Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

09 February 2007

My Ongoing Struggle with Prayer

I don't know how many friends and preachers have told me that prayer is as much about listening for God's response as about speaking to God. That my words are just one half of a dialogue with God. Still, I continue to struggle—oh how I struggle—with the notion of prayer.

I won’t apologize for this. After all, even the disciples were all about failure to pray. Like us, they had Jesus himself as a model. They saw him go off by himself to pray. They listened to him pray publicly. They overheard those weirdly private public prayers of his in which he told his father stuff like, I know you’re already doing this, but I am just saying this for the benefit of those listening. And yet, they didn’t pray enough—or perhaps the correct way—to cast out demons on at least one occasion. And they fell asleep instead of praying in Gethsemane. And, most importantly, they questioned Jesus about how to pray. They were, in other words, just like me in this. They were worried about prayer. They decided, or feared, or fantasized, that there might be some right way to pray—the way John the Baptist prayed, perhaps, or Henri Nouwen, or the way some dorky self-help book on morning devotions described what the author did each day, or the way some preacher told them was how prayer was supposed to be done—and they weren’t doing it that way. Their prayers felt inadequate, somehow. I know they did. This is how I perpetually feel about prayer.

Don’t get me wrong. I pray. I prayed as a child. Nowadays, as then, I pray on mostly on an as-needed basis. I worry on behalf of others, a kind of intercessory prayer, I think. (I call it pray-worrying, often in emails, as in, Sally, I've been pray-worrying about your insomnia, and here's what occurred to me.) I also get great relief, many nights, from silently talking to God, so to speak, and knowing that he’s listening. (It’s more like thinking than actually talking. If I talked, I'd wake Kris, beside me in the bed, sleeping the rest God promises those who love him. And I don't generally consider what I think to or about others to be actually talking to them.) In my years of atheism, the prayers of my lost faith were what I missed most. Asking. Complaining. Being comforted. Feeling heard.

But. I don’t know what to say here. How to transition from this obvious knowing how to pray that I have had from babyhood—and there is this sense that we all, deep down, actually do know how to pray without being told—to the abiding conviction that my “prayer-life,” if there is such a thing, is somehow faulty? Is it just the influence of the sort of people who use such terms as “prayer-life” that devalues my habits? Or is there really some better way to pray, some more mature way of praying beyond the crying out like a newborn and being comforted?

I keep thinking about this, toying it. It’s a deceptively easy subject, it seems to me. Kris says I worry about it too much. A lot of people tell me this about a lot of things, and they are surely right. Every one of those Fear-not!’s in the Bible was intended for me, I think. Kris, in any case, says, "Prayer is just talking to God. Like in a normal conversation."

But here’s the thing. In most of the conversations I have with anyone else but God, the person responds. Out loud. In audible words. In my language—or at least in a language which I can understand and recognize as language. Which is not how God does it. (Unless, of course, my experience of God really is far more limited than I know about, oh worry, worry, worry. Please, whoever’s reading this, do NOT tell me that you hear an audible voice. It will upset me and cause me to worry even more and covet your greater faith and holiness and such.)

So, I have decided here to consider the way those other conversations I have had—the ones that did not involve the other person audibly responding in recognizable words—to see what might be found there about the nature of prayer. Aside from mental telepathy, which I can't seem to make it work the way it's supposed to, and talking to the radio, which poses similar difficulties, these one-sided conversations fall into two categories for me. Well, three. Conversations with babies. Conversations with animals (mostly dogs and cows, but also hurt birds and moles I have found in the yard and the emaciated lizard that lives in an aquarium in Lulu's room). And conversations with dying people who are able to hear and process what I am saying but are not able to respond.

In all of these instances—with babies, with animals, and with people rendered mute as a result of disease—I held conversations, first of all, by paying attention to nonverbal responses. Eye rolling. Smiling. A look of request or gratitude. Wailing. The cessation of wailing. “Was the baby wanting Mama? Does she have a poopy diaper? Mama’s going to change it. Yes, Mama’s getting rid of that old nasty diaper. Oh, what now? Does Baby want the keys? Here are the keys. Here they are. Yes, Charlotte likes the keys, doesn’t she?”

Also, as you can see with that baby, I asked a lot of questions. Similarly, a “conversation” with a cow was usually a series of questions—“Does it hurt? Do you want it here, or here? Oh, sweet one, are you looking for your baby?”—followed by a few reassuring answers, or, better, by dragging the hay or the water or the newborn calf where the cow could reach it.

Finally, I typically supplied answers for my silent conversation partner. The best example is with the mortally sick person in the hospital. When my husband’s aunt lay dying, she couldn’t close her mouth, and her chemotherapy-blackened tongue was cracked and dry-looking. I knew she was desperately thirsty. She panted heavily. Every time I caught her eye, she directed her gaze meaningfully at the table by the bed, where, in the days before, we had kept a cup of ice chips to give her. But she could no longer swallow or even keep the ice in her mouth, so the nurses gave me a swab to wet and stroke her poor black tongue with. “You’re thirsty,” I told her. “There, you like that. That feels good, doesn’t it? That’s enough now. You’re wondering where George is. He’s gone to get something to eat. Yes, that’s good. He had your Jell-O at lunch. That was all. He wasn't hungry. Too worried about you. You don't want him to worry, I know. You want me to tell him that. Yes, he doesn't need to worry, does he? It's going to be okay.”

