“I pray because the need flows out of me all the time… It doesn’t change God- it changes me.” C.S.Lewis
I didn’t come from a praying family… or at least one that would openly admit to it.
Now, mind you, I came from a religious family- a good Episcopal family, in fact. My mother was the Head of the Church School and my father served on Vestry for multiple terms. My brothers were acolytes, and I was in the junior choir, and, later in my teen-aged years, I became a Sunday School teacher. We were baptized, schooled, confirmed, and as a family we regularly discussed the Rector’s sermons over Sunday dinner. But prayer was something that was confined, publically, to a stiff grace at the table or to my Mom’s singing of “Away in the Manger” or “Fairest Lord Jesus” at bed time.
I’m sure my mother and father prayed. With six children in the house and three others out on their own Guam-Vietnam-Australian adventures, what parent wouldn’t pray?
But prayer, if it were happening in our house, happened behind closed doors in the confines of our rooms, or out of the traffic flow of our large family.
In order to “get confirmed” at our church, we had to memorize the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and “perform” them for our Sunday School teachers. (We also learned to genuflect and cross ourselves, and we studied the saints and other salient bits of ecclesiastica,but that’s for another blog post.) I was brought up, liturgically, with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and I was part of the Green and Zebra book (trial liturgies) generation ( I was confirmed at age 12 in 1970), so the treasure of the 1979 prayer book and its assortment of appropriate prayers for all occasions had not yet made its debut.
Prayer was something that we did in community, as we joined in the great canticles and prayers of the Liturgy of the Morning office, and, honestly, I can say that the rote repetition of those holy words week after week has served me well in my adulthood; they are imbedded in my bones.
Prayer was something that we did in moments of need; I recall kneeling in front of the t.v. with my breakfast bowl of Capt’n Crunch at the age of 10, reading the scroll of names of the war dead in Vietnam, and offering a silent prayer to God that my Army brother’s name would not appear on the screen.
I remember at age 11 being led by my mother down the aisle in the funeral home with my brothers to kneel in front of my grandfather’s body, and my mom’s instructions to “Say a prayer and say good bye to Granddaddy.” His was the first dead body that I had ever seen. I remember kneeling there with my eyes shut and my mind racing- “What, exactly, was I supposed to pray? And why would I say ‘good bye’ to someone who was already dead?”Words eluded me.
At the same age, I made a friend who was Jewish. I marveled at his family’s gathering around the table on Friday nights at sundown, singing Shabbat and offering blessing on the beginning of Sabbath. The prayers sung in Hebrew, the soft glow of the candles, the tang of the wine and the sweet challah- it felt exotic and rich and right. I secretly wanted to be Jewish so my family could have a ritual like this in our home, too.
As a parent, I can’t claim to having done a better job at teaching my own children how to pray. We said grace at mealtime and when they were tiny they got their doses of “Away in the Manger,” too, but naming, out loud, to an unseen deity, the deepest matters of our heart? Nope.
The priest in the parish of my young adult-hood, (the church that ended up raising me for ordination) cracked it all wide open. He prayed with words that sounded like “regular” talk. He took deep breaths and sighed and waited for the Spirit to move in him. He taught me that silence could be a prayer all its own. He sometimes called God a “she.” And in all of this, I learned that prayer is the vital means by which we can grow closer to God, by offering our selves- our thoughts, desires, regrets, joys, aspirations, jealousies, triumphs, wonderings, and our disappointments- to God.
The catechism in our prayer book reminds us that “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” (BCP 856)
We don’t begin the conversation, God does. By God’s wonderful acts of creating and moving in and through our lives- and our careful awareness of that movement- we are responding to God when we sit down to have a word with God in prayer. It may sound like, “Dear God, give me….” or “protect me…” or “have mercy…” but all of that is in response to God already moving in the world. Author Anne Lamott says that there are three prayers: “Help, Wow, and Thank you.” Our prayer book gets slightly more technical, outlining seven different types of prayer (Adoration, Praise, Thanksgiving, Penitence, Oblation, Thanksgiving, Intercession, and Petition- BCP pg. 856) but truth be told, God knows already what we need- the voicing of it, I think, is for our own satisfaction. One of the options for a concluding collect at the Prayers of the People begins, “Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask…” (BCP 394) and another collect, the Collect for this coming Sunday, Proper 22, admits, “Almighty and Everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray…” (BCP 234)
There is plenty of instruction in how to pray- the formal prayers of our daily offices, Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer and Compline (nighttime prayer) as well as more open, less-structured prayer forms of Contemplative prayer and Centering Prayer. Our own St. James, Lancaster, has lifted up a charism of Contemplative Prayer and offers multiple opportunities for teaching and the practice of this form of prayer (www.saintjameslancaster.org) and our Stevenson School for Ministry has multiple offerings as well (www.diocesecpa.org) All of these offerings are for both novice and experienced pray-ers, alike.
At the end of the day, there is this:
A couple of years ago, I had to have a diagnostic medical procedure which was new for me, a CT Scan. It wasn’t a narrow-bodied tube or anything too intimidating, but I was scared, and partly because the potential outcome of the test could have been serious. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. I’m fine.) But as the examination began, I found myself supremely anxious. And then they slid me in the tube. They told me not to move as they took the pictures. I was scared. And suddenly, out of “nowhere,” I found a quiet song rising up from inside of me. I didn’t sing it out loud, but I heard it. And it comforted me. It was “Fairest Lord Jesus.”
Friends. Say your prayers. Formal, informal, sung or spoken. Respond to God’s movement in your life. In this conversation both you and God will enjoy the richest of blessings. Pray.