As Mormons we often pride ourselves on avoiding “vain repetitions” by not reciting set prayers (except, you know, those ones we say every Sunday for the sacrament). Occasionally we also pause to consider our oft-repeated phrases – the “harm-or-accident” and “strengthen-and-nourish” that every child learns to parrot. I think it may be time to put “bless” in that same category.
I started thinking about this after a recent public prayer. Out of respect, I won’t identify the speaker. But since it was recorded I can quote the key phrases.
The person giving the prayer thanked the Lord on our behalf “for priesthood power which blesses all of our lives,” for “the Atonement … and the way it blesses us continually,” and for “the many blessings which the restored gospel brings to our lives.” The individual asked that the Lord would “strengthen and sustain and bless” Pres. Monson, “be with and bless all those who” participated, “and bless those” who were listening.  The member concluded by stating that “we ask this blessing this day.”
I was left wondering what, exactly, we had just prayed for. Priesthood power, the Atonement, and the restored gospel have all improved my life, but not in the same ways. If the gifts related to them are multiple and continuous, couldn’t we list some specifically? How exactly were we hoping the Lord will bless Pres. Monson beyond strengthening and sustaining him? What were we asking the Lord to do for those who participate and listen? Described as a “blessing,” the prayer seemed to be less than the sum of its parts.
Am I being overly critical of this single prayer? Certainly. But I also think there is a real loss when we adopt such unspecific language in our communication with Deity. If, as we are fond of quoting from the Bible Dictionary, “The object of prayer is … to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them,” then shouldn’t we be specific? “Ask and ye shall receive.” If we ask for generic blessings, will we receive generic blessings?
Thinking about specific prayers brings to mind Alma’s prayer on his mission to the Zoramites. I’ll not copy the whole thing here, but it’s worth a read. In ten verses I count eight separate instances where Alma asks the Lord “wilt thou …” followed by requests for such specific blessings as “strength, that I may bear with mine infirmities” and “comfort my soul, and give unto me success, and also my fellow laborers who are with me.” For those who have served missions, yes, Alma just used the commitment pattern (“will you…”) on God. That’s specific (and bold).
In contrast to Alma’s example, I fear that our prayers have grown too generic. I hear this in our public prayers, where those speaking might understandably reach for platitudes in order to be inoffensive and inclusive. But I worry that that example may seep into our personal communication with God, watering down an experience that is most rewarding when it is specific, direct, personal, and heartfelt.
Taking “bless” and “blessing” out of our prayers won’t be easy. Trust me, I’ve been trying it for a few days now and am finding that the words are insidious, popping up unexpectedly at every turn. But the effort has been worthwhile as I find myself thinking more carefully about what I really want from my food, what I am actually grateful for, what I sincerely hope for others and for my family, and what tremendous blessings – oops, there it is again! – God has given me. I hope you’ll join me in eliminating empty “blessings” from our prayers and begin instead to name them one by one.
 Here the speaker did get a bit more specific, adding a request that God would “Open our hearts and our minds to receive the messages that we need to hear this day, that we may be more resolved to keep thy commandments and to serve others,” a welcome detour into detail.
 “Prayer,” LDS Bible Dictionary (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/bd/prayer)
I think that suggesting because some one saying a prayer uses the term “bless” frequently– a term the Savior also used frequently in Holy writ– it means the person wasn’t really saying anything is pretty judgmental.
If this person had spoken of everything and everyone he was asking the Lord to bless in specific terms and how he wanted the Lord to do it, I wonder if you would have written a blog about how our prayers are too verbose or that God doesn’t want to hear our vain ramblings or any other thing that might annoy you about how another person prays to God.
As I tried to make clear, I shared this particular example not to condemn this one speaker but by way of illustration because it caught my attention. See, for instance, this passage from above:
“Am I being overly critical of this single prayer? Certainly. But I also think there is a real loss when we adopt such unspecific language in our communication with Deity.”
Notice that I said “we,” because I think this is something that we can all wrestle with. So if I’m being judgmental, I’m judging myself as much as others in an attempt to improve. (A difficult attempt, as I mentioned in my last paragraph.)
I’m not sure why you suspect that I’m primarily motivated by annoyance and would have criticized this prayer regardless of content. But imagine for a moment that I did write the alternate posts you suggest. What would be wrong with that? We know for certain that God doesn’t want to hear our ‘vain ramblings’ (Matt. 6:7). Are we not capable of being both too verbose and too general in our prayers (sometimes simultaneously)? It seems to me that each are to be avoided in favor of direct, heartfelt, sincere prayer – whether in public or in private. Is that a goal we can agree on, regardless of how well I expressed my sentiments above?
The problem with never saying “set prayers” is that the extemporaneous ones are never deeper than the person uttering them— and very few, if any, of us are very deep at all.
Or to put it positively, the value of tradition is that the prayers of the deepest and most insightful not only are remembered, but become a model and means for us to enter into the same depths that they expressed.
There are other values as well, such as connecting with a range of important themes (for lack of a better word) within the whole tradition of revelation. Accordingly, even on the cross, Jesus himself evidently felt the “best” thing to say would be Psalm 22. The gospel writers assume you know the whole thing, but if not, ya gotta read the whole thing to get where he was at.