Of Rote, Ritual and Rhythm


My first foray into learning to play music was a painful one- especially for others!- as my chosen instrument was the drum set. And wow it was bad, both the drum set and my, ahem, “playing” of the drum set. At the time I had not really had any musical training whatsoever, with little niceties like rhythm something I had to learn along the way.

In the beginning, I would either crank up a metronome in some headphones and pound along with fury, silently (or at times not so silently) counting out the time all the while, which for a still gangly teenager was a challenge of coordination and concentration. Other times I would play along with songs that I knew and try to keep up (surprise ending: I very rarely ever did!).

And while I never became an extraordinary drummer by any means, I eventually got to the place where I could stop counting in my head. The long and oftentimes grueling discipline of pounding out beats with the metronome eventually sinks into your being, until there’s really no better way to describe it than that you “feel” the rhythm. At times it can still be useful to count, but it becomes intentional and punctuational, wherein the foundation asserts itself again so as to be able to transcend itself once more.

I moved onto playing guitar which brought its own sets of challenges like learning scales and chords and progressions and the like, all of which flow in and out the rhythm. I remember trying to play guitar like I was playing the drums and finding my strums were always terrible; eventually, I had to go back to a discipline of counting the beats again and finding where and when I could strum.

At first, it felt so limiting and always sounded the same. It could get pretty boring too, especially as a lot of the songs I was playing weren’t terribly complex. The same went for the chords as well. But as I continued to learn and practice and improve (and I still have a long way to go!) I found that the more I took these basic and fundamental and repetitive things and allowed them to soak into me, the more effortless they became.

Strumming became second nature, and I didn’t have to think about it anymore. My hands would form the chords I wanted at will. But the most remarkable thing was that this is what enabled me to push beyond just the repetition of the motions. I was learning a new vocabulary of sorts which was expanding the things that I could do. I could work in variations on chords to fit into a certain melodic phrase or create rhythmic cadences on the fly.

All those times of repetition and practice and slogging through time signatures and chord charts created a situation in which music could actually be played.

For much of my life I’ve struggled with prayer for a variety of reasons. It is not so much a chore for me, but rather I think deeper down I have always found that I rarely know what to say. Actually, that isn’t true. I usually know what to say, and it almost always turns into me talking about myself, probably to myself.

That’s likely the real problem.

And so prayer either can turn into a checklist I have to do, or a closed-in echo chamber where I tell myself what I already know about myself. I want to reach the heights of contemplative prayer, to attain union with God, but most of the time it kind of feels like I’m setting up an old rusted drum set for the first time and not knowing what to do with it.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to get acquainted with much of the treasury of prayer that exists within the church. Initially, I found them of merely intellectual and antiquarian interest, to see how people formed and structured their prayers over the centuries and in response to various historical events.

For I had mostly understood prayer to be primarily an extemporaneous expression, usually arising from a circumstance or in response to a need. To get “better” at it usually meant to pray more, which I would try, but I would find myself running into the same problems over and over again. While my prayers were supposedly spontaneous, if I was honest it was me saying the same things- usually about myself- over and over again. Even the phrases and cadences tended to fall into similar patterns, like the metronome was stuck on one bpm.

That is not to say extemporaneous prayer is bad by any means, merely that for me I didn’t have the vocabulary with which to pray. It was like I had ever only heard one song in 4/4 time and then expecting me to know how to play in a different time signature. 

As I studied some of the ancient prayers and liturgies of the church more and more, my interest turned from merely antiquarian to wondering if there was something here that could help me grow into a deeper life of prayer and faith. One thing I was continually struck by was how seriously these prayers took the whole endeavor of prayer. There was a sense of formality without being stifling, a sobriety that recognized the disparity between supplicant and Lord, but also boldly pressed forward towards an obvious intimacy that would otherwise seem out of place. There were emotional depths here because the language was so intentional; it wasn’t just the off-the-cuff emoting of a teenager.

I began to see that my prayer suffered from a serious lack of vocabulary; I just didn’t have the words or the concepts with which to talk to God. By this I do not mean specialized language or theological sophistication; rather, I had only my own limited experience to draw upon, and was somehow expecting that to carry me on to greater heights. 

