Our church is located along one side of the town plaza where all the community events occur. A few days ago when we arrived for the evening mass we discovered that there was going to be a free dance that evening on the plaza, and a band was setting up and practicing as we entered the church to pray the rosary before mass. The noise continued throughout the rosary and during the mass, which the priest shortened because the noise was so distracting.
I started to get huffy in my thoughts - "Why aren't they considerate? Why didn't someone in the local government (offices across the plaza from the church) tell them to wait until mass was finished?" Then I remembered the christians in Syria...in Nigeria...in Egypt...in Pakistan who, when they hear a disturbance outside, are hearing bombs and gunfire. They have good reason to expect martyrdom when they hear loud noises. All we had to expect is a community dance!
This thought led me to pray for all those christians in dangerous situations, and to commit to a day of prayer for them every week, especially for the priests and bishops who must guard their flock as best they can. It's times like this that I most clearly see the hand of Mother Mary teaching me how to pray as she prays, so that I might join with her and with all the saints in their prayers for us who are still fighting the battle. That is also something I pray for daily - her guidance in learning to pray more like her.
As a protestant, I knew I was drawn to prayer and intercession. I always spent a lot of time in prayer, and was involved in intercessory groups. But all that I learned about prayer in 40 years of devoting myself to it was pretty minimal compared to what I have learned through the examples of the saints since I became Catholic and gave myself permission to read their stories. And to find the treasures in written prayers! As a protestant I thought that the only prayers that God heard were the spontaneous ones, because only they could be "from the heart". How far off the mark that was! O the depths of the riches of the prayers than have been created from the hearts of the saints and prayed for centuries! The structure of these prayers is like a guideline into the depths of the human heart, deeper than I could ever go on my own, even after 40 years of trying. Just as lectio divina does in meditating on the scriptures, the prayers of the saints that we have had handed down to us draw us into reflecting on the mysteries and glories of God, and serve especially to teach us how to intercede for others "in the name of Jesus" (in the same way that He does).
Another amazing aspect of the prayers we have received from the saints is that people all over the world are praying the same prayers. And if you have a daily prayer devotion such as the Liturgy of the Hours (otherwise known as the Divine Office) or the rosary or the chaplet of divine mercy, you can be sure that many people around the world are praying the same prayers WITH you at the same time. Now THAT's the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace made manifest in the Body of Christ!
That's not to say that spontaneous prayers have no place - of course they do! They're our conversation with our Father and with the other members of our spiritual family. But some of the "set" prayers, because they don't require our minds to focus on the words, serve as our spiritual breathing in and breathing out. The classic example of this is the Jesus Prayer, much favored in the Eastern Church: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner". The Hail Mary, the chaplet of Divine Mercy, and numerous other short prayers can serve the same purpose - enabling us to "pray without ceasing", even as we give our outward attention to the tasks before us.
I'll end with the first verses of Psalm 5, which were turned into a song that we sang a lot in the 70s. It's still one of my favorites, and because of the melody the psalm is embedded in my memory and my heart.
Give ear to my words, O Lord
Consider my meditation.
Hearken unto the voice of my cry
My King and my God
For unto thee will I pray
My voice shalt thou hear in the morning.
O Lord in the morning will I direct my prayer
Unto thee and will look up.
He heeded their prayer, because they put their trust in Him (1 Chronicles 5:20b)