On my first weekly prayer post Greg asked “Why Do You Pray?” It’s a good question and one that’s been flitting around my head for the past couple of years. I’m sure I’ve read and been taught plenty on this subject over the years, but I don’t remember much of it. So, to answer that question I’m going to put down the the gut-level answers of why I pray. I don’t have a watertight, theological answer—I’ve heard many growing up and found none particularly convincing. At this point it’s just my story of how I came to pray and why I still do it.
I suppose the first answer, though not the best, to the question is that I pray because it’s what I’ve done for nearly as long as I can remember. My first prayers (which I recited faithfully) were of the typical, rote, and rather trite variety. “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for this food. Amen.” My family said that prayer at dinner time for nearly all my eighteen years of growing up. Or the bedtime ritual: “Now I lay me down to sleep, God bless Emmy, Harry, Amanda, etc., etc….” (and boy could I rattle off the names of the near and dear at breakneck speed!). Though we never talked about why we did it I nonetheless enjoyed our prayer rituals. They became associated with security, family, and a sense of stability.
In college I became frustrated with the lack of depth and any sense of “why” in my childhood prayers. I switched gears and started trying to treat prayer less like a reading of my shopping list to the cosmic clerk and more like a two-way conversation with God. I decided memorized prayer was too rote and stifling and so switched to the more spontaneous and extemporaneous variety. Trouble is, I had only ever learned one basic type of prayer, intercessory, which meant that when I prayed it still involved more of me talking and petitioning God about whatever was on my daily agenda. Additionally, strangely enough, despite being “extemporaneous,” they began sounding rather repetitive. More disturbing was that the more I listened to my prayers the more I noticed how the god I was addressing them to was strangely like me. This god had the same opinions as me and endorsed all my wants and must-haves. When I prayed it was because I was scared about my health or my job or the health of my family, etc. The thing that disturbed me was not that I was praying for these things (they are, in fact, things I care about), but that I gave so little thought to what I was asking. When I asked for a job for myself I wasn’t thinking that this prayer meant someone else wouldn’t get that job. When I prayed that my friend receive the best medical care available I neglected to realize that this meant someone else likely would get sub-par medical care as a result (Mark Twain’s War Prayer which I recited for drama in high school was what really drove this home for me). In other words, there was not a lot of “Your will be done…” to my prayers.
When the god to whom I was addressing these prayers died so did my prayer life for a while. I would try to pray (because that’s what I was supposed to do), but I couldn’t shake the disturbing feeling that I was simply talking to the wall or, worse, giving myself a pep talk about what the perfect life should look like. I really did want to touch something transcendent, to hear some word from God, and have myself changed by prayer but I just didn’t know how.
It wasn’t until well into seminary that I started discovering there were other ways to pray than what I had been taught growing up. Somehow I came across The Book of Common Prayer and found new motivation to pray. Here, especially in the Morning and Evening Rites, was instruction by the saints of the Church on how to pray. Here was a set of prayers that was both comforting in its structure and fresh with the new readings, Psalms, and supplications each day. And, finally, in the collects was a way to pray for myself and others that did not seem so given to unthinking self-interest. Soon after I also found the Oxford Book of Prayer and felt as though I had been plunged into a wealth of prayers that were both relevant and poetic. Prayer began to feel as though it were actually a spiritual discipline that centered my body and mind on those things I said I wanted my life to be about: love of God and love of neighbor. However, I still did not feel as though I was touching the transcendent or experiencing some sense of God’s presence. Mostly, I felt as though I were learning wisdom—a good thing, but not the whole of what I wanted prayer to be.
Of all things it was the last class I took at seminary, a class on Spirituality for which I had very low hopes, that gave me ways of praying that made prayer more like food for a hungry beggar than one more thing to check off on my spiritual PDA. Breath prayer centered and relaxed me in a way that made me want to come back to it later. I discovered Lectio Divina, a way of sitting with and contemplating Scripture that made me feel as though, for once, God was saying something to me instead of the reverse. The practice of examen, a method of praying that reviews one’s conscious and conscience, gave me a form of prayer that kept me from feeling as though life was slipping away unexamined. In short, these ways of praying made me feel as though Isaiah’s words could be my own (from Isaiah 55):
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Not all the time, of course, or even most of the time. But occasionally I do feel as though I have drunk from a well that satisfies. I come away a little changed, a little more at peace, and with a hint of the fragrance of God. And you? Why do you (or don’t you) pray?