Q&A: Lord, Open My Lips

Ooo, ooo, ooo! My first question to answer, and it's a good one, too.

William asks: "Praying aloud or in silence. I feel like I'm talking to myself when I attempt to pray aloud. I suppose that would differentiate myself from those of FAITH and casual believers."

Okay, okay, I can answer this one. At least I think I can. Let's see. Puts on professor hat. Takes professor hat off. Trying to find the right voice with which to respond. Maybe I should try a prayer, perhaps the one used at the opening of the Morning Office: "Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise." Says it aloud several times. Thinks a bit more. What is the difference between reading this prayer aloud and simply saying it to oneself in one's mind? Okay, so I'm sitting here on the back porch, nobody can hear me if I say it, well, nobody but God. And maybe those workmen whose voices I can hear from across the way. I'll say it really softly. Hmmm...they don't seem to have heard me. But what if my husband were home? Or my son? Wouldn't I feel silly then, sitting here talking to myself? Oh, and to God?

It's easier at church reading the prayers aloud with everybody else, although then, of course, sometimes I wonder whether it's really me saying the prayers, whether I am paying proper attention and not just saying the words. This question is actually one that has troubled Christians for centuries, perhaps ever since the beginning of the Church. On the one hand, Jesus warned his disciples not to make a big fuss by praying in public, but rather to go into their room, close the door and pray to their Father in secret. But on the other, he promised that wherever "two or three" were gathered in his name, he would be there among them, which seems to suggest that Christians should pray in community as well.

Realizes she has put professor hat back on inadvertently. Tries to take it off but it seems stuck. Wants to say something about the history of the discussion of the relative merits of vocal and mental prayer, but feels like this wouldn't be really answering the question. Asks self: "Whose words should I use?" Interesting to feel so curiously tongue-tied when trying to write about whether to pray silently or aloud. Touches lips. Tries again.

Here's what it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2701-2702): "Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life. To his disciples, drawn by their Master's silent prayer, Jesus teaches a vocal prayer, the Our Father. He not only prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue but, as the Gospels show, he raised his voice to express his personal prayer, from exultant blessing of the Father to the agony of Gesthemani. The need to involve the senses in interior prayer corresponds to a requirement of our human nature. We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication." Further (2704): "Even interior prayer, however, cannot neglect vocal prayer. Prayer is internalized to the extent that we become aware of him 'to whom we speak.' Thus vocal prayer becomes an initial form of contemplative prayer." Takes professor hat off again.

You see, I'm struggling with this question myself. I know the answers that the Church gives about the importance of praying both with the body (lips) and the mind (heart), but I'm not sure in the answer that I'm trying to give here whether I'm speaking for myself, from my own experience, or for others, from what I know of the discussion that has gone on before. I know what I am supposed to say: "Praying aloud exercises the whole of the self, body, mind and soul," but I know also that it is sometimes hard to feel like one is actually praying when saying aloud words written by somebody else, as, for example, when saying the liturgy of the Hours. Is prayer something that we do alone, only for ourselves, or in community, for the whole of the world? God does not need us to speak aloud, knowing as He does the secrets of our hearts, but perhaps we need to speak aloud to and for ourselves, otherwise we will not acknowledge those secrets ourselves.

Struggles some more with which hat to put on, which voice to assume. Prayer is about paying attention to God. Whose voice is that? Do I know this about prayer myself or is it simply something that I have read? But I have experienced it myself, haven't I? Praying only in the mind, what the tradition calls "contemplative prayer," is widely acknowledged to be somewhat difficult, as most anyone who has tried to pray for any length of time without letting the attention wander will recognize. Goodness, that sounds pompous. Do I really speak that way? Vocal prayer helps us to concentrate; it gives us practice in paying attention, thus strengthening us for the rigors of contemplative prayer. I sound like a book. Wouldn't it be better just to say what I think? Why all this academic speech? Only those who have spent time in vocal prayer typically have the capacity to sustain contemplative, mental prayer. You mean like saying a mantra? But do you really have to say it out loud?

I think you do. The yogis will talk about how sounds affect not only our bodies, but also our spiritual selves. Just chanting "Om" can be incredibly powerful. Something changes when we say the words out loud. It takes energy to sustain the breath. Plus, our bodies really do quite literally resonate with the sounds that we make. I know that when I feel tired or sick, it is harder to speak. And yet, saying the prayers of the Office aloud typically leaves me feeling refreshed in a way that simply reading them silently does not. Feeling nervous here, as if I have not actually made my case properly. I would say, the only way fully to appreciate the difference is to try it. Is that a cop out? After all, you have struggled with this question yourself. Why are you finding it so difficult to describe your own experience? Perhaps because, paradoxically, your experience in praying aloud is so very intimate? Hmmm....

