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…
Mary Oliver (A Summer Day)
I have been at it for a lot of years now, and I still do not know exactly what a prayer is. It seems to have always been part of my life like the color of my eyes. As a preschooler I learned to fold my hands and bow my head. I prayed for my family, our dog, and my neighbor, Mrs.Wendel, who made good cookies. I had a set list I covered: Santa Claus, the Snowman, and Betty Crocker, whose picture was on the box which my mom’s iron came in.
We always prayed before meals, usually led by my father. Every night he kneeled beside his bed to pray. I came upon him at prayer like that many times. He died in 2000. When I go back to Iowa to visit my mother, I like to sit in a corner by a bookcase, where dad read the Bible every day. His magnifying glass, pens, and letter opener are still there.
My father’s prayer was quiet and hidden, yet woven into the fabric of his life like his breath. I saw the fruit in his kindness and caring acts for others, in the vitality of his mind and interest in the world around him, and in his outrage at injustice. As he grew older, he would often say, “I am just so thankful.”
What exactly is a prayer? I fumble for the words. Traditional words about prayer feel like pebbles in my mouth, tasteless, hard and difficult to swallow. As much as I gnaw at them I find no nourishment.
“What language may we borrow to thank thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?” wrote the anonymous author of the lyrics to the hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. Whatever language we use, it will always be “borrowed.” It will be loaned from some, other, lesser reality in an awkward, ill-fitting attempt to clothe The Reality beyond all language and human thought. Mere words fail to express the experience of our hearts in response to God’s love, gifts, and challenges in our lives.
Now I will foolishly do something I have just told you is impossible: tell you what I think a prayer is. For me prayer is fundamentally an attempt to communicate. This desire to communicate is initiated in us by God and it is a way in which we participate in the likeness of God.
Take a look at that word, communicate. Its root carries the meaning of coming together, communing, communion. What is implied is that at least two separate parties are desirous of joining in some way, of reaching an understanding, of connecting with a commonly held perspective, need, desire, or purpose.
We could say prayer is the eternal conversation and exchange of love as experienced in the context of our lives in which all parties are affected and changed in some way. For me the life, what engages me, is not the abstract concepts of prayer, but in the lived experience of communication. By the way, this is why I believe God is on Facebook and is an old hand at Twitter.
Prayer rides on the wings of our hearts’ desires, anguish, hunger and joy – that bolt of white fire that connects heaven to earth and unites mortal with divine. I can’t say exactly what a prayer is. But I can sure tell when people have been doing it.
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