One of the more regular inquires I get as a priest is about how to pray. The truth is there are so many different ways to pray – ranging from formal methods to totally unstructured methods – that our conversations usually have to include what they have tried already and some teaching about what other options are available. I usually send the person off with a couple of new things to try and encourage them to let me know how it is going.
Since the arrival of my second child, I have been thinking a lot about prayer – or rather, I have been doing a lot of it. I delivered my child by caesarean section, and I found myself really nervous going into the operating room. I am not entirely sure why, but I as I sat behind that tall white sheet, with my lower body numb, waiting for the doctors to prep for surgery, I could feel my stress level rising. That nervousness only heightened once the operation began. And then, suddenly, before I was even conscious that I was doing it, I found myself praying the Trisagion. The Trisagion is a prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer. The words are, “Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.” The prayer is traditionally sung or said three times. I lost count of how many times I said the prayer, but it became a way for me to focus all my nervousness and give it back to God. Later, I remember thinking about how many times I have taught about mantra prayers, and yet this might have been the first time I really “got” how mantra prayers can be a source of connection to God.
Later, about the time that my daughter was a week old, and I was stealing as much sleep as I could on the couch, I noticed that the blanket I had blindly found in the middle of the night was one that had been gifted to us. It is a throw blanket with the Lord’s Prayer stitched on it. As I looked at the words, I started praying the words. I have always loved the Lord’s Prayer because I can pray it when I have nothing left. When I am bone-tired, weary, or just feeling overwhelmed, those words have a power over me and whatever situation I find myself in. It occurred to me, as that blanket was wrapped around my body, how I was metaphorically enveloped in prayer during this unique time.
But to be fully honest, much of my prayer life these last two weeks has included prayers of desperation. “Please, dear God, let her fall asleep this time.” “Sweet Jesus, help her to stop crying.” In my mind, these are not what I have traditionally called prayers that “count.” They are more calls of despair and bargaining, which is not really how I imagine things “work” with God. But as I have thought about it this week, I think these are totally legitimate prayers. Part of a healthy prayer life is an honest, vulnerable conversation with God. My being honest about how sleep deprived and frustrated I might be at 2 a.m. is not unreasonable – and in fact, God already knows how I am feeling and what I need. Though I would not argue that this kind of prayer is the only kind of prayer one should utilize in their relationship with God, I think these prayers open up a path to more honest conversation – and hopefully more honest listening to God.
As I think back to all those times I have “taught” others about prayer, these last couple of weeks have certainly shifted some of my thinking about prayer. The beauty of prayer is that the variety of options is truly a gift to us, and there are certainly different times that different forms of prayer will sustain us. Whether we pray beautiful, ancient prayers or we offer up desperate ramblings to God, our loving, gracious God is simply happy that we are there – for once remembering Who sustains us, feeds us, and gives us strength. Thanks be to God!