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The Second Commandment and Vocal Prayer

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Our present meditation is on the Second Commandment and even more specifically on vocal prayer. Although the Second Commandment of the Decalogue like the first is a negative prohibition in the Old Testament, “You shall not use the name of the Lord your God in vain.” However, the Catholic Church identifies both the second and first precept of the Ten Commandments as prescriptive and not merely prohibitive of its opposite.

The precept of the Second Commandment is to use the name of God and to use it reverently. In other words the Second Commandment prescribes the verbal, vocal, audible, visible, sensibly perceptible use of the name of God. We might say the Second Commandment is the duty we have to not only believe in the one true God and honor this one true God or even to honor Him by our prayers and sacrifices. That is still the First Commandment. The Second Commandment goes beyond the first. We are to put the First Commandment into practice as human beings and the key word is human beings who have, that’s us, both a soul with which in essence we pray but we also have a body with which we are also to pray. In other words we are to worship God by the use of our bodily faculties. We are to honor Him not only internally, which is still the First Commandment but also externally which is the essence of the Second Commandment of the Decalogue.

Traditionally there are three ways of worshipping God externally. And the Church then identifies with the Second Commandment of the Decalogue namely vocal prayer, the vows and religious communication. We’ll have three meditations. This meditation is on vocal prayer. We plan to see this subject under various aspects. First, what is vocal prayer? Second, what are the main forms of vocal prayer practiced and prescribed by the Church? Third, why do we practice vocal prayer? And the last must begin with a how, how can we improve our praying to God vocally?

We begin then by asking ourselves what is vocal prayer? In the Church there are two standard meanings of vocal prayer. One, a generic meaning and the other more specific. In its broadest, generic sense, vocal prayer is prayer that follows a set form of words. In vocal prayer the words may be those of someone, someone whom we’ve never met. But it’s someone else and the words of the one who is praying. Again, in vocal prayer in the broadest sense it may be using the words of Sacred Scripture. Or using the words of our Lord when He taught us the Lord’s Prayer. Or it may be a prayer composed by one of the saints, like saint Francis of Assisi, or naturally, St. Ignatius of Loyola. That’s the one meaning of vocal prayer.

The other meaning is more specific. Vocal prayer is vocalized prayer. It is articulated prayer. It is prayer that can be heard, of course by the one who prays or by someone else. It is prayer that is perceptible to the senses. And that is the cleanest theological definition of vocal prayer. Thus vocal prayer as we are speaking of it is the second meaning that we give to vocal prayer. It is therefore distinguished from mental prayer. In mental prayer we use our own thoughts to express our mind and heart to God. In vocal prayer we adjust our thoughts to the ideas expressed by someone else and that’s the kind of vocal prayer by which we are meditating in this conference. Certainly, certainly vocal prayer whether articulated or not should express and involve our own minds and hearts unlike say, the Hindus, who are expected to recite thousands of times a certain quote, prayer, or formula and the vocal prayer that we as Christians understand is never to be divorced from the mind being aware of what it is doing and the heart wanting to pray but when I pray vocally I am both using someone else’s formula and for our purpose we expressed ourselves in some sensibly perceptible form.

What are the forms, at least some of the forms of vocal prayer? As we know the Latin word, vox, meaning voice, has an adjective which is vocalis, so vocal prayer is voiced prayer. In vocal prayer therefore, the voice is used, then we can distinguish various ways of praying vocally in other words, ways in which we can realize our sentiments to God and put that realization into practice. I’ve got seven classifications, but I said to myself one page is enough.

Some of the forms of mental prayer which is vocal, vocal prayer.

  • First, it may be simply articulated. Words are spoken. That’s vocal prayer. We get the words from somebody else and then we read those words.

  • Or second, vocal prayer may be ritual, ritual prayer, where the words are accompanied by symbolic gestures or signs, like the sign of the cross or bowing or kneeling, or folding one’s hands. The vocality therefore of vocal prayer is not only because it is spoken with the lips and heard by somebody’s ears. No. The vocality means sense perceptibility.

  • Or third, vocal prayer can be either prosaic or poetic. Depending on the style in which the vocal prayer was originally composed. The sounds are poetic. Most of the New Testament, for that matter the Old Testament is not poetic.

  • Fourth, vocal prayer can be either individual or collective depending on whether one person is praying or several, or many are praying together.

  • Fifth, vocal prayer can be ordinary or it can be musical. When the vocal prayer is accompanied by some or several musical instruments.

