"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

14 February 2010

Prayer Musings

Now that I am back in the land of the living and have graded enough homework to justify procrastinating again for a few minutes, I see that I have written nothing here in quite some time. Many thanks to all who have prayed for and encouraged and helped me out these past three weeks; you have reminded me of the unmeasurable value of this family God has given us.

A friend gave me a couple of books by Lauren Winner recently, and I've read through Mudhouse Sabbath over the course of the weekend, between grading bouts. Winner converted to Christianity from Judaism, and this book explores Jewish traditions that she has found to usefully inform her Christian walk. Each chapter is titled with a Hebrew or Yiddish word, and she addresses the following: the Sabbath, food, mourning, hospitality, prayer, the body, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings, and the marking of doorposts. She carefully recognizes essential differences between the two traditions because of Christ's sacrifice to save us by faith, but thoughtfully and beautifully shows the essential likenesses and how we can be strengthened by recognition of the tradition that, after all, gave birth to our Savior.

This morning an acquaintance posted a link concerning the Rosary, and shortly after reading that article, I read Winner's chapter on prayer. These reminded me of a tension and frustration I have experienced with prayer for many, many years.

I am not well disciplined to pray. I'm attracted to thoughts like Coleridge's in "The Pains of Sleep":

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees ;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation,

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication ;

A sense o'er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal Strength and Wisdom are.

Of course, the attraction lies in the ease of it -- no need to think, to actually articulate confession or supplication or praise -- just feel the love of God and be at peace. Fine as far as it goes, I suppose, but it can't be the end-all and be-all of prayer, not if we are to be in thoughtful relationship with God.

But little that I do seems to help me with formal, disciplined prayer. I take a walk determined to pray but my surroundings or my thoughts take over within minutes (or, more likely, seconds). I write lists of things to pray about but think about them instead. I try to visualize but my brain refuses. And on and on.

The article and the chapter I read this morning pointed up something that I've thought about often and seemed to confirm -- that I've been cheated out of a liturgical foundation of common, memorized and repeated prayer that could help me with this sad lack of discipline.

I was raised in a mainstream Protestant denomination and have attended evangelical churches all my life. There seems to be almost a horror of any but absolutely spontaneous prayer. A written prayer lacks true feeling or sincerity, it is feared. A repeated prayer is mere rote repetition of no value -- because repetition can be vain, it must therefore always be vain, seems to be the thinking. So we endure spontaneous, sincere prayer everywhere: "um God, we'd just like to, um, you know . . . just ask You, um . . ."

I remember being startled at a challenge I read somewhere to actually ask God our questions -- pose them in the form of questions. We always say, "We'd just like to ask you to . . ." But what if we said it as a question: "God, will you . . .?" It changed my understanding of supplication and made me realize just what it means to ask God for something. It's a great deal more awesome and frightening to be direct, and it's helped me to begin avoiding a bit of my silly and selfish "asking."

But what about repeated prayer? I went to a funeral for one of my professors when I was in grad school. He had been Episcopalian, and I fell in love with the prayers we read from the prayer books stocked in the pews. They were profound, they were eloquent, they spoke truth. Where have these prayers been all my life, I thought. But a friend tried to set me straight -- oh, they don't really mean anything, they're just rote because people say them all the time -- vain repetition, you know.

I wondered why such repetition had to be vain. Couldn't someone repeat these prayers day after day and mean them? Repeat them and be comforted by them, challenged by them?

Winner addresses what she calls liturgical prayer in the Jewish tradition, explaining the many memorized and constantly repeated prayers throughout the day, the week, the year. Of course the prayers can become rote, she admits, but if this "is a danger," she goes on, "it is also the way liturgy works. When you don't have to think all the time about what words you are going to say next, you are free to fully enter into the act of praying; you are free to participate in the life of God." She adds that when she has set aside her prayer book (a Christian prayer book now, of course) for weeks or months, she finds that she slides into narcissism, and a return to the set prayers "places [her]" in "words that ask [her] to confess [her] sins [. . .], to pray for [others . . .], that praise God even on the mornings when [she] wonder[s] if God exists at all."

I long for this experience. I try -- I own the Book of Common Prayer and the Divine Hours books, but I lack the discipline to stay with them. Mostly this is my laziness. But I blame it in part on never encountering liturgical prayer, never memorizing anything but the Our Father, and now it's harder and harder, on my own as a good Protestant is expected to be in his quiet time, to know how to do this and to do it well. But I need it. I need to praise God whether I feel like it or not, bring my loved ones to Him whether I really believe He will act in their lives or not, confess my sins when I'm arrogant enough to think they haven't been all that bad. And I need prayers that I can rely on when my own words fail me . . .

There's no special point to this rambling, I suppose. Just thoughts that dog me and a desire to say them and hope that in the saying maybe I will find more courage and more discipline to act as I believe would help me. I wish to observe Lent in some meaningful way this year. Perhaps I can somehow make the discipline of prayer a part of that.


Elisa said...

I needed to read this. Thanks for the challenge!

alaiyo said...

Thanks for visiting, dear heart -- so glad when you do!