These are inadequate examples of conversations with God, I know. God’s not a baby or a cow or a dying person. And he’s certainly not incapable of responding. He's not incapable of anything, except maybe not loving us. But what I get from thinking about these conversations with the mute is something relevant, I think, to how we, of necessity, talk to a silent, invisible, conversation partner like God.

First off, in praying, we have to pay attention to non-verbal information rather than direct responses. Events. Preexisting evidence of truth. Divine gestures, like awe-inspiring weather conditions, a potted plant suddenly blooming, or an auto accident involving the child of friends that suddenly thrusts one’s pettier complaints into perspective. I say we have to pay attention to these things, but, in truth, I think we often do it unconsciously. Sometimes, even, to an obsessive degree, resulting in superstitions and misguided notions about how God works, or ought to work, in our lives. Nevertheless, I believe God does respond to us in such gestures. This idea especially bothers a non-believing friend of mine, who makes much mock of Christians’ egotistical notion that God would cause rain or redirect the attention to a car wreck or orchestrate a bright pink sunrise just for one person praying. Absurd, yes, but, I think, true. (What a burpy little “sentence,” with all those commas. I like it.)

Second, prayer, like conversation with a mute partner, inevitably involves questions. Lots of questions. Sometimes nothing but questions. Questions one is forced to answer oneself, usually with a reassuring offer to take some action. I’m coming. I’m here. I’m ready to do what you want me to.

Finally, if engaging in more involved discussion with God than the prayer-equivalent of reassuring a baby or offering to swab a tongue, one has to be ready to supply both sides of the conversation. Supplying another’s unspoken response is possible only to the degree that one is familiar with that person and can recreate what he or she is likely to be thinking. The ability to predict another’s thoughts is, of course, dependent on some degree of previous interaction with that person. Knowing what the person likes and despises, what topics are important to the person, what the person has said in the past.

God’s past utterances, of course, are helpful here. And luckily, lots of them are recorded where we can check and make sure we’re right about them. We can look them up and cross-reference them and read them in all kinds of translations, get down to the word level, parse them. That, then—our rehashing, if you will, of God’s side of the conversation, of his gestures, the history of our relationship with him, his words on the pages of our Bibles—is what, for today, I have decided that my more experienced Christian friends must mean when they say that prayer is “just being quiet and listening to God.”

It’s the being quiet I take issue with, in part. I mean, unlike in a real conversation, even a conversation with someone who can’t speak aloud, prayer is usually conducted in complete silence. Neither part—not my speaking to God, not his replying to me—is noisy. Or, if we consider our own wordless input to be the opposite of “quiet,” the noise of the prayer that we must silence in order to hear God speak, then God’s input—that is, his wordless response housed in our own thoughts—is no less noisy. If prayer is to be conceived of as a conversation at all, I think, then it’s all about speaking. Speaking for ourselves and speaking, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, for God.

One last thought. Interestingly, one doesn’t make many requests of babies, animals, or dying people. But prayer does involve requests of God. Or, at least, all of Jesus’ recorded prayers to our Father did.

So, conversely to everything I have written here, perhaps, in praying, it is we who are the mute ones—the babies, the animals, the one who lies dying on the raised bed. We think we are doing the speaking when we pray—casting our thoughts out to some invisible, silent troller of words—but actually we are the ones lying awake and voiceless, listening, trying to respond, wanting to cry out and make our needs known, but, ultimately, silent, while God leans over us and speaks and speaks and speaks and speaks.


Spring said...

What a wonderful Friday surprise.

Prayer was never an issue for me until I began thinking too much about it, which, of course, happened in college. I wrote a blog post about prayer several months ago, and it was actually quite similar to this. I love that you gave a name to something I've felt for a long time to be a valid method: worry-prayer. I love it. I might have to steal it.

I gave up actual prayer by the conventional definition (head bowed, eyes closed, lips moving silently) a while ago. I just can't pray like that anymore. I can't talk to God unless something really terrible is going on. This past week when I was suddenly overcome by a high fever and body aches and nausea, I lay in bed, holding my stomach, asking God to help me feel better. I suppose that's what you call the as-needed basis. God knows that I hate nothing more than throwing up.

Sometimes, when I feel gripped by anxiety, I pray the Jesus prayer, the prayer highlighted in Franny & Zooey, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner." And every Monday morning, all members of staff here at the church stand up together and say the Lord's Prayer. I cannot say it without imagining Laurie McKinnon's hand motions that go along with it. But because most Episcopalians pray with their eyes open, I refrain from actually performing the motions.

Last weekend I went to Denver to become an accredited teacher in our children's Sunday school program, called Godly Play. We adults participated in a full session the first night of the three-day event. A session involves a Bible story (told similar to the way Jesus told parables, but with figurines and other symbolic pieces), then art response time, and then the Feast, which is really just crackers and juice. Before the Feast, our teacher asked us to each pray a prayer. But as I felt the air suck out of the room, she told us that prayer is different for everyone. She looked us all in the eye, explaining the different kinds of prayer. Sometimes prayers are memorized and spoken aloud, and sometimes prayer is a spur-of-the-moment thing, where we blurt out what we're thinking. Sometimes we pray silently, in our heads, with our thoughts. And sometimes we can even pray without words.

I suppose that last one is the method I've taken on in my adulthood. Each time I toil under stress or appreciate a beautiful day or bask in the sunlight or feel my eyes light up or bang my head against my palm or tenderly touch my dog or feel like my heart will explode with love for my husband, I like to think that my body is in direct communication with God. And all I have to do is be me, and that's enough.

ali said...

i hear an audible voice.

Spring said...

Ali is awesome.

Last night I realized my comment is probably blasphemous.