I remember sitting in the airport one day next to a man who was saying his prayers, very softly, so that I couldn't really hear him, but it seemed important that his lips move. And I wished for myself that I had the courage to pray publicly like that, not only in secret where no one can see--or hear. It is one thing to pray like the hypocrites, hoping that others will see one's prayer, but it is wholly another to pray in secret not out of modesty, but out of shame. I am embarrassed when my son or my husband walks in on my prayer because they've heard me and wondered whom I was talking to. Likewise, I am embarrassed to chant at the end of my yoga practice, even though I know how wonderful it makes me feel. Does this mean I am embarrassed to talk to God? Well, yes. Because what, after all, if I'm talking only to myself?

Puts on preacher's hat. Here's what I think: praying aloud, like chanting or singing, is particularly important for those of us who find it embarrassing, for it forces us to acknowledge, even if only to ourselves, that we are actually engaged in a conversation with God. Takes off preacher's hat. Feels exposed. Wants to put it back on again, but realizes she is still hiding something. Praying silently feels safer, but we should not kid ourselves that it is better because it is more difficult. Asks self: "Difficult for whom?" Begins to wonder whether prayer can ever be real prayer if it is not spoken aloud. Think about it: in prayer, we expose ourselves to God, but God already knows who we are. Real prayer exposes ourselves to ourselves, makes us conscious of thoughts and emotions of which we were not otherwise aware.

But does this hold even when we are saying prayers that others have written?
Yes, I think it does, for as we read, for example, the psalms, we are forced to give voice to things that we might not otherwise have said and yet which we most definitely think and feel. But what if we are just saying the words out loud and don't really mean them? Which words? The ones about how great God is or the ones about what sinners we are? Or do you mean the ones about how we hope God will crush our enemies under foot? Oh, you know the ones. No, I don't, tell me. You're just going to trap me because you know I mean the ones about crushing our enemies under foot. So you're saying you're always comfortable with confessing yourself a sinner from your mother's womb (Psalm 51*)? Well, no, I don't like that part of the psalm very much. But I like the verse that reads: "Create in me a clean heart, O God." So you only like praying for pleasant things? See, I knew you were going to trap me. Not at all. I'm just trying to show you the things that you learn about yourself while praying the psalms.

Oh, yeah, well what about this verse: 'He makes his word known to Jacob, to Israel his laws and decrees. He has not dealt thus with other nations; he has not taught them his decrees' (Psalm 147)? You already know what I think about that verse; you know it makes me uneasy. So do you mean it when you say it aloud? I don't know. It's like a lot of the psalms: they seem alien and harsh to me, not at all what I think about God. What I do know is that saying the psalms aloud, rather than just reading them silently, forces me to think about what I do believe, whether I actually think that God will "plead my cause against a godless nation" or whether it is appropriate to pray that God rescue me "from deceitful and cunning men" (Psalm 43). But isn't this just sophistry or, worse, hypocrisy, if you are saying aloud things you don't actually believe? But I struggle just as much saying aloud the things I do actually believe: "Our soul is waiting for the Lord. The Lord is our help and our shield. In him do our hearts find joy. We trust in his holy name" (Psalm 3)--because what if I don't find joy in the Lord or trust in his name? Simply saying it out loud doesn't make it true.

So what you're saying is that we should say the words aloud whether we believe them or not, simply because others have said them, too. Yes, no; now you've trapped me! You know that's not what I meant. Prayer puts us into conversation both with God and ourselves, but it is sometimes only in speaking the words aloud that we are able to become conscious of this conversation as something other than just the flow of our thoughts. So where does God come in? Through the Scriptures; through the tensions that we feel in acknowledging our sins and our unwillingness to offer Him the praise that is His due; through the embarrassment that we feel in speaking to Him so that others may hear. So praying aloud is a test of our faith? Yes, I suppose it is, in the sense that it forces us, by engaging ourselves physically as well as mentally, to acknowledge God fully as something outside of ourselves, not just something we can keep to ourselves, hidden safely inside. But how do we know it isn't just showing off so that others can see? That's a red herring; you'll know it when you do it. The important thing, as Benedict put it, is to pray always so that the mind is in harmony with the voice, giving glory to God. Oh, right, that's what prayer is about, isn't it? How silly of me to forget.

*Psalm numbers given according to Shorter Christian Prayer rather than the Vulgate.


  1. Thank you. I think others will find their answers there too. Being honest helps too. I remember reading/hearing somewhere that God appreciates more the person who prays once but prays honestly and wholeheartedly then he does the person who only recites prayer. You responded to a lot of thoughts that I've had. Public prayer just to be seen, group and private prayer. It was a very nice read. And too "to pray always so that the mind is in harmony with the voice, giving glory to God", "Om!".

  2. Good point about honesty! And thanks for the question: it was really good for me to have to articulate all of this for my own practice.


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