The first memory I can call to mind of personal prayer involves driving a car, so I must have been older than seventeen. I was driving up Holyoke St. in Spokane, WA. I remember leaning forward over the steering wheel and looking up and out the front windshield. I said, out loud I think, are you up there God? And then I said a prayer that I believe opened with, if you exist. I can’t remember what I was praying for. Yet, the memory of praying itself has never left me. It was an utterly surprising and out of character act. I must have been desperate for something.
Fast-forward to a post-conversion experience some five or so years later. I was in a small Bible study and the leader pulled me aside to inquire about my comfort level with praying. She wanted to know if she could call on me to open or close our study time. I said no and she understood. As a new Christian trying to do everything right, I starting listening to the way people prayed. I took mental notes and practiced in my head. Eventually I was ready and I offered to pray aloud for our small group.
These two experiences remind me of being a novice, an innocent, not yet immersed in analyzing any sort of theology. When I was seventeen, I truly had no idea what I thought of prayer, I just needed someone to trust. When I was twenty-three, I was slightly more aware of what prayer was supposed to be. As I sit here now at thirty—filled with memories of prayers, communion, baptism, church life, small groups, denominational understandings, rigorous religious study and personal reflection—I am amazed to think back to that first prayer, alone in my car. It is impossible to get inside the mind of my seventeen-year-old self, and as I try, I assault the memory with questions only my present day self would ask.
In my life I have been a non-religious, non-praying person. I have been a fundamentalist Christian who prayed for the souls of my lost family. I have been a liberal Christian who prayed for social justice with Quakers and Dominicans alike. And I have been a confused ex-Christian, unable to pray and in denial about the state of my faith. My mother always told me that people change a lot in their twenties, I had no idea how right she was. She’s never said anything about changing in your thirties, so I think I might be finally settling down into myself. At least as much as a person with a lot of questions and few answers can.
So what do I think of prayer now—as a somewhat settled, agnostic thirty-year-old with a suitcase full of jumbled prayer experiences? This is one of those big questions without very many answers. And of course, one cannot begin to think of prayer until one spends a good deal of time thinking about God. My persistent questions lately have been, who, what, or if, God is? I’ve been introduced to a few God’s over the years. Buddhist and pagan versions from my grandmother. Multiple Christian versions from multiple Christians. And the God=Energy version from a few of the new age hippies and nuns that I’ve known. I cannot discount the effect of these various God’s on my own peculiar understanding (or non-understanding) of God. I appreciate Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s understanding that our histories, memories, senses, and intellects intermingle to form what we know. In her book, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer she writes, “We bring a cumulative history to our knowing that shapes how and what we can know.” She also writes:
A God of presence renders suspect any so-called objective knowledge of God, and calls instead for an intersubjective knowledge of God. Such a knowledge will never be universal—it is too mingled with ourselves for that. And so it should be: It is the way of God’s working, and it can yield an adequate knowledge for our living.
I am struck by the concept of an adequate knowledge for our living. If I can’t know God (and I don’t think I can), is an adequate knowledge for my life still attainable? Maybe. Suchocki offers a metaphor of God as water—touching and filling all things in its path while simultaneously changing and being changed by all things it touches, albeit slowly and through continued contact. This feels comfortable to me. And while this metaphor doesn’t answer all my questions or satisfy all my intellectual wanderings, it does give me something to ponder with integrity. In Quaker terms, it speaks to my condition. Water makes up most of the earth and it makes up most of my body. I will die without enough of it, but I could also die with too much of it. I have power in some sense over a glass of water, but I will never have power over the tide. The absolute meaning of the previous two sentences is not entirely clear—they remind me of Zen meditation riddles—but somehow when I combine them with Suchocki’s metaphor of God as water, my adequate knowledge for living grows.
While my adequate knowledge grows, I am still left with questions too numerous to count and an overwhelming feeling that I will never be able to find a satisfactory explanation of God’s character. And yet, I continue on, past this first question, onto the question of prayer. What is it? What does it mean? Should I do it? And if so, how?
If I am to assume that prayer is praying to God, but I don’t understand God, how am I to understand prayer? According to the Encarta World English Dictionary, prayer is defined as:
1. a spoken or unspoken communication with God, a deity, or a saint.
2. the act or practice of making spoken or unspoken communication with God, a deity, or a saint
3. a religious service at which prayers are said (often used in the plural)
4. an earnest request for something
5. something that is wanted or hoped for very much
6. a slight chance or hope
7. a request contained in a petition
Four out of the seven entries make no mention of God, but the first entry (is that more important?) offers the common answer—prayer is communication with God. It makes it sound so simple. There it is, in plain English, in the dictionary. It must be true! So back I go to the question at the beginning of this paragraph. If prayer is praying to God, and I don’t understand God, can I understand prayer? Better yet, can I do it?
