Prayer has never been easy for me. My first recollection of how to pray comes from the print images of apple-cheeked cherubs in very crisp pajamas kneeling beside their beds, saying their bedtime prayers. Okay, so that’s what you do. Even as a small person, it never seemed natural or authentic. A rote recitation of someone else’s words to an authoritarian somebody with whom I would never shake hands. Despite many, many starts, it never lasted.
I don’t recall discussing prayer during confirmation classes. Time was spent on learning the Lutheran ‘codex’: the ten commandments, the apostles’ creed, the Lord’s prayer, the two sacraments and the office of the keys...all through the lens of Martin Luther. Prayer was what Pastor Gastmeier said and we answered, “amen”. And, after confirmation classes ended and adolescence beckoned, prayer was what was done at mealtimes and in church on Sunday. Amen.
Fast forward four decades. Prayer has become a question that is being wrestled with, willingly and happily. So, for now, whenever and wherever I pray, I choose to think about prayer, in that place and time, as it relates to my evolving understanding of prayer.
For example, intercessory prayer has become a vehicle for me to meditate on the needs of those on whose behalf intercessions are being made. I cannot reconcile my understanding of the Trinity with making specific requests on the behalf of others and expecting favourable outcomes from God . What I can understand is holding the needs of those for whom we pray in my head and heart, questioning what my role in the request could be and then giving the request over to the mystery of faith.
Centering prayer has become a twice-daily (in the best of times) pause that stills my mind (in the best of times) as I sit in the silent mystery of faith. It is yet another example of paradox: it is so simple in concept but extremely difficult to master; it is so beneficial but so easy to miss a session; it is as old as time but new to the modern church.
St Augustine said that when we sing, we are praying twice. (Well, I had always thought that Luther had said that first. I was told that by another Lutheran, a long time ago, as an explanation why Lutherans consider themselves “The Singing Church”. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the phrase had been coined at least a thousand years earlier than Luther!) Thus, when I am singing hymns, I try to concentrate on the words carefully and on the way that I am singing, that I sing with ardour (sorry, pew neighbours!). Surprisingly, Sunday’s hymns will echo at the oddest moments, later in the week.
And today; it was my turn to prepare a meal for Carol. Since receiving the call from Marie Jones, I have anticipated what I would prepare while reflecting on Carol and her sister Jane during this important time in both of their lives. My food preparation was a prayer for both of them; labora et ora intertwined.
The thoughts about prayer surfaced as I made my way through the familiar recipe. Blog material, I said knowing that a blog deadline was staring me in the face. When the stew had finally reached its simmer, I took a break and checked our mailbox. In with the bills and admail was my first edition of “The Monastic Way”, a monthly publication with daily reflections by Joan Chittester, a bestselling author, an international lecturer, a leading voice in contemporary spirituality and a Benedictine nun. The cover page had a beautiful photograph of a cathedral window; below it was the following saying: “Never pray in a room without windows”, The Talmud. Hmmm. I open the edition and read the month’s essay: “Pray into the Fullness of Life”. It was one of those moments of synchronicity that catches you and holds you for awhile.
I share her essay with you.
Pray into the Fullness of Life by Joan Chittester, OSB
When I was a young nun, I spent a lot of time watching the older sisters in chapel. When community prayer was over, and the chapel lights went dim, some of them simply settled back in their pew in a kind of comfortable presence. No prayer book in hand, no spiritual reading book in front of them.
Others of them began the round of the Stations of the Cross, their faces barely lit but clearly intense as they moved from one to another of the wall hangings depicting the journey of Jesus to the cross.
A few stayed kneeling, rosaries in hand, the beads flying.
A few of the very eldest climbed the stairs to the gallery, sat in the dark and simply whispered their prayers out loud.
At one period in my life, I thought those prayers were the elementary ones, that the community’s praying of the Divine Office was the “real prayer’. As the years went by and I got more seasoned spiritually, I began to realize that the intensity of those “simple” prayers could only come out of a life lived in God. These were the prayers that led each of them, day after day, however differently, both into the Mind of God and the soul of life. I learned, too, that there is no one right way to pray.
The fact is that prayer is one of the most elusive concepts in the Christian lexicon.
Prayer has styles and stages, formats and prayer forms, both official and unofficial. It has been a problem-and a solution for eons. Prayer is both natural- “Oh, dear God, please help me!” and formal –“First joyful mystery: The Annunciation.” People who pray all the time often say they don’t know how to pray. And people who never pray formally, often say that they feel like they are praying all the time. So what do we make of all of this?
Formal prayers-Church prayers-carry the theology of the church about who God is. They teach us what the sacraments are about and what we seek to be in life as a community in search of the Living God.
Personal prayer, on the other hand, is about our own struggles and questions and doubts and spiritual maturation as we go through life.
But underneath it all is the real concern and purpose of prayer: The question is not whether or not God is with us; the concern is whether or not we are really with God. Aware of God. Open to God’s action in our life. Alert to the presence of God in this moment, whatever its nature, however it feels.
A personal prayer life has many styles. Some people say one rosary after another. Others join prayer groups. Some go to monasteries and pray the hours with the monastics there. For some, daily Mass is the core of their spiritual life. Many others spend hours a day and years of their life sitting in deep, Centering Prayer, emptied of all forms whatsoever, simply alive to the voice of God within.
After years of studying prayer and prayer forms, official and unofficial, what I saw in the lives of elderly sisters, I began to see as the great secret of prayer: and at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which of these styles we practice. None of them are “better” in the qualitative sense than any other. It all depends on which prayer style best fits our own personal style of life and thought and personality and sense of union with God on earth.
The only thing that really counts is a regular, unending, intense, centred relation with God, here and now, which shapes our lives and converts our hearts to good, to the world, to being the hands and hearts of the God who made us so that we would continue what creation began.
The Web Scribe