For some people, prayer is all about memorizing. It’s line after line, conscripted, contrived, passed from generation to generation. It’s what we do when we bow our head, bend our knees. The words unfurl so swiftly, so blurrily, young children are forever tangling the lines. “Our Father, who are in heaven, Howard be thy name.” Or: “. . . how’d you know my name?”
But prayer, if we pay attention, if we deepen, breaks out of its binds. Takes flight. Bores deep. It’s free-form verse. As near as our next breath. I’ve come to believe that prayer — the prayer I love best — is the practice of paying attention. Here’s what else I’ve come to know about prayer:
1. Prayer is a verb.
Prayer to the nth power is prayer in action. Prayer is the hundred thousand little acts of kindness, of hope, of selflessness we stitch into the day. It’s stirring porridge on a cold winter’s morning for those we love, still nestled in beds. Delivering a piping-hot casserole, or a store-bought cake, to a lonely neighbor. Prayer is tucking a little one into bed. Talking over the long, hard day at the kitchen counter. Prayer is rolling up your sleeves and scrubbing a sick friend’s bathroom floor. Prayer is at its glorious best when we soar beyond words. It’s what we do and how we breathe.
2. Prayer seeps into our depths.
Sometimes, when I’m perched at the precipice, teetering toward the vast inky pit that is despair at its darkest, or sadness or worry in gradations of gray, I lean into the one of which I’m sure: God. I take a lung-filling breath and rest against what I know to be tender and solid and always there — once I quiet the noise of my own making, that is.
I begin, sometimes, with two simple words: “Take this.” Or, maybe, “You there?” Then, as my breathing slows, I feel as if a hand is pressed against the small of my back, as if my shoulders are blanketed. I’m steadied. I’m filling — with hope and holy whisper. It’s the whisper of God, gently tapping me upside the noggin and deep in the heart, reminding: I’m here, right here. And I’m not leaving.
3. Prayer needs no words.
(See No. 1). But also, prayer is breathing. It is inhabiting the holy sphere where we know we’re bathed in Pure Light. Where, as with a dearest soul mate, we can sit side-by-side, wrapped in silence. Rather than trying to wedge thoughts into syllables, we wordlessly drink in all that’s around us. We marvel. We inhale. We listen. We imagine the sparks of the divine sinking deep down into the whole of us — lifting us up, keeping us afloat, leaning into the great tender arms that are God’s.
4. Prayer helps us leap.
When we’re racked with fear, when we’ve worn ourselves to the bone, worrying, weighing this choice or that, we are ultimately left with two options: quake at the hard edge of indecision, paralysis, or leap. Leap, knowing — believing — we’ll be propelled, held, by that which guides us into the unknown. Sometimes all it takes is the words of a prayer — whispering, “Be with me now,” or “Which way, God?” — to propel us into the necessary flight, the one we can’t launch all on our own. Most especially when the only word we can utter is, “Help!”
5. Prayer is rooted in paradox.
Prayer draws us deep into uncharted chambers of the heart where we discover truths and behold not-before-revealed beauties and wisdoms. The quieter we become, the more intently we focus on all that’s within, the more closely we can examine the landscape of our own hearts and souls.
We might see with exquisite new detail a beauty that’s always been there, one that had been clouded by a barrage of second-guessing or criticism — from others, from ourselves. We might at last hear a truth, one that’s been waiting to emerge from the din. So, through the act of turning in, we find ourselves rising in the Holy Spiral toward a place we’ve only hoped to someday soar. Thus, the paradox: as prayer deepens us, it simultaneously vaults us into ascension.
6. Prayer is a refuge.
There’s a tucked-away shelter from all the world’s chatter, the incessant baying, the so many know-it-alls who can’t keep from pontificating, blowing hot air. It’s called prayer. It’s the zone where we tune out the noise, and deep-dive into the one channel — the back-and-forth flow — that quenches our deepest thirst, that sharpens our direction, that gives us a clue where to plant that next footstep. It’s God, and God’s here 24/7.
Here’s how you dial in: extract yourself from the modern-day melee; it needn’t be for too long. Unplug (unless your ear buds are washing you, say, in Gregorian chant or twelfth-century symphonia of Hildegard of Bingen). Carve out a slice of quietude. Cobble the scant few words that begin to connect you, to open the channel. Drink in the heavenly dialogue.
7. Prayer can happen anywhere.
Prayer is the original, portable, all-purpose soul-saver. You can pray on a bus or a plane or a train or while twiddling your thumbs in a hospital waiting room. You can do it while idling at a red light, especially if a fellow hawking the papers has just asked you for a dollar. You can do it while climbing the stairs or loping toward the finish line. You needn’t follow a script — only the one inscribed in your heart.
8. Prayer can simply be gratitude.
The world is stitched with “on switches” for prayer — the brushstrokes of beauty and wonder that unlock the channels, and draw us straight to the heart of the divine. My everyday litany, a quotidian sampler of thanks upon thanks: my rambling garden. The just-blooming bottle brushes of late summer’s hydrangea. The pit-a-pat of rain. The sound of my firstborn’s footsteps from the bedroom just above, knowing he’s home, and I’m awash in deepest gratitude. The scarlet flash of papa cardinal. The chatter of the sparrows who’ve made their home just above the front door, in a little cove they’ve pecked away with their insistent sparrow beaks. Any one of these can ignite the spark of prayer, and set me hurling down stanza and verse of gratitude.
9. Prayer can be messy.
Have you ever choked out your words? Have you ever been so stricken you could barely sputter a syllable? Have you ever jumbled your thoughts? Welcome to prayer, where no poetry is required, and all that God asks is for us to begin. Prayer is the language of our deepest desiring, of our shattered hearts and hopes and dreams. Prayer is plaintalk — plaintalk with God. No one is grading. Just open your heart, and know that someone — one Holy Someone — is listening.
10. Prayer is an act of holy surrender.
To pray, sometimes, is to wholly surrender, to employ the mothertongue as ancient as any known. The moment comes, at last, for all of us fumbling humans, when we turn over to the divine our words, our breath, our heart’s deepest utterance. We fill in the blanks with supplications that wash out from deep inside of us, and over us, and far into the beyond. Sometimes, prayer serves as unbroken backbeat to the unspooling day.
We pray for hours if we have to, keeping on with all the rest we do. Not letting on that prayer is deep at work. We might mumble words, or return to rhythms long ago learned. We drop to our knees. We sprinkle holy water, head and chest and shoulders. We turn east. We genuflect. We lay down and stretch our arms as high as we can reach. We venerate. We call on saints, and the ones we love who are no longer, but might well race to the holy blessed rescue. There is an alchemy to prayer, a mysticism that cannot be explained. It is holy pleading raised to the highest heights.
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