I could go in circles all day (and I do most of the time). But, at a certain point I sometimes find it helpful to go in search of experience. And this is how I ended up in a January intensive class called Prayer. For a week and a half I prayed for several hours a day—as part of my large class, as part of my small prayer group, and alone. I decided early on in the class that if I was going to get anything out of it, I had to submit to it. I had to give myself over to it completely. I had to surrender my constant analysis for ten days and just pray.
Because of my brief time in fundamentalism, I know how to pray. And by this I mean, I can fake it. I can stand in front of a room full of people and pray an acceptable, even eloquent prayer. This may sound offensive, but rest assured, I don’t use this skill. I bring it up simply to highlight a personal stumbling block. As I struggle to find and understand my own theology of prayer, I am not only plagued with intellectual questions, I am also constantly scrutinizing my level of sincerity. This is a personal flaw. I am not often able to relax into an experience, I am often watching from outside myself. So deciding to submit to the class not only meant pausing my analysis, it also meant giving myself permission to experience the praying—to allow myself to settle into it, to simply pray.
I missed the first day of class because of holiday travel, so my first experience of corporate prayer came immediately. I walked in and we all took out the book, Celtic Prayers from Iona written by J. Philip Newell. This book contains Monday-Saturday morning and evening prayers, each day with its own theme. That first day was a Thursday and the theme was Commitment to Christ. I thought, here we go. My lofty goals of submission were put to the test immediately. I took a deep breath and joined my classmates as we read the prayer Newell had laid out for us. And then that evening, around nine o’clock, I read the evening prayers to myself knowing my fellow students were doing the same thing all over the city. And the next morning, we prayed the Friday prayers together (on the theme of The Communion of Heaven and Earth) and again, Friday evening, we prayed the evening prayers alone—together. And as I participated in this ritual, I was able to see the blessing of it. I was able to feel the growing communion with and among my fellow classmates.
The last hour of each class was spent in our small groups. My group consisted of four people, two men, another woman, and me. I sort of knew two of them and had never met the third. We met daily in the “soft chair” room of ESR for silence, sharing, and prayer. I can say with all sincerity that this is one of my favorite forms of prayer. For eight months over the 2006-2007 school year, I met with three friends for what we lovingly called “Quatholics.” We called it this because the group consisted mostly of Catholics (the three other women), but we used Quaker process as our method. We met for two hours on the first Saturday of every month. We rotated through each of our homes and shared lunch together after our prayer time. Before we started to meet, we each wrote 3 queries—short questions about whatever we wanted, there was no set standard. We put our 12 slips of paper in a plastic bag and carried them from house to house each month. Our time began with silence and then the hostess would draw and read a query. For the first hour, we would take turns responding to the query out of the silence. There was no cross talk and we always left space between each person’s sharing. After everyone had shared, we naturally transitioned into the second hour in which we each shared whatever was on our hearts. Again, the sharing came out of the silence with plenty of space in-between and no cross talk. Someone always closed our time with vocal prayer. It was an incredibly sacred way of sharing with my friends. It is an amazing gift to truly listen to someone in quiet, without responses formulating in your head. It is also an amazing gift to be able to speak into quiet, knowing you are being heard—truly being listened to with no response coming. I treasured my eight sessions with the Quatholics, and so I was delighted to participate in a similar experience each day in class.
Having the small group as a central part of the class was helpful for multiple reasons. It was important to me first and foremost because as I just mentioned, I personally find this form of prayer (in Quaker terms, worship sharing) to be an incredibly worthwhile spiritual practice. In the context of the class, it served as a place to process our private prayer time in an intimate way. And it was a source of accountability to help maintain our commitment to pray everyday throughout the 10-day intensive.
While I was grateful to have a form of prayer I’m very familiar with, it was also helpful to practice a few types of prayer that were completely new to me. In the middle of the intensive we spent a full day of retreat together. During this time we practiced multiple forms of prayer I had never experienced before. Of these, I was most impacted by praying with icons. We had an icon of Jesus set up in the middle of the room that we quietly gazed at together for about 10 minutes. In some ways it felt similar to breath prayer, in which you sit quietly focusing on your breath or some mantra that follows your breath. With an icon, you focus on the image rather than your breath. I’m incredibly visual and so in some ways having an image in front of me was more effective than simply focusing on my breath. Having the image helped to quiet my brain’s chatter. I was able to contemplate the person of Jesus without words. This was extremely helpful for my always-questioning brain that struggles to figure out my relationship with this deeply influential man.
After using an icon, we prayed over personal photographs. We simply sat quietly and gazed at our chosen image. I used a recent snapshot of my sister and me. For about ten minutes I sat and looked down at my sister and after awhile, I put my fingers on her face. I found words welling up in me, prayers for her well-being and happiness. Without this exercise, I would not have sat down to intentionally pray for her this way, mostly because I wouldn’t have known how to start. Sitting there quietly with her image allowed me to simply sit with her—to think about her and to reflect non-verbally on my love for her. Words came easily as I continued to focus on the image. I was able not to judge my words or their structure, enabling me to simply offer intentions out into the world. It was a profound experience. I have always struggled with how to pray specifically for other people and I think this experience may have provided me with an answer. It also gives me a way to be with the people who I currently live so far away from.
