Let Us Pray
[This Article first appeared in Praying 42
(May-June 1991): 26]
1.) The Invitation
"Let Us Pray." The directions seem clear enough, but what follows is not always prayer. The priest might more accurately say, "Let us cough." "Let us fidget." Or, "Let us be distracted."
Do you go with the flow when the congregation loses interest? If so, "Let us pray" may have become an invitation for you to tune out for a while.
And it's not just the congregation. Sometimes the priest loses interest, too. He can't get the server's attention. He can't find the right page. He reads the words but doesn't pray the prayer. Those little prayers at mass are often forgotten before they've even been spoken.
An invitation to prayer could be a dramatic moment -- as it often is at meals, in hospitals and at family celebrations. But at celebrations of the mass and the sacraments, it rarely brings anticipation. When the priest says "Let us pray," the only thing you may look forward to is sitting down when it's over.
2.) The Purpose
What is the point of this prayer? Quite simply, it sums up whatever comes before. For example, mass begins with songs, introductions, and greetings. Then the priest says, "Let us pray." We finally put into words the reason why we came, and we speak those words to God. That's the opening prayer. Other prayers fulfill the same purpose: They sum up whatever comes before. All prayers in the Roman liturgy have the same structure: First, they address God. Next, they describe what God has done. Third, they ask God for something. Fourth, they offer the prayer through Christ.
We address God with a title: Creator, Almighty Father, Lord, or something like that. We describe the great things God has done: "You led your people to freedom." "You conquered the power of death." "You have taught us to overcome our sins." We ask God for something: "Free us from doubt." "Renew our lives." "Send us the rain we need." And we pray through Christ: "We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever."
It's a simple formula, and people use it all the time in everyday life for getting what we want. For example, a teenager may walk up to a parent and say: "1) Mom, you're the greatest. 2) You're always there for me when I need you. 3) Could I have the keys to the car tonight? 4) Dad said it was OK."
3.) Preparing to Pray
Still, something more is going on here. When the priest says, "Let us pray," he isn't just going to pray a neatly structured prayer all by himself. No, he's asking you to pray. This presumes you're familiar with prayer. Your friends wouldn't say, "Let's go for a swim," or "Let's put on a show," unless you had experience at the activity. When you hear "Let us pray," you hear an invitation to bring your prayerful spirit present. The prayers you offered during the week have made a home in your heart for prayer at mass. The invitation to pray is an invitation for us to bring our thousands of prayers together at once.
4.) Praying the Opening Prayer
Prayer is hard. Coughing and fidgeting is easy. Prayer takes concentration, and it's easy to get distracted. If you want to improve your chances when you hear "Let us pray," try these ideas:
Pick a posture of prayer. Close your eyes. Bow your head, or bow from the waist. Fold your hands, or hold them together with the palms open upward.
Observe silence. There is a bit of silence before the priest continues with the actual prayer. Hold still. Recollect a moment of prayer from earlier in your week. The warm feelings of that moment may return.
Pray about the distractions. If they occur, distractions need not destroy prayer, they may simply clarify what we're praying for. Listen for the four parts: God's name, God's deeds, our petition, and the intercession of Jesus.
Say amen. Let this word sum up your prayer today. let it do so simply.
Sit comfortably when it's over. Prayer is work; you need a breather. Now you are prepared, filled with the Spirit, and relaxed to listen to the Word of God in the scriptures.
The invitation to pray can work wonders when the response is sincere. So when we meet at mass, let us do together what we came together to do. Let us pray. AMEN.