I had one of those speechless days in which there was so much emotion going on in my head and in my life and in the lives of all those around me (hey… it’s a week until Christmas!) The itchy, unsettled, squirmy thoughts and emotions spun around so much that the more I tried to center on any sort of prayer or reflection, the fewer words came.
It always starts off with some snarky question that’s not really asking anything: “Hey God. Answer me this….“
And then before waiting for whatever response (if any) there is going to be, with the very next thought I’m off on some diatribe of head preaching at God about whatever it is that has pissed me off today. It’s not so much “Hey God, I want to ask you something” as it is “Listen up God, I’m going to TELL you something.”
Even in prayer, that isn’t conversation: it’s nagging.
I grew up in a religious tradition of very long, very verbose, and very pointed praying so that by the end of it, those who were still awake and alert had absolutely no question about what was on the pray-er’s agenda that day. Add lots of filler catch phrases about taking this food as nourishment to our bodies (that makes its way into nearly every blessing at meals my extended family says.) Mix in a bunch of “to the glory of Your name.” And in the last bit, top with a shake of “if it so be Thy will” (like the pray-er is giving God a choice) and pop it back in the oven for another minute under the broiler, et voila! Fifteen minutes of reciting every catch phrase in one’s larder and finishing with a prayer that has said Absolutely Nothing.
And most times with more thee, thou, and thine than Shakespeare would have used. Trust me here: God does have a full comprehension of contemporary English (or whatever your primary language is.)
But hey: we prayed, right?
I graduated to a standardized form of public prayer in which one could go to the book, look up an event type (or a date, or a Saint’s day) and there would be the prescribed prayer ready to go, no additions needed (or appreciated.) Those are in a standard 3-phrase context of
- Say something good about God
- Tell God what God has done for us around the topic at hand
- Ask God for whatever it is that the prayer is seeking on this same topic
It’s great for read-along and speak-along public services because everybody knows the words and it’s like a hymn or a psalm. And the assumption here is that the pray-er has an internal understanding of the message of the prayer, by reciting those words in community with others. The downside is that some folks out in the pews think of these communal prayers as “inpersonal” and even more “saying a bunch of phrases” and not off-the-cuff as the lengthy recitations above.
Do you think God really cares? It’s not so much which songs we sing and what words we bring forward to the proverbial Throne of Grace, so long as we sing and pray.
Some days, neither of those schemes works.
Within these years of a centering prayer and contemplative practice, some days my human feelings get in the way. I don’t’ feel like spouting on forever until the gravy gets cold, or simply saying rote that which has been said a billion times before. I want to get out what I need to get out, and I want to be true to both my feelings and that spiritual relationship.
For those times, I have my shortest prayer. Very simple, a single line, with no attributions or “in Jesus’ name we pray,” etc. It speaks in just a few words my feeling that yes, God, I want to (OMG! need to!) talk to you about something, AND the words just aren’t there right now, AND I need you to know that I am here, the other part of this relationship, and any guidance is appreciated. Even though I have said these words just as many “millions” of times, always exactly the same, this action is so brief and so close to the bone that it becomes a prayer from all that I know and all that I want to know.
The words become more than just words.
When emotions get high all around me and within me, I go to this simple prayer to summarize all that I feel, all that I want to get off my chest, and how I do not want to sit in my own sorrows and fears. Instead I want to do whatever it is that I am to do next, even if all I can do next is to sit in that moment of quiet and let go of those wiggling distractions. I want release from this moment so that I can proceed on to the next moment and see what there is to see of this thing we call relationship, our communion. I want to drop my own nagging, and become open to receiving whatever it is that I am to see, to feel, to experience in this moment that seems so very dark.
The realization comes that no matter how distracted and upset I am, many others out there need help too. My own troubles fade in the lending out my alone time with God – by being with God in the sharing of God, in a sure belief that all this distraction will calm. We learn that we come the closest to that which we think of as God, by sharing. Divinity is not a thing to be hoarded.
By sharing this need for our Maker during the bad times, and realizing that we are not alone, that message also lives in the air around us as a prayer.
For those who need you more than I.