Prayer— what is it? This is a question I've been wrestling as the years pass. I used to think it was asking God for stuff, according to God's "will".
God, if you will it, help me drive home safely. If you will it, help my child be born without complication.
Imagine a choir punctuating every bossy "God do this," with the melodic afterthought—"according to your will."
Indeed, most of my God-bound messages were telegraphed requests, one-sided conversations seeking "yes/no" answers for miraculous interventions.
As the years passed and my faith disintegrated, I started analyzing what I was saying to God.
Was it right, I wondered, to ask God to make my life easier while my neighbor continued suffering?
Was it right to ask God to heal my son from cancer while the parents one room over were grieving the loss of theirs?
What did it say about me— and God— if my queries were always answered with a “yes” or a “no”? Who was I, I thought, to expect God to give me everything I wanted? In the end, wasn’t I treating God like a good-luck charm I carried around my neck?
Also, was it right to ask God to shield me from the natural consequences of my actions?
Like, say I was driving home at 2 am, and I couldn’t see the road— was it right for me to ask God for protection?
Some of these wonderings were about how involved God really is, or can be, in this world. Others were about fairness. All in all, I was becoming frustrated and disillusioned with a practice that seemed shallow and selfish.
Early on, I thought I had God’s ear simply because I believed the right things. I reasoned that if others simply affirmed the right doctrines, God would listen to their requests, too.
I found there was a striking problem with this conception— sometimes even people who had their beliefs “right” had terrible things happen to them. What were the ramifications of God not answering their prayers? Had they lost their faith? Were they left to forever imagine that God was punishing them?
Once I started down this road, I could not stop— and eventually I lost my ability to pray. When it came to conversing with God, my vocal chords were paralyzed.
Not talking to God anymore was like wandering around in a dark cave. I was cold, alone and empty.
But my faith continued changing, and as it did, so did my view of God. I began to see God as a lover, not a punisher. One day, I started testing those prayer-waters again.
God, I’m scared. God, I don’t know who you are anymore. God, I don’t understand why you let this happen.
Oh! God who sees, God who loves, God who is there, God of comfort, Hear me!
Sometimes, I invited God to be with me while I cried or sat, silent. At others, I’d call out-- God help me, please. I don’t know what I’m doing.
The years slipped by. There’d be times where my cries were mere echoes.
But on other occasions, I would have these experiences. I would see beauty and know comfort. Like this--
Breathe in, breathe out,
Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves
Allow distraction to flow past you like water
I am in a barren brown-dirt land
A peace rests in me and around me,
It sits in the air,
Mouth-watering and tangible
I watch as
Leafless gray vines knit a dome over me
Leaving gaps for the light
I feel warm,
So safe and secure,
My body tingles in anticipation
Then I hear it,
All my secrets,
All the hidden doubt and insecurity,
And the myriad things I haven’t yet discovered
The voice speaks.
Is it deep?
It is a well filled with water…
Is it soft?
Oh yes, yes it is,
Tender on my ears,
Mother with newborn babe,
“I know you,
I know everything about you,”
And though I understand The Voice sees my awful ugly
And all the hurt I’ve ever caused
I feel no shame
I swim in the ecstasy of
And I know something too:
This is what Love tastes like.
There’s this weird and wild, mysterious and beautiful truth I uncovered through the fragmentation of my faith— though destruction reins supreme, a few gems will always remain.
This wasn’t the first time I’d felt God’s loving presence. Once, when my health problems were waging war on my body and I felt alone and scared and sad, God told me she loved me— in an audible voice. Afterwards, I felt a warmth spread through my veins like fire, and I was at peace.
Even before that, long, long ago, when I was but a child weeping alone in a dorm room, I told God my sorrows. In that moment, I knew she was right there with me, loving me tenderly, caring like no one ever had.
And this Divine Love has always endured. It stood beside me when I had a less-mature, black-and-white faith, and as I grew and asked questions. Now, it hangs in there each time I wade through the sludge of doubt and despair, even though I lose all sense of its presence.
Furthermore, it leaves the door open— always— for communion.
When Richard Rohr was a child, he thought prayer was simply the act of talking to God. Later, he saw there was something more to it.
“I was also one of the relatively rare few who also had it patterned into me,” he explains, “that prayer was listening to God. Not even listening for messages, exactly, like the child Samuel in my favorite Old Testament story [1 Samuel 3:3–10], but just being there, quietly gathered in God’s presence.”
As a young man, he attended Quaker prayer services, where folks mostly sat together without saying anything. “Somewhere in those depths of silence I came upon my first experiences of God as a loving presence that was always near, and prayer as a simple trust in that presence.”
Engage in prayer with this harkening attitude and your view of God may change a little. Maybe God won’t be so much of a fixer or a good-luck charm as a friend who understands everything about your life.
And if you allow for that to be true, then might it also follow that God bears the sorrows of the whole world? For God loves you AND your neighbor too.
Friend, if prayer is as simple as practicing the presence of God, with or without dialogue, then the eloquence and beauty of your words does not matter. A bare-bones, earnest invitation to God to be present in the pain, the joy, the sorrow and the mundane, is enough. (And in those times when you cannot do this, find someone, or a group of someones, who can. Hold on to them while they hold the faith.)
Breathe in, breathe out,
Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your body,
Allow distractions to flow past you like water,
Then take off your shoes,
Hug yourself warm,