In addition, it reminded me of an old project. For several years I have been creating a prayer board. In the summer of 2005 I constructed a triptych out of pine and hinges. I painted it with wild colors and large designs. Over the years I’ve repainted it, added text to it, sanded it, and repainted it again. I have changed its appearance so many times that I don’t remember all of its incarnations anymore. Unfortunately, the one thing I haven’t really done with my prayer board is pray. I suppose it could be argued that the creation of it has been an act of prayer, but I’m not convinced. I think I’ve used it as an excuse or a cover-up during the denial phase of losing my traditional faith. It gave me something to do—to concentrate on.
After praying with images and icons during our retreat, I decided to drag out my old prayer board and give it one more makeover. I painted the entire surface—except for the three squares of gold leaf on the center panel—red. A bright red that reminds me of the Buddhist Dharma center my grandmother took me to when I was in high school. On the right panel I affixed twelve photographs I’ve taken of the Pacific Ocean. They show the sun, the shells, the driftwood, the cliffs, the sand, and of course, the water. On the left panel I affixed twelve photographs I’ve taken of the Gingko tree in my front yard. They begin in the summer and tell the story of the tree losing its leaves and finally show bare branches covered in snow. The board is absolutely stunning and something tells me it’s complete. I set it up in my art room with the prayer bench my sister made me for Christmas one year. I gave it its own wall and de-cluttered the area around it. It is my greatest hope (dare I even say, my prayer) that I spend time regularly in front of it, in quiet, focusing on the images and my breath.
At this point in my reflection, I must admit another personal flaw. I am an over-planner. I love to plan things and so I sometimes (as in the case of creating and creating my prayer board instead of using it) plan things rather than do them. I know that it is possible to both plan and follow through because I’ve done it a lot in my life (thankfully I’m not completely flawed!). But at this moment, I admit to being nervous about my goal of becoming a person with a regular prayer life. I would love to fill this page with beautiful and lofty goals of daily discipline, but I’m afraid I would simply be falling into my own trap. Prayer doesn’t’ require planning. To practice breath prayer, I just need to sit and pay attention to my breath. To practice image prayer (I’m not sure if this is an official name anywhere, but it works for me), I just need to grab an image and sit down with it. I’m not trying to belittle these forms of prayer, on the contrary, I’m trying to explain that part of their beauty lies in their simplicity. The simplicity of these prayer forms is what draws me in. But I also struggle with it because it means I can’t make excuses, i.e., I’m going to be an avid pray-er in a month. Let me just get this supply list put together first.
In his book, Living Simply Through the Day: Spiritual Survival in a Complex Age, Tilden Edwards speaks to this problem. In the section When to Pray, Edwards encourages readers to pick a certain time for prayer and to stick to it, at least for a week. He is encouraging us to make prayer a daily habit similar to brushing our teeth. To compare prayer to brushing our teeth might seem irreverent to some, but I really appreciate the point he’s trying to make. Prayer can become as natural to us as brushing our teeth, something we do without thinking about. It is also helpful in this analogy to remember that we weren’t born with toothbrushes in our hands. We had to learn how to do it, practice it, and be reminded to do it before it became habit. Prayer too takes practice. Edwards also talks about being gentle with ourselves when we miss (or skip) a day. He tells us “to lightly ‘see’ the resistance, and get on with it ”
One of the clear messages of Living Simply Through the Day is that a daily prayer practice should be helpful—it should help make every aspect of our day prayerful. My Quaker sensibility is quite comfortable with this idea. I believe that everything can be sacramental if we pay attention. In all of my confusion about who, what, or if, God is, I confidently believe in the sacredness of life. Every tree, homework assignment, and personal interaction (the list could on and on) can remind us of our desire for the holy.
At this moment I am greatly encouraged by several things. I am thankful for Suchocki’s metaphor of God as water. I am thankful for Edwards’ instruction to see prayer as just another habit in our daily lives—opening us up to lives of attentiveness. And I am thankful for his permission not to judge myself when I fail.
Between reaching into the depths of my personal prayer experiences and participating recently in an active prayer life, I have learned a great lesson. I realize I don’t need a clearly defined theology of prayer before I pray. In fact, I may never pray if I don’t let go of this assumption (especially because I probably won’t ever have a clearly defined theology of prayer). I just need to pray. I need to remember that I have found ways of praying that I can practice with sincerity and integrity. I need to remember that maybe, just maybe, after spending a great deal of time in the practice of praying, I might discover a few things that I can know about prayer. I may find treasures to bolster my ‘adequate knowledge of God for my living.’ And at this thought, I say, please—please.