  • Sixth, vocal prayer can be recited or sung. And we find both forms in Sacred Scripture and both forms in the Church’s daily practice. I like St. Augustine’s statement, when we sing we pray twice. Meaning what? We are not only reciting words, we are also joining our voices in song.

  • Number seven, the prayer can be either private or liturgical. In the latter case the Church officially composes and approves certain prayers to be said or sung in public. In other words the Liturgy is the public prayer of the Church. The public may be a physical nearness to one another of those who are engaging in the liturgy or it may be public because the whole believing world joins with us and we with it and the object or purpose the finality of the prayer when it is liturgical is public because it’s intended to embrace and obtain grace for the whole human race.

  • Let’s call this either Seven “A” or number Eight if you wish. I thought I should add this. Vocal prayer can be for want of a better word, either continuous or repetitive depending on whether the prayer is progressive in thought from beginning to middle and to the end. Or, it may be expressed and then you repeat what you’ve just said, like the rosary. We’re still on the forms.

This list is needless to say not exhaustive. But gives us some idea of the variety of vocal prayers which are used and even prescribed by the Church. As I’ve told so many mothers especially them; teach your children formal prayer before they begin to talk. Let the first words of your child be a prayer. I’m being autobiographical. That’s the way I was brought up.

Next question.

Why must we practice vocal prayer? Notice this is not an option, it’s an obligation. We must practice vocal prayer because we are not angels but human beings. I believe the angels do carry on a conversation; how they do it, don’t ask me. God wants us to honor Him in our prayerful worship on two levels. By speaking to Him and conversing with Him in our own deep heartfelt soul experience. This we may say is the soul of all prayer. That God wants us to give Him prayerful worship, I repeat as human beings. How? By expressing our prayerful sentiment in bodily form using our voice and lips, using our ears, using our bodily gestures, our bodily…and our bodily movement.

But why does God want us to pray vocally or as we might say bodily. A good synonym for vocal prayer is it is bodily prayer. Why? Why does God want us? Because He wants us to adore and praise Him, think and entreat Him with our whole being which means in spirit and in body.

Why? Why does God want us to practice mental prayer which is bona fide, as we call it vocal prayer? Secondly, because God wants us to pray not only as individuals but also as social beings. There’s no communication between human beings without some articulation of one mind to the other mind, of one heart to another heart. In other words, we are to speak to God as persons but also we are to talk to Him as members of the Mystical Body and indeed of the whole human family. To do this we simply have to articulate, make some sound, the Lord tells us, say something. Does He have to hear us? No. No more than He needs to be told what we need. But God wants us to pray and foundationally that is to adore Him not only in our spirit or soul but in our body.

As Christ told us He blesses in a special way when two or three or more are gathered together in prayer. In order to pray corporately, we are to be not only gathered together in one place, we are to corporately join with others and they with us in articulating our thoughts and desires together. Why? Because we are not only individuals, we are not only persons which the Church defines a person as an individual intelligent being. Individuality, are we to pray individually? Yes. In our own words? Yes. When nobody else is around? Yes. Except who is around and that around is to be taken literally, God. But He wants us to express our deepest sentiments not only as individuals but corporately. In other words we join with other people and they with us in praying.

One more reason why God wants and demands vocal prayer because we need graces not only for ourselves individually we need graces as a society, whether the human race or the Mystical Body, or a parish or a family or a religious community. Unless a society prays together it will disappear as a society. One divinely laid condition for not just beginning a society but preserving it and enabling it to thrive is where that society prays together as a society. That’s why when I get into a car as some of you know, the first thing we do is make the sign of the cross and recite the Hail Mary and then add the invocation Our Lady of the Way, our English translation of Madonna de la strada-- the favorite shrine of St. Ignatius. We may be just two minutes in the car but we better pray. We need graces, including, well, physical protection. We need those graces as a society of two, three, two thousand or two million.

I want to spend a little more time on this - why. The more spiritual writing some people read and we are to do spiritual reading every day. It should not be speed reading. The risk in reading good spiritual book especially by the great masters of Christian spirituality -- they were all experts shall I call them in mental prayer. Meditation when I reason in God’s presence to reach a conclusion or contemplation when I look at what I believe and enjoy the experience in the presence of God. We are liable to think, I’ve dealt with too many good souls-- that vocal prayer well that’s for children. Or, well the unlettered master some prayer formula and so many people do not believe that they should pray vocally. In other words mental prayer is precious, indispensable for reaching heaven. But vocal prayer is also necessary and the necessity of vocal prayer we highlight the importance of our not only vocalizing what we say but vocalizing in such a way as to give greater praise and glory to God and obtain more grace for ourselves.