With more and more study, I found myself beginning to pray these new (old) prayers, and at first they did nothing for me. It was like listening to the click of the metronome in my ear every time I went to pray. Rote in, rote out.

But like the rhythm can eventually get into your being until you simply “feel” it, so eventually the habit and discipline of prayer can get into your being as well.

As I became more familiar with different ways of talking to God and developed other concepts, my prayer vocabulary grew. It wasn’t always just me talking about myself to myself; I now had the benefit of centuries of other Christians’ experience with prayer. Things that I had struggled with were nothing new, of course, and there were practices and disciplines available that could help develop and foster the proper attitude and posture for prayer. 

In many ways it reminded me of learning to play music, in that you have to start off with very basic things and do the same basic things over and over again until they become second nature. Eventually, you can do them without even thinking, which is when you are finally freed to start making music.

I have now come to embrace the rote and the ritual because they truly form the superstructure of our spiritual lives. I think in the modern West we tend to have this notion that we are a continual blank slate that can be written upon at will, and that we can turn on a dime to pursue one thing or another. We want and expect things instantaneously, and our spiritual lives tend to fare no better. We think we can reach the heights of contemplative prayer without slogging it out with a metronome first.

Rote and ritual can certainly be a dead letter if we let them be, but yet they are actually indispensable to our spiritual lives. They form the backdrop and the rhythms that can carry us through when things don’t go as planned or when life is hard, which, let’s be honest, is more often than we would like. We have our best-laid plans which life lays waste to on a comically regular basis, and without the grounding that these things can give to our spiritual lives it is far too easy to be tossed about when things get choppy.

For myself, I remember times during my stem-cell transplant where it was difficult to pray, both because of how awful I felt and because of all the meds I was on. I would try to pray but the fog in my mind would not relent, so I’d find myself stuttering a few words and then falling silent.

And sometimes that isn’t a bad prayer.

But I also remember that there were some prayers that I had memorized which had over the years become so entrenched in me that they could cut through the fog and rise to heaven from my lips. I was reciting things from rote, but at the time it was all I could muster, and at the time was exactly what I had needed. They gave me a solid foothold in the dark, for even though I didn’t feel like praying nor had any particular cathartic experience of it, it nevertheless was there in the background like a constant rhythm I could always find my way back to.

The rhythms of prayer and worship are an integral part of the spiritual life and one that is often lacking in the modern world. It can feel from week to week that we have to make things up as we go along, and then we wonder why we never grow or move on.

I have found in my own life that the prayers I take the time to learn and to say over and over and over again come to be a part of me; they start to form the rhythm of my day just as the church calendar has started to form the rhythm of my year. It becomes more musical the more I play it over and over, because I am learning the notes and the words until I can play them from heart. The experience of repetition can become formulaic of course, but it can also draw out riches since you can approach the same truth in a new way each time around. This is another opportunity to savor another aspect of a greater whole and let it become a part of you.

This simply doesn’t happen when we constantly lurch from new experience to new experience.

Those disciplines and- should we say?- metronomes of prayers become a posture, a rhythmic backdrop that can envelop all prayer. They can form habits that help us to persevere when things seem out of tune or the rhythm speeds up or slows down or trainwrecks altogether. In those times words always fail, thoughts are stifled and the will can falter, but those habits and disciplines are something to fall back on precisely because they have such a deep-seated place inside.

Reaching contemplation in prayer eventually becomes just like feeling the rhythm- it has become so much a part of you that you are no longer counting but rather playing in time.


1 comment

  • I’m 62 years old and have tried every kind of prayer ‘program’ and type. Nothing has been so helpful to me as the historic prayers of the church and the Psalms. Quite awhile back I had a few years where I was able to pray much of the daily office in community. That’s where I first learned to use them. Now that I no longer have that opportunity I find that praying them alone does not feel like I am praying them alone. Knowing that countless others are praying the same prayers and songs is such a comfort.
    You are correct about them giving us a vocabulary. Each prayer is a lesson in learning to “pray as we ought”. So thankful for all the resources online for praying the daily office.
    Now even when I pray extemporaneously I find myself using words and phrases from these prayers especially when I am troubled and weary. I only wish I had been taught to pray like this sooner in my life.

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