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Don't Pray Like a Parrot

A long, long time ago...back when I had bangs and wore massive sweatshirts to school, my family had a parrot we called "Birdie." We taught this parrot phrases and I even tried to teach this parrot how to pick out playing cards based on numbers and colors. This bird was a bit of a silly genius at times and other times, it could be super creepy. Every Christmas it would see the house decorations and exclaim "HAPPY EASTER BASKET!" and when Easter came, we would get a drawn out and somewhat eerie "Merry Christmas" in a scratchy, baritone voice. In spite of its inability to tell one holiday from another, it learned how to mimic quite a few phrases and sounds, the creepiest of which was the laugh of one of my parents' good friends. For whatever reason, the parrot picked up the habit of trying out this laugh when it was dark and quiet. One minute you'd hear crickets chirping outside, and the next minute you would hear a low-pitched, hollow laugh that belonged in a movie like the Shining and not your typical suburban household.

Some species of parrot, especially the African Grey, can learn to say quite a few things. According to a Benedictine padre in the monastery I frequent, there are two parrots in Sri Lanka that were once housed in a convent. These parrots learned how to recite the prayers of the rosary. This padre made a point that people can sometimes pray like these birds. They can pray mechanically, without feeling or emphasis...or even and understanding of what they are praying. It is impressive when parrots can "pray" like this, but it is not so impressive when people pray like this.

As much as we may hate to admit it, we are sometimes guilty of praying like parrots. In our everyday hectic lives, we may quickly recite a prayer out of necessity or habit without really pausing to reflect on the significance of each word of this prayer...or the significance of even being able to address God as "Father." We may simply recite the act of Contrition during mass more out of habit than piety...simply reciting the words to this prayer without considering the need for reconciliation with God after we sin. I don't know about you, but I know I have been guilty of praying the rosary in parrot mode during those hectic days when I just want to be over and done with my prayers. In these instances, I may not realize it, but I am simply reciting a series of words out of obligation to daily rhythm rather than praying from the heart. We've all been there and we will all reach points in our lives when we turn into prayer life parrots. We are only human.
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It is rather sad, actually, when people turn prayer into a simple recitation of a series of words from memory. It is sad because this mechanical prayer business pulls us farther and farther away from God. When you pray like this, you will find it harder to feel God's presence. You will find it harder to feel the power that comes with the Holy Spirit, the power that can flow from God, through you, and to a world in desperate need of miracles and holy people. Miracles can come through devout prayer. They cannot come through rote memorization of words. You can work miracles through prayer if your prayers allow you to orient yourself towards God, if your prayers make your soul stir with an ardent faith. You cannot do any of this if you treat prayer like a mere series of words.

When you pray like a parrot, you mechanically repeat a series of words you have learned. You aren't dwelling on God's word or the purpose that God has given you. You are not really communicating with God as if He were a loving Father. You aren't really talking to Christ in a way that acknowledges his significance in your life. You are simply repeating words without any real emotion, words whose meaning is lost to you. Parrot prayers result in your distancing yourself from God. They turn God into some kind of entity that is too far to reach and too unconcerned with your life. You owe it to yourself to avoid parrot prayer at all costs. Firstly, prayer should not be treated as a magical spell or formula that must be recited daily in order for you to consider yourself in good standing with God. Prayer should allow you to not only converse with God, but to listen to Him as well.

Prayer should make you feel alive. It should lift you to heights that are normally explored by angels if it is a prayer of praise. It should be a transcendent experience that breaks the barriers that currently separate the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of God, allowing miracles to triumph medical impossibilities if it is a prayer of intercession. It should bring you to your knees, knocking the wind out of your lungs if it is a prayer of repentance. This type of prayer helps you experience God being closer to you than the air you breathe. This type of prayer helps you truly experience the company of saints and angels in your everyday life whenever you need their support.

Today, I prayed the St. Michael prayer in a truly powerful, powerful way with a priest. As I prayed, a felt a power rushing over me, a power that could easily vanquish all evil. It was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Even though I felt the tranquility of God's peace upon me, my knees were shaking and I was almost breathless as I prayed. There was an emphasis with each word and the priest helped me envision Pope Leo creating this prayer as a defense against the evils of this world. At the end of this prayer, it felt as if I had been exorcised of all the doubts, fears, and sadness that had been afflicting me off and on for the past month or so. At the conclusion of this prayer, I felt a peace that I had not felt in some time. I was strengthened, and the blessings that came with a devout recitation of this prayer were more than tangible. I even ugly-cried...though the priest assured me that even ugly crying was an incarnation of the gift of tears. After experiencing this from one St. Michael prayer, I have resolved to avoid parrot prayers at all costs.

