While I’m busy writing prayers for two new books – a book of prayers for pregnancy and a collection of prayers, blessings, and hymns to celebrate callings in congregations – I’ve been thinking lately about how we shape the words of our prayers.
Prayer is how we speak to God and how we listen to God. As a writer, I believe the beauty and meaning of the words we use for prayer matters deeply.
When I studied theology in graduate school, I took two courses on liturgy from a wonderful priest who taught me nearly everything I know about sacraments. He also taught me (as an aside during a class on the Eucharist) a perfect pattern for prayer: You-Who-Do-Through.
This ancient pattern is heard in Christian liturgy as a collect, a prayer which gathers (or “collects”) the prayers of the people and offers them to God. Simple, yet powerful.
Here’s the formula:
You: Address and praise God using divine titles.
Who: Describe what God has done for us, either in Scripture or in our own lives.
Do: Offer a petition asking God to do something for us now.
Through: Close the prayer by invoking God’s name through Christ or the Trinity.
Here’s an example from the collect for this week’s daily Masses:
O God, [YOU]
who have prepared for those who love you
good things which no eye can see, [WHO]
fill our hearts, we pray, with the warmth of your love,
so that, loving you in all things and above all things,
we may attain your promises, which surpass every human desire. [DO]
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. [THROUGH]
A beautiful and natural rhythm to prayer, isn’t it? You start with God (of course), sing God’s praises and remember God’s goodness, offer your petition, and circle back to the Trinity at the end.
Here’s another example from a collect that a favorite professor of mine from Notre Dame used to pray to start class each day:
Almighty Father, [YOU]
the love you offer always exceeds the furthest expression of our human longing,
for you are greater than the human heart. [WHO]
Direct each thought, each effort of our life,
so that the limits of our faults and weaknesses
may not obscure the vision of your glory
or keep us from the peace you have promised. [DO]
We ask this through Christ our Lord. [THROUGH]
After I learned all the moments in the Mass where collects are prayed, I used to love discovering a new You-Who-Do-Through. But then I started using this method of praying whenever someone asked me to lead prayer before a meeting or a meal. I found that it works perfectly to shape spontaneous prayer, whether at home or at church.
So here are some simple examples of how to pray with the You-Who-Do-Through formula with your kids.
Before school: God of Wisdom, your Holy Spirit inspires us to learn more about you and your world. Guide our words, thoughts, and actions today. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
After a disappointment: Loving God, you always care for your people in times of sadness. May N. feel your comfort today and hope for a better tomorrow. In the name of the Trinity, we pray. Amen.
For a birthday: Creator God, you gave us the gift of N.! Bless him/her today and always, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
When a loved one is sick or dying: Merciful Father, your Son healed the sick and hurting. Be with N. who needs your loving, healing presence. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Do any of your favorite prayers follow this form? Take a closer look – you might be surprised!