If there’s one principle which has come up time and again in my theological studies, whether in classes on liturgy or theology or preaching or even evangelism, it’s the title of this blog post: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. I’ve seen its origins attributed to the work of Prosper of Aquitaine, but it has been developed further over the centuries until it’s become a touchstone for thinking about the connections between theology, worship and life.
So what does it mean? It loosely translates as, “As we pray, so we believe and live.” That is, our prayers shape our understanding, which shapes our actions, which feed back into our prayers – an interpretive circle in which the Christian integrates the life of faith.
This has some implications, particularly for liturgy or formal occasions of public worship. One is the importance of prayer being offered in a language which the people present can understand. As much as I sympathise, for example, with Catholics who lament a loss of the numinous in the shift away from the Latin mass, I think they have gained far more than they have lost, in that the mass in the vernacular feeds our rational understanding as well as the non-rational (which is not to say irrational) response of the worshipper.
Another is the importance of care in crafting the words used. I am not here arguing against the use of extempore prayer; but all too often that devolves into something like, “Um, Lord, we really just, um, want to say…” Too many of these prayers are halting and hesitant, and all too often devoid of significant theological content. In contrast, the best of the various prayer book traditions offers us a range of well thought out, well crafted, theologically laden prayers for all occasions; prayers which offer a right understanding of God, of the worshipper before God, and of the relationship between them (and the networks of relationship which flow out from that, within the church and out to the world). Extempore prayer then needs to be offered by people who have some strong and sound Scriptural and theological foundations on which to build, and who can do so in public with a confidence and a facility with words which will shape the response of those who listen and participate.
There is also something to be said here for prayers which are repeated in a corporate setting. I was told once of a young man who fell overboard from a boat in a storm; when he was found, he was holding on to a rock in the middle of the stormy sea, repeating over and over “…whose property is always to have mercy…” In his hour of need, perhaps his ability to pray in his own words had deserted him, but this phrase, well-known to him from his prayer book tradition, gave him some idea of God to hold onto in the middle of the storm. Patterns of repeated prayer can likewise become an enormous spiritual resource for people who become isolated, or who suffer shock, trauma or grief; in times when their own prayer life seems very dry, the words of the community can carry one through rather than leaving one desolate.
It also follows that, for the person in the pew, the stuff being said in church is not incidental. The words of prayers, readings and songs have the potential to be the engine room of the Christian life through the rest of the week, and ought to be attended to and truly given our personal participation, not chatted through, ignored or mumbled while really thinking about something else.
I’ve focussed here on the lex orandi part of the circle, but I don’t want to imply thereby that the other two parts are less important. How we live, how we engage in the mission of God, is of course going to shape our prayers for the world and for the church. And as we study and deepen our understanding, that is of course going to shape both prayer and life. No one aspect is more important than the others, but public worship, as the unique responsibility of church leaders, is the one which we can most directly shape and impact, in a way which overflows for the benefit of all.