This is why I don’t pray

Like most Americans, I hold the overblown belief that a book about my life would be worth reading.  And, like most Americans, I have had the gumption to title it before I’ve even lifted a finger. It’s called “Should I Be Praying Now?”

As if you’re surprised, it has an obnoxious subtitle that helps marketers at Barnes & Noble know whether to put it on the Christian living shelf with the likes of Beth Moore or drop it behind the David Sedaris memoir with the naked barbie on the cover. It will read, “Moments of indecision during mealtime, bedtime, teeth-brushing, love-making, test-taking, baptisms, funerals, and the opening few minutes of small group.” It’ll be like Anne Lamott’s “doesn’t that make you feel better about  your own spiritual life” kind of writing but more pedestrian.

After all, it was Anne Lamott that got me started on my spiritual teeter-tot between her brand of prayer as irrepressibly simple (“Help!” “Thanks! “Wow!”) and my upbringing of Catholic monotone (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed”) and evangelic effusiveness (“Father God, I just ask you to just give me that awesome peace of yours.”) The heavy kid with a sack full of guilt is winning out, digging his heels in the playground sand.

This is why I don’t pray, or at least I don’t know what to call prayer anymore. I’ve been through the analytic arguments:

Why pray if God’s going to do whatever God’s going to do anyway? (Because I believe we can change God’s mind, bartering like Abraham, wrestling like Jacob, and begging like the Syrophoenician woman)

Can we really pray for anything from parking spots to miraculous healings? (Although there is no biblical precedent for the former, I fancy God prefers me to be talking nonsense rather than not talking at all)

What do we do with all those verses in Scripture that promise us answers when well-intentioned church folks tell us prayer isn’t about getting anything in return? (I believe that prayer can be both a radical plea for intervention and an exercise in relationship-building; and maybe those folks just aren’t as righteous as you. Kidding, sort of, but who’s to say?)

I have a whole closet full of tricks I’ve tried over the years to pray more, to pray better;  I’ve kneeled, letting my body do the heavy-lifting for the mind. I’ve recited, letting the mind rest from its own creativity. I’ve sung Psalms. I’ve memorized verses. I’ve run and danced and yoga-posed. I’ve shortened and lengthened my words. I’ve meditated and prostrated. And I still I don’t know that I am praying well, or praying at all. You will tell me that I am, surely, for you are kind, but I am telling you that I am not sure sure.

I know the end to my book already. This is no spoiler really, and trust me, I’ll offer enough self-revelatory moments throughout to keep you interested – like how I tried to convince my brother he was hearing from God by whispering into his ear all smooth like Casey Kasem as he slept. The book ends with a simple answer: Yes, you should be praying now. Maybe you already are.

Because why not? Why not pray now? And now? And wait…now? Why wait ’till I’m sure sure like some twelve-year old waiting to get my braces off so I’ll be more presentable and less mouthy?

This is why I pray: I’m not sure what (or even when) to speak, but I am sure God does. And I’ll bet s/he doesn’t even mind when my tongue gets tied up by those nasty little rubber bands.

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed,
how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”
– excerpt from A Summer Day by Mary Oliver

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One response to “This is why I don’t pray

  1. Thanks for this post and for your regular praying, Erin. My colleagues and I use this Mary Oliver poem on the first day of Freshman Humanities, including the first part about noticing the delicate intricacies of a particular grasshopper (“*This* grasshopper,” she says). Learning to pay attention–and wonder and celebrate what comes out of that attention–is a mighty powerful prayer.

    Along the same lines, as Meister Eckhart said (paraphrased): “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you’, that would be enough.”

    We can pray this way any time, all the time, yes?

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