In her poem "Summer Day," Mary Oliver says: "I don't know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention..." Simone Weil saw no distinction between attention and prayer. For her, "absolute unmixed attention is prayer."
How difficult it is to pay attention, fully and truly. Unity with that which is greater than ourselves cannot be commanded or willed. Yet how hungry we are for that union, for an experience of the self falling away. How hungry we are to leave behind the anxious, judging voice of the mind; to move beyond blame and regret; to escape the need for control and the rush to anger. Prayer offers the opportunity to reach a place beyond the petty cravings and confines of the self. Prayer offers the opportunity to pay attention.
The power of paying attention was brought home to me when the migration of song birds passed through this spring. My husband and I went in search of the rarely seen golden-winged warbler. Someone had spotted one of these birds and posted the sighting on the New Hampshire listserv for birders. We spent an hour with binoculars pressed to our faces, but we did not find the "target bird." We found plenty of others, though, gorgeous birds on their way north -- the bay-breasted, northern parula, chestnut-sided and blackpoll. The viewing of these miraculous creatures was a moment of joy unmixed with anything else, a moment of transcendence, a moment of feeling at one with a world beyond our common human concerns.
When I was younger, I tried to create the perfect circumstances for moments of transcendence to arrive. I carved out hours of silence alone at my desk and sat there waiting for divine understanding to show up. Often I found myself depressed and peeved when this did not happen. I went looking for transcendence in nature. Here it was easier to experience, though even on a deserted stretch of beach, with the gulls and sound of the surf my only companions, my own sorry mind was apt to take over, assaulting me with a round of accusations and worries and filling me with an uneasy noise. Even here it was possible to prevent myself from seeing what was before me, from hearing the waves as they broke on the shore, from feeling the sun on my face.
One gift of middle and older age is freedom from the awareness of self. As you shift your gaze outward with greater frequency, a sense of oneness between yourself and the world begins to creep over you, at unexpected times, in unexpected places. Joseph Campbell argued: "I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive." We might also say that people aren't looking for the rote recitation of prayer as much as they are looking for an experience of being in prayer.
C.S. Lewis maintained that prayer without words is best, "if one can really achieve it." For someone steeped in the ways of a mainline Protestant church, this is an interesting concept. What does wordless prayer feel like? How do you know if you have achieved this state? A house of worship, where we might expect to find ourselves in such a state, often turns out to be the last place it happens. With its focus on words, the liturgy can sometimes get in the way.
"As soon as man is fully disposed to be alone with God, he is alone with God no matter where he may be -- in the country, the monastery, the woods or the city," Thomas Merton tells us. When I first read this in Merton's "Thoughts in Solitude," I nodded my head in agreement, but I am not sure that at that younger age, I fully grasped what he was saying. In the years since then, I have inched closer, as my understanding of prayer has shifted from seeing it as a form of supplication to experiencing it as a state of being. The appeal of another kind of prayer, the sort that might be found walking in the woods and looking for birds, is its grounding in the physical. It moves beyond a cerebral exercise. This appears to be what many in our fractured culture are seeking today, a fully felt experience of God beyond the walls of places of worship.
Am I closer to God in church or as I scan the treetops with my binoculars for birds? Is one act a form of prayer and another something else? Such distinctions no longer seem important in the ways they once did. In another passage from "Thoughts in Solitude," Merton reflects:
"Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all."