The Insufficiency of Spontaneous Prayer
The Insufficiency of Spontaneous Prayer
“Now if we imagine that we can sustain spontaneous prayer throughout our life, we are in childish delusion.” – Anthony Bloom1
In the Charismatic Tradition there are generally two ways of prayer echoing the words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 14:15: praying with the Spirit and praying with the understanding (or mind). Praying with the Spirit is understood as praying in tongues, or as praying in a private prayer language given upon reception of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to the salvation experience. Praying with the understanding is understood as praying with the mind, or as praying in human language(s). In this system there are many different types of prayer: intercessory, faith, agreement—but the method of those types of prayer falls into one of the two mentioned above—Spirit or understanding (though this can be a bit amorphous in practice).
One method of prayer that was frowned upon, while being instructed on how to pray, was praying prepared or pre-written prayers—unless of course it was the Our Father or St. Paul’s prayers in his Epistles. Even then, the Our Father was taken as more of a prayer guide instead of an actual prayer one should pray. I can still remember my lessons, breaking down the Lord’s prayer line by line as an instruction for how to pray, because to pray it as an actual prayer would be vain repetition, an action performed by rote rather than relationship. In other words we were taught, using the Lord’s prayer as a guideline, to structure spontaneous prayer. This type of spontaneous prayer has a definite structure to it and we were encouraged to follow this general structure in our own prayer life. One of the great ironies was that in following a structure our spontaneous prayers became, in a way, prepared prayers as the patterns we utilized were dependent on knowledge of biblical texts we would use when we prayed. In the Charismatic Tradition, then, the purest form of spontaneous prayer would be praying in tongues. There is no structure, no pattern, and no order as the mind is not engaged since the practice is seen as communicating directly with God.
So what good are spontaneous prayers if spontaneous prayers aren’t actually spontaneous? What does spontaneous prayer even look like? In his book Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom writes that spontaneous prayer is only possible in two situations:
“Either at moments when we have become vividly aware of God, when this awareness calls out of us a response of worship, of joy… or when we become aware suddenly of the deathly danger in which we are when we come to God, moments when we suddenly shout from the depths of despair and dereliction.”2
I find it fascinating that he notes that true spontaneous prayer comes either from a response of joy or from the exact opposite, despair. If Metropolitan Anthony is correct then true spontaneous prayer may be something wild and unstructured, something that rises from the deepest place within us as we become aware of God’s presence, his grace, or experience the depths of his love. It also arises from the place where we feel his absence, sense our unworthiness, or the realization that our sinful actions drive us from him. At this point Charismatics would probably say that this is where speaking in tongues comes into play, since speaking in tongues is seen as direct communication with God. Speaking in tongues needs no priming, it has no form to it, it simply arises as needed. But if actual spontaneous prayer functions differently than how speaking in tongues functions, then that means that speaking in tongues cannot be substituted for actual spontaneous prayer. And spontaneous prayer should occur in actual known languages.
At this point Charismatics may appeal to Romans 8:26, where St. Paul speaks of the Spirit groaning within us, but this text says that the Spirit is the one doing the praying—not the person whom the Spirit abides within. In addition to this, the Spirit is doing so with inexpressible groanings, and praying in tongues is not unintelligible speech but a personal prayer language. With this in mind, true spontaneous prayer should be intelligible. And true spontaneous prayer—since it stirred by powerful positive or negative experiences of God’s presence—should lead us to gratitude for his goodness and joyful celebration of life in Christ, or should drive us to our knees in repentance as we seek to be cleansed of wicked in our hearts. We cannot live on those two extremes of prayer, we would burn out, but as we incorporate the expression of spontaneous prayer into a robust prayer rule or personal discipline we may have glimpses of God’s active care and presence in our lives.
(2) Bloom, Anthony. Beginning to Pray (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1970),56