I want to go the new way, build a shack
With one door, sit against the door frame.
After twenty years, you will see on my face
The same expression you see in the grass.
--Robert Bly, The Call Away
Prayers are, by definition, words that are supposed to transform us. They are not just rote recitations; they are words that form us, shape us, that change the way we think. They shape our desires, they transform how we desire.
Novenas are perhaps the most stereotypically rote prayers. They're a prayer for number-crunchers and checklist addicts. They seem to be prayers that operate on a cost-benefit paradigm
Put in nine days of prayer; get xyz benefits from the saint of your choice!
Pray to St. Therese, and you will get a rose! (We promise! A rose! Of the color of your choosing!)
Pray this prayer five times, three days in a row, and bury a statue of the saint in your front yard to find seven years of good luck!
They seem to be leftovers of superstition.
But really, I have found, in these seemingly formulaic prayers, the the real treasure is found when you allow them to touch your daily actions. When you don't just rattle off the prayer, or read the reflection perfunctorily, but allow the prayer to not only touch your heart, but allow the prayers to transform the way you go about your day. When, as you are about to continue along your impatient and selfish path, you hear the words of the daily prayer--familiar enough now to be a mantra--cause you to pause. They check your routine. Your actions are halted abruptly by the formula you have recited. Your prayers are calling into question your habits of being.
And this is when prayer becomes an exciting, dangerous endeavor. You realize that you can no longer divide your self into the person you are while praying and the person you are while doing. The person you are in the presence of God is spilling over into the persona you adopt in the presence of the world. The convenient lines of private life and public life have blurred. Whatever you are in your daily life is now invading your silent moments of prayer. The colleague who frustrates you appears in your daily act of charity; that insignificant, mundane misery you constantly complain about challenges your act of faith. If you really are so full of love--for God, and for humanity not in the abstract, but the particular--why do you make this person the exception? Why do you give yourself a pass on being kind and gracious towards the most annoying figure in your milieu.
One day this summer, in the throes of my inaugural Marian consecration, I was mulling over a memory, as I do on my daily walks. My meditation, today, was rather morose. I wish, I found myself saying, with more than a hint of bitterness, that none of this had ever happened. The words of that day's reflection rebuked me as soon as I had mentally expressed those words. The words of that day's reflection had been on Mary's intense care for us. A soul entrusted to Mary ought to have faith that they are being cared for most tenderly by the woman who advocated for such a small, simple thing as new wine at Cana. If I really believe these words, I realized with dismay, the way that I approach the world must change. I cannot say these prayers and continue along in bitterness or anger. I cannot say these prayers and continue in my interior unrest.
These prayers bring with them peace, if only I will accept it. If only I will allow them to reform the way I act and even think. My habits of violence can be undone and relearned as habits of humility and grace, if only I will allow the daily prayer to reshape my soul into a better image. Like a patient, constant stream, the daily words of prayer will erode away my stony heart, and give my wandering soul a new path to walk.