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.