Henceforth, I will try to do the following in order to ensure a faithful, powerful, transcendent, and even mystical prayer life:

1. Focus on the biblical history of each prayer. Put myself in the scripture passages that these prayers were based on and try to envision God's universe as explained by each prayer.

2. Meditate upon the words used in each prayer and the images they evoke. This will help me better understand how normal people like me become saints...and hopefully lead me to a more holy life.

3. Speak with God. I need to speak more extemporaneously and more often. Speaking to God as I would to my dad may help me better appreciate God as Father.

4. Listen to God. This is very important because I do feel that God often sends me warnings and advice in the most unexpected ways. I should trust in God more so that I can better hear Him when He does try to help me through this life.

5. Take my time. I need to take my time with prayer. Rushing through prayer is a one-way ticket to parrot prayer and its consequences. I probably can add hours to my prayer life if I use my time more wisely. Who needs to take pointless online quizzes anyway? We all have time that can better be why not invest it in a better prayer life.

6. Depend on God and trust Him completely. I should pray with a fire in my heart as well as an ardent trust in God. I should pray KNOWING that He will help me in the best way possible...and simply trust in Him when that way does not conform to my own way.

7. Follow the Holy Spirit. If you feel a nudge to give a homeless person $20 while you are praying or conversing with God...then DO IT. God will work great things through you if you give Him a chance.

8 Ask for help. There is an army of saints, angels, and souls in purgatory that want to help us get closer to God. What better way to attain holiness than by asking for the intercession of those who have been in our shoes before. They understand our flaws well and want to help us make it to heaven...even when we may not have heaven in mind. God will help you too...if you open your heart to Him.

9. Pray with Love. The most powerful prayers are the prayers that start with love. Love of my savior on the cross. Love of the poor old woman who sifts through trash cans at Penn Station for recyclables. Love of the weak and vulnerable. Love of family. Love of life. When you pray with love, you pray with Christ because He is love.

10. Pray with feeling. Emotional prayers can be extremely powerful experiences...and what better way to pray than to pray with joy, contrition, etc. You can even ugly cry during prayer. God doesn't mind even the snottiest ugly cry if it heals you, draws you nearer to him, or helps you turn your life around. God made us the emotional beings that we are and what better way to celebrate this than to pray with feeling.

I am sure that it will all get easier once I have more practice, but I think these are good ways to start turning my prayer life into something more meaningful and powerful than my typical subway rosary. I am very excited to move forward in my prayer life and hope that today's experience is a sign of experiences to come.

Pax Vobiscum


  1. Ah, what a wonderful image of the way I (groan) so often pray: like a parrot.

    Every single suggestion that you make, 1 through 10, is excellent but I particularly relish numbers 3 through 6.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this post.

    1. It is very hard to NOT pray like a parrot in such a hectic world! Still, I think there is some merit to at least trying to pray with your heart in it. Thank you for reading and also for the link to the Can we Cana? I've checked it out and it looks like it may have been an answer to a prayer of mine. I will have to explore it further once I get a good, long quiet moment to myself.

  2. It occurs to me that one way to avoid the "pray like a parrot" syndrome is to pray shorter prayers BUT pray them with real devotion. Prayer is a bit of a muscle that we have to exercise to strengthen. We can go "greater distances" if we begin with baby steps.

    Another matter: We can always chat with Jesus while doing mindless things like washing dishes, walking to the subway, etc., etc., something I try to do instead of my usual Talk Radio addiction.

    I'm not surprised that you like "Can We Cana" so much. It's a wonderful blog and I think you will enjoy reading it.

    Again, wonderful post; thanks for writing it.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I don't normally remove comments from my blog, but I refuse to leave comments like this one up as they will do nothing but spread error and heresy. You may choose not to believe in Vatican II, but I will not allow you to pass yourself off as Catholic on my blog. I simply refuse to allow you to lead souls astray with your fire and brimstone heresies. You do not believe a post-Vatican II Catholic Church, and this makes you some kind of Protestant...not Catholic. Stop lying to yourself and to others. I have no problem with garden variety Protestants, but take issue with protestants passing off as Catholics. I absolutely refuse to allow your misguided interpretation of true Catholicism here and will delete any other spam comment you may leave here. May God grant you clarity and may he forgive you for your stubborn ignorance.

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