the only way i know to pray; a reading recommendation: Scott Cairns

Many Christians see no value in reading other people’s prayers. Most Christians in the US seem to ignore hymnals, the Book of Common Prayer, and other old texts like the nearly thousand-year-old prayers of St. Francis. I have even been told that Christians should not recite the Lord’s Prayer, arguing that Jesus was teaching us what kinds of prayers to pray and not suggesting we should pray the same prayer together. These well-meaning Christians have told me that reading written prayers ignores the Holy Spirit and demonstrates a lack of maturity in prayer life.

Maybe I do lack maturity in my “prayer life” (as if we can talk about “prayer life” as a part of life separable from the rest of life, like family, work, sex, politics—do these not shape prayer? are they not shaped by prayer? can we really separate any from the others? But this is a rabbit trail). But I have a sense that my propensity to lean away from spontaneous “in-the-moment” prayers is the result of my time spent working in an abusive Christian camp where our value as people was determined by the (mostly superficial) profundity of our prayers, and of my time working with charismatic Christians who similarly valued emotional, loud, made-up-on-the-spot prayers over anything apparently “old” like hymns or the church calendar and who shamed me for staying quiet during prayer meetings. These prayers never seemed real to me, and they leave a bitter taste in my mouth when I hear them or try to pray this way.

My wounds, received from the hands of well-meaning Christians, have left me unable (or at least not-yet-able) to pray this way. Instead, I have come to prefer praying with the saints, the Psalms, and other “old,” written prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer. I am thankful my parents raised my sisters and me with the same nightly prayers—always the same prayer before dinner, always the same prayer before bed.

The poet Scott Cairns caught me off guard this afternoon as I read his poem, “Recitation.”  I often do not know what to pray, or I do not think I can or should pray what I want to pray. Because of my wounds, I often cannot speak my prayers or think of my prayers as valid and “prayable” until I see my prayer in the words of another, whether it be in the words of a saint, or of the Bible, or of a hymn, or of someone else. Cairns encapsulates those quiet moments when I stumble upon a text that says for me what I need to say and dares me to say it again.

Perhaps my preference for praying the prayers of others is not immaturity. Reading the prayers of others does not limit me. It gives me the words I cannot find on my own. It sets me free.


I highly recommend Scott Cairns. I have been slowly working through his 2015 collection, Slow Pilgrim, and have already shown his influence in my own series, adventures in biblical Hebrew, inspired by his Adventures in New Testament Greek poems. I recommend starting with these if you want to read more.

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