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How You Pray Is How You Believe

by Alex Hill

Ever wondered why Catholic worship is full of stuff like bowing, kneeling, incense, and funny vestments? Are these things just "empty show," or do they have a sacred purpose? If you don't mind almost 600 words on the subject, read on!

Lex orandi, lex credendi There is a Latin phrase (well known to liturgy-geeks like yours truly) which sums up many important principles regarding the Catholic celebration of Mass: lex orandi, lex credendi. The law (lex) of prayer (orandi) is the law of belief (credendi). Stated another way, "how you pray is how you believe."

These four words (well, three) summarize a fundamental truth not just about worship but about human nature. What we come to believe on the inside is often formed by how we behave on the outside. We understand this principle at work when we teach manners and etiquette to our children. Teaching them to say "please" and "thank you" does much more than help them fit in with polite society. With time, repeating those words actually fosters a feeling of gratitude. The habit of opening doors for people or letting others go first in line actually fosters a spirit of humility. The external act enables the inner configuration necessary to continue the act with conviction and will.

This is why the Church, in her wisdom, has given us so many external signs and actions to help us pray at Mass. The vestments remind us that the priest is set apart, consecrated for a special role. The unique sound of the organ and choir reminds us that sacred music is not common "everyday" music. The sweet smoke of incense reminds us of ritual and sacrifice, a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy of Christ, the Lamb of God (Revelation 19).

The sacred liturgy also calls for actions which help us understand where we are and what we’re doing. The little act of blessing ourselves with holy water? It reminds us that we enter the Church through baptism, that God has washed away our sin. The genuflection to the tabernacle? It’s a gesture of reverence and honor to Jesus Christ, God-with-us. Bowing during the Creed when we mention that Jesus Christ "became man"? It tells us that this awesome doctrine of our faith is worthy of greater attention and contemplation. Our external senses and actions are ordered to lead to an interior understanding of the sacred and the sublime.

Unfortunately, the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi can work against us if how we pray is casual or devoid of effort. We may have perfectly good reasons for coming to Mass in shorts and flip flops, but by being habitually casual in our dress we risk convincing ourselves that Mass is "nothing special." We may be silent during the "Great Amen" because we don’t feel good about singing, but by not singing the "Amen" we fail to actualize our assent to the mysteries proclaimed. When we do only a "hint of a genuflection," or fail to bow during during the Creed, our half-hearted actions may starve an already half-developed faith.

And then, incredibly, we leave the church wondering: why don’t I get anything out of Mass?

The Catholic Church did not invent the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. Sure, it was spelled out as early as the 5th century in the writings of Saint Prosper of Aquitaine, a protégé of Saint Augustine. But the principle goes much farther back, to the very origins of humanity. That’s what makes it human nature.

And as human nature, it was founded by God. It follows then that God, through the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church which he also founded, would use this principle to help us find him, in the depths of our very souls.

Article written 09 February 2014.
Reprinted with permission.

Alex Hill is Director of Music and Liturgy at Saint Mark Catholic Church in Wilmington, North Carolina.

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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