Prayer-speak

I grew up in the LDS church. I never really had cause to question the things I was taught, both doctrinal and cultural. I never knew there was a difference until my teens. (I’m pretty sure the cultural things were the reason all three of my brothers left the church by about age 14.)

In the church, we are taught that there is an “appropriate” way to pray, that there is a “language of prayer.” We are taught that we should address God in our prayers using the second person singular forms of thee, thou, thy, and thine. Almost always, when someone is referring to this counsel, it is held up as the way to show proper respect for God, to be more formal.

The ignorance in this idea is what initially brought me to decide not to use the second person singular.

Since English speakers, with a few exceptions (namely, the Quakers, who use a simplified version without declension, and some English and Scottish dialects), do not use this form anymore except in religious or ritual settings, people associate it with formality. Church leaders have said from the pulpit that we (English speakers) should address God respectfully and formally. Yet, in other languages which still employ the second person singular as a familiar and intimate form of address, that is how they talk to God. In German, they use “du,” in Spanish, they use “tu,” and in Tagalog, they use a weird mix of second person singular and plural, and honorifics (which signal social difference).

So telling English speakers to use “thee” because it is respectful is incorrect. In 1993, Elder Dallin Oaks gave a talk called The Language of Prayer, where he describes the usage of “thee” and “thou,” and gives reasons for using them. He says that it is not the historical context of the words, but rather the need for intimacy in speech when praying that should persuade us to use “thee.”

And yet, I feel no intimacy when I use it. I feel great distance, as if God were trying to make me uncomfortable by pretending he doesn’t speak or understand my language. It feels like another man-made, contrived way to tell people what to do. And while I can understand some people’s need to have a whole separate language to use in their supplications, I myself need to use the words that come first to convey my true and honest meaning. I would rather address God as a set of parents who will embrace me and caress my head while I cry, than as a distant, bearded entity on a great marble throne, who will hear my complaint, nod to the clerk, and point to the “Exit” sign while beckoning the person behind me to step forward.

So I use the second person plural in my prayers. I use it because today, in English, it is the equivalent of the second person singular, and therefore denotes familiarity and intimacy, and at the same time can also imply plurality. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, as I learn to be more tolerant, less naive, and less snobbish.

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~ by woundedhart on August 21, 2007.

4 Responses to “Prayer-speak”

  1. Thee, thou, thy, and thine ring of formality to me too. I suppose some people find comfort in using those words when addressing God, but if I addressed God, I’d want to keep it informal and intimate.

  2. I always thought that was funny too. Originally the point was to use the familiar in order to express intimacy with God, but as this usage disappeared it mutated into a way to create formality and distance.

  3. I also refuse to use thee/thy/thou, for all the same reasons you listed. (Not the least of which is my snobbery.) Imagine how my typical prayer would sound in my native Mormon parlance: “God, if thou really art there and not some invention of thy alleged children, wouldst thou in thy great mercy and wisdom cut me some freaking slack?”

    It just doesn’t flow off my tongue.

    I’m curious if you are willing to play along when you (if you) pray in church meetings.

  4. I haven’t been asked to pray in church for a while. And when I was pregnant 11 months ago, I would just say no. I’m not above refusing to pray, mostly because I don’t feel totally comfortable doing so. I hate being asked, and I always wish they would ask for a volunteer. I realize it would be the same 3 people all the time, but at least people who hated doing it woundn’t have to suffer through either refusing or feeling self-conscious.

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