So our last question is how to improve. As with prayer in general, so the subject of vocal prayer is treated at length with all the great masters of sanctity and the spiritual life. How did this treasury of wisdom, certain practical recommendations have proved to be useful, useful from the first days of Christianity until the modern age. Some of these recommendations apply to all forms of prayer whether mental or vocal. Some only or mainly through vocal prayer. And I have five recommendations. If you want to pray and God expects us to pray we must pray with an open will. Openness of the will to God. All the books on the spiritual life we have memorized whole chapters of St. Theresa of Avila, thanks, she’s worth memorizing -- would not improve your prayer one inch or more technically one centimeter. Our ability to pray for our purpose to pray vocally first and mainly depends on the openness of our will to God.

Because we pray, we pray with our wills we need our minds to provide us with what we are to pray about. The more ready therefore I am to God’s will, at no matter what price to myself, the more attentive and affective and effective will be my prayer and with emphasis my vocal prayer. And nobody, nobody cheats here. Writing books on mysticism I know is no guarantee of being conformed to the will of God.

Second recommendation sinlessness of heart. It is the primary meaning of the Beatitude when our Lord tells us blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God. In other words the more I strive to purify my heart, in other words the more sinless I become the better and more fruitfully will I be able to see God by faith and prayer.

Third recommendation. Placing oneself in the conscious presence of God. The words placing oneself is necessary in all prayer but especially in vocal prayer when I start or even before I begin to start to pray vocally I make myself aware of whom I am speaking with and whom I’m talking to. Is it possible to carry on an animated conversation with another person and not really, not really be talking with that person -- is that possible? I’ve watched the experience. One person in charge of the conversation talking to his or her hearts content but that is not communication. I must be aware and make myself aware when I pray vocally of whose presence I’m in. Am I always present to God? Is God always conscious of me? Does God always love each one of us? Yes. Are we correspondingly always aware of God? Are we always thinking of God? Are we aware that as I begin to pray and that I begin to pray is critically important because we are talking about vocal prayer there is a beginning, a middle and as we keep watching the clock, also an end to vocal prayer.

In the novitiate we are told never to watch the clock when we pray. For some people that takes heroic, well, discipline. And I cannot tell you, this can be a great retreat in your life if you’re not doing it already, before you enter a period of vocal prayer, whatever that vocal prayer may be, pace yourself first and you’ve got to make yourself aware of God. If we believe in God we know He exists even when we pray we are addressing ourselves to God. And somehow in the subconscious we may, but that’s not a word in my vocabulary, be aware of whom we are speaking to. Because God is always talking to us, what Ignatius calls making an act of the presence of God. I’m sure you’ve heard this more than once - it’s in the Exercises of St. Ignatius. The Lord grants all the actions, operations of this spiritual exercise to be directed solely to the praise and glory of your divine majesty. Don’t just tell yourself I am now, and wasn’t before, I’m now aware of God’s presence. Even that would help, but the masters of spirituality tell us, say something, say something to remind yourself of what you’re doing and even do something. Like what? A little vocal prayer in chapel, we walk in to chapel and then we genuflect. Is it possible to be in chapel for two hours without realizing in whose presence we are?

Fourth recommendation. Reminding myself during vocal prayer. The word remind literally means bringing back to mind, reminding myself during my vocal prayer of whom I’m talking to, we do not have to be literally and mentally conscious of the words we’re using. But we better be aware of one thing, and that is that we’re talking to God. And when we’re talking to our Lady, all the angels and saints, the best theological term is we are talking through them to God. It may be only a month, a periodic reminder, but these periodic moments are important for the practice especially of vocal prayer. Why? Because vocal prayer can become what - a safe statement, routine.

Doctors tell me some of their patients undergoing major surgery pray unconscious. They’re vocalizing prayers. I did tell you, didn’t I about Lee Atwater, remember the chairman of the Republican Party under President Bush. And brought President Bush into the presidency, I told you this didn’t I? Lee Atwater was no Catholic; he was hardly a practicing Christian. He was never sure he was ever baptized. He became afflicted with malignancy of the brain. Senators called me up from Washington; can you come into Washington tomorrow? And the Republican Party will pay for your transportation and lodging, thanks. Arrived to the airport and went to Lee Atwater’s home. Four days - baptized, confirmed, gave him the last rights, and of course I gave him Holy Communion. And of the host, said Lee, what is this? You’re telling me that’s Jesus Christ? Yes Lee. So I asked him, do you believe it? He asked me, do you believe it? He asked me, do you believe it? I said sure I do. Then he said so do I. Shortly after he was taken to New York for brain surgery and for whatever reason they could not give him anesthesia for his surgery on the brain. They asked him, does he want to be operated on or die without surgery. I want to have the operation. He did. It lasted four hours he told me during those four hours, a Catholic of a few weeks, Father he said, I prayed every moment of those four hours reciting the basic vocal prayers. Recommendation number four. It’s reminding ourselves of whose presence we’re in. It may take only a moment here and there but these periodic moments are important for the practice especially of vocal prayer. And why? And we go back to where we were, why? Because our vocal prayers, and the more often we say them, the more subconscious they become as I said before, routine.

