Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the (evening) sacrifice.
Psalm 141:2 NRSV
Every morning I stumble downstairs in the dark; turn the thermostat up from its nighttime, sensible and thrifty low; hit “brew” on the coffee machine; spoon two tablespoons of pasty, smelly, wet cat food into a small dish and place it on the floor; draw and drink a full glass of water (thinking of the beautiful French women who do the same each day to ensure their porcelain complexions- and wondering why it hasn’t had the same effect on me); open the door and bid the cats “Go outside, now! Be free!”; record yesterday’s activities and some musings in my day book; turn on my candle, and finally settle with a cup of coffee (collagen powder added for strong nails, shiny hair and smooth skin) into the soft leather arm chair in the corner of the living room… to say my prayers.
I used to say (when I was on my “Way of Love preaching tour”) that the first thing that I did each morning was to make my Confession (page 79, Morning Prayer, Rite II), but now, writing this, I realize that there’s a lot of maneuvering before I finally come before God with my prayers: Cats to be fed, caffeine to ingest, routine, routine, routine. If I knew that magical language of choreography, I could document the dance- it rarely varies.
I perform this routine because it keeps me grounded. It keeps me honest. It fulfills the vow that I made before God and the church community- three times- that, in my ordered life I would be “faithful in prayer” (diaconal ordination), “persevere in prayer” (priestly ordination) and, again, be “faithful in prayer” (episcopal ordination). But I do it mostly because, without it, I don’t feel complete. I have been living this intentional way of a God-centered life for so long, that beginning each day by holding hands with God for a few minutes is the only way that I can imagine getting started. Oh sure, there are the occasional days when I’m traveling, or on holiday and I skip the formal routine- but even on those days, I greet the day with an intentional note that I am not in this alone, that there is a force greater than my own at play in the universe (thank God) and that a posture of humility, openness and awareness outside of oneself is good and just.
Mostly, I use the form for Morning Prayer, Rite II (“contemporary language”) from the Book of Common Prayer. I do switch it up by season- soon, in Lent, I’ll be sitting in a period of Centering Prayer (also known as Contemplative Prayer and, sometimes, as “Christian Meditation”) each day. This is a practice that does not come easily to me- the practice of watching one’s breath, kenosis- emptying oneself- and just “being” in the presence of God…is really hard. In an article that I read recently in my favorite literary magazine The Sun, the author “Sparrow,” a veteran of meditation, wrote this: “I find meditation slightly excruciating, to be honest. It’s boring, frustrating- humiliating, actually. And even after forty-five years, I can’t seem to ‘still’ my mind.” (“Sparrow’s Guide to Meditation,” The Sun, January 2020)
I use a candle. Sort of. I prefer beeswax candles. They smell so good, the glow is warm, they are natural. But about a year ago, I switched to a “flameless” (read: battery operated) “candle.” I did this because there were just too many mornings when I would be in my car on the way to work wondering, “Hmm. I wonder if I blew out the candle?” Fortunately, having a husband who works from home kept me from worrying about burning the house down as a result of my Greatly Distracted Mind; and that battery operated thing looked so real- and it was one less thing to worry about. And so, there is no incense, smoke or even sweet beeswax aroma rising to God in the morning at my house- just my prayers.
So far, I’ve done a good job of explains the mechanics. What about the content?
When I was early in my praying days, I read lots and lots of books about prayer. It was much easier than actually praying. And it’s much easier to write about how I pray than what I pray.
I pray for things that I want. I think that’s natural. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to say that because I think it’s human. I want peace. I want healing for my friend with cancer. I want sobriety for people whom I know suffer from addiction. I want my grandchildren and children to be safe and happy. I want peace of mind for those who are troubled. I want healing for our nation and justice for the oppressed, and order and harmony in our country. I want an end to racism, homelessness, and poverty. I want our earth to be healed. I want to be effective at my job. I want our diocese to thrive. I want strength to keep after my discipline of exercise, prayer, study, and eating well. I want, I want, I want. It is not the most spiritually mature form of prayer- my list of “wants from God” remind me of the kid in the supermarket checkout lane who tugs relentlessly on her mom’s jacket hoping to win the chocolate bar in the candy rack through her persistent cry. But there it is.
I pray in gratitude for what I have. For my loving family, for a challenging vocation, for people in our diocese who are so faithful, for the healing of those who have been sick, for clean water, plenteous food and a warm bed.
I pray in wonderment- recalling the gifts of God’s grandeur and beauty: the green-blue ocean, swaying fields of wheat, hills to hike, the tiny toes of newborns, the delicate petals of a flower, the majesty of the old chestnut that stands sentry at the base of our driveway.
I pray for strength. And courage.
And I pray for forgiveness.
Two great and faithful people have had this to say about prayer:
“I pray because I can’t help myself. … I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”- CS Lewis
“Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us.” — Richard Rohr
How do you pray?
Is it time to try on a new pattern of prayer?
What does prayer do to you?