceful men such as Saint Francis of Assisi or warriors like St Louis and St Joan; we want both.

  3. I much prefer my prayers memorised as I know that I’m participating with the whole body – just as I do when I pray The Office. Thankfully I haven’t felt forced – or inclined to pray extempore for thirty-five years. But I can still blush at some of the words that came out. I just wasn’t a natural.

  4. I used to HATE “pray out loud” scenarios. It terrified me! I’m a new Catholic and I embrace those memorized prayers. Loved your thoughts on memorized prayer as a gesture of oneness (and yes, just like the great hymns)!

  5. Joe, one other reason to add that I have found in my ministry to the dying. There are times when I am called to anoint a person close to death. If the person is not responsive, I will ask those present if the dying person is able to communicate. They will say that the person has not said anything in many hours or even days. But then I will take the time to pray an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. Many times the dying person will then pray along, even though they have not said anything for awhile. It is a powerful experience. By the way, welcome to the archdiocese, Fr Steve Beseau

    1. Thanks, Father — it’s great to be back, and I’m thrilled to start seminary! By the way, I heard good things about you from Fr. Andrew as recently as yesterday, so I’m very much looking forward to meeting you in person.



  6. Very interesting perspective. As a Protestant coming home, I might add that my experience with memorized prayer thus far is akin to my experience with the liturgy. What’s great about the liturgy is that it provides a spiritual rubric, to help you “cover all the basis” and approach God in a reverent way. Spiritual structure can be a really good thing; it’s not like, as human beings, we instinctively know exactly how to best worship God and engage with him. Same goes with personal prayers. Looking back, I realize that in my private prayer life, I haven’t always prayed for the right things. There are also types of prayer, especially prayers of praise and adoration, that have been missing. Of course they’d be missing. I’m a flawed human being. Memorized prayers can help us refine our prayer life, covering content we might otherwise miss!

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