The mind can be distracted in a thousand ways. There is one distraction we should spend, if need be, years to cultivate. That our praying vocally, we are aware as conscious as we can be, not necessarily of the words we’re saying, but of who we are praying to. As you know, as I know when we pray piously, edifyingly, yet are praying vocally our mind can be a thousand, up the figure, ten thousand miles away. In other words whenever we’re praying vocally, always of course, but see when we’re praying mentally, there’s a kind of built in almost, instinct, when I’m praying mentally I’m using my own words. These I wouldn’t just say to anybody else. That’s one of the beauties of mental prayer. You can tell things to our Lord you wouldn’t dare open your mouth in communication with anyone else. You don’t have to tell our Lord, now Lord, will you please keep this a secret? He will. But in vocal prayer the very ideas are not our own. And even in talking to our Lady we are conscious of her presence, all the angels and saints. I repeat, the fourth recommendation is we-- mind our minds are as I’ve said so many times are like wild animals rushing, running, everywhere. And it’s all within the mind. Our minds are like, I repeat, wild beasts. And of course the distractions that we have especially in vocal prayer are distractions about either what we want or what we fear. As I’ve been telling people if you want to overcome your distractions, pray about what you’re distracted on.

Finally, understand. Understand what you are praying. Our minds in vocal prayer may not be thinking of the words we are using. This is crucial. But, our vocal prayer is more pleasing to God if before vocal prayer we have spent some time in mental prayer to grasp the meaning of the words we are speaking when we pray vocally. This is built into the spirituality of My Father in God, St. Ignatius. Among the methods of prayer that he, well, gives those who make the exercises is reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer. Most people can say the Lord’s Prayer in a few seconds; they just blurt the words out. Meditate on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. You mean I’m supposed to spend like half hour on the Lord’s Prayer? I’ll go to sleep. Well, you’ll have to keep your mind alert and aware of the fact that God wants us; He wants us to be conscious of Him and that very awareness of His presence, joined by conformity of our will with His. That is prayer. What am I saying? I am saying that our vocal prayer which for some people can be hours a day will be correspondingly more meritorious before God as prior to using particularly our prayers we knew and ask God to explain. We read, we consulted, we watched, so that we will more clearly and deeply understand what we are saying when we are praying. Let me repeat. Do I have to be conscious of the words I am saying? No. Do I have to be aware of the meaning of the words I am using? No. What awareness must there be? It must be the awareness of the fact that I am talking to God. But in vocal prayer there are degrees and degrees or levels and levels of pleasing God with our vocal prayer. And we’re pleasing - by the fifth recommendation we will please our Lord more and He gives us more merit if and insofar as we understood, get it, what we’re saying. My mind does not have to keep adverting; I don’t want to lose anybody. The effort I spent, the time I took, to understand the meaning of the vocal prayers that I recite or sing, the more pleasing to God is every vocal prayer that I make. Because we pray with our minds and wills but the more deeply our minds understand what we’re telling God, the more responsive will be our wills. And the consequence the more pleasing every vocal prayer will be in the eyes of God.

One more closing observation. During the retreat we should all examine our consciences on how effective is my vocal prayer? The five recommendations that I made that the Church has made over the centuries are basic. And whatever fruit we have a right to expect from this retreat, it should be a marked, a major improvement in our practice of vocal prayer.

Lord Jesus, you taught us a great deal about the necessity of prayer. You prayed all night in communion with your Father. But you give us only one prayer that ever since we’ve called the Lord’s Prayer. Oracio Dominica. You gave us dear Lord, the Our Father, if there is anything that Christ wants us to practice it is vocal prayer. He wants us to pray vocally and dear Lord, we know how wild our imaginations, how stray can be our minds. Teach us dear Jesus, teach us to pray better than we have so far, so that by praying to you here on earth we might pray and enjoy the Beatific Vision because during our stay on earth, dear Lord we have learned from you how we should pray. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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