Prayer, in every religion, is an essential part of our relationship with God -- it is a way to listen to the quiet voice we too often ignore. It can be easy to forget the role prayer can play in our daily, and spiritual, lives. Yet I find that prayer can often be simplest of things, from a rhyme to the smallest act.
My parents first taught my how to pray not long after I started to read, using the formula: 1) thanksgiving, 2) confession, and 3) petition. As a child, after learning what "petition" meant, I imagined this was my opportunity to ask God for presents which might shortly fall out of the sky, gift-wrapped and tied with a bow, into my lap... I was soon corrected of this notion.Yet despite this simplicity of this formula, it is a structure I find I still fall back when I do not know where to begin or where to go when I approach God. Also early in my childhood, I had memorized several prayers that my family said before dinner each night:
When my mom's family was present, we used the Catholic prayer:
God is good; God is great
Let us thank Him for this food
When it was my dad's family, or my immediate family, we used this prayer:
Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest
And let this gifts to us be blessed
Much later, after my dad passed and my mom had remarried, I added another prayer to this collection:
We thank thee Lord for happy hearts
For rain and sunny weather
We thank the Lord for this our food
And that we are together
Although these short rhymes might be considered shallow, they are stepping stones to greater conversation with God. Long after the words become automatic, and you stop hearing them, such prayers are still one more second of routine life that has been taken and dedicated to God. What would life look like if every routine moment was off-set by a moment dedicated to God alone? How would that change your routines? change you?
In a complicated world full of obligations, distractions, and struggles, prayer can be hard. Not just because so much is demanded of us, but also because praying itself is hard. What if we are too busy? What if we don't know how to say the prayer we need? There is some comfort in the knowledge that there are as many ways of praying as there are people--and then some. Furthermore, every time we approach God is a different prayer, a different experience, as well. Here is a brief exploration of just a few kinds of prayer that go beyond formulas and memorization.
Meditation has a long history in many traditions (particularly Eastern) as a practice and a ritual. Meditation is a practice of clearing the mind. Although there are a number of methods for doing this, one of the more common is to sit cross-legged (or in another comfortable position) and to concentrate on breathing. Each inhale and exhale is another step to descend into yourself, your mind emptied, ready, and open. This is a place of both awareness and non-awareness -- of yourself and your surroundings together.
Meditation is also a method of prayer. In waiting open and ready with an emptied mind, you are making a place for God Himself to enter into you. Prayer doesn't need to always be about words (1. thanksgiving, 2. confession, 3. petition). Simply inviting God in--and allowing nothing else to detract or distract from that space--is a prayer of yourself. God knows your inner self without the words, and inviting Him into that innermost self says more than enough. How can you pray to God when you yourself don't fully understand what that inner self is? It takes a lot of time and practice to be able to truly empty the mind, and achieve this. However, when you do, you will have built a space highly attuned to yourself, waiting for His presence.
I first learned of walking prayers in Sunday School when I was in early middle school. I remember feeling both confused and intrigued that, as our teacher told us, "anything can be a prayer!" Although I forgot this for a number of years, it began to enter my life again as I entered college. As I spent more time trudging from class to class, always pressed for time, a walking prayer seemed the best way to incorporate daily prayer into the mundanity of my routines.
Walking prayers can take many forms. One that many are familiar with is that of the labyrinth, wherein one paces out the twists and turns labyrinth path as an act of devotion and prayer itself. Another form, the form I was originally taught in that long-ago classroom, was to say (aloud or silently) a line of prayer with each step: For example, reciting a line of the Lord's Prayer with each step of the walk. However, you need neither structure nor form, to walk a prayer -- only a willingness to connect with and praise God. Today, when I use walking prayers, I find that what works best for me is to commit that particular walk (whether recreational or to the grocery store) to God. Then, as I walk, I simply pray from my heart. Sometimes this means that I speak with God; other times, it means I look for God along my way (a blue sky, two friends laughing, a kind word offered).
Although I have often used walking prayers simply because they are most convenient, there is something to be said for prayer that takes physical action. As people of faith, we are always called to live our faith. A walking prayer literally brings together action and faith, making room for God in places you might never have seen Him otherwise. For me, I find myself not only able draw strength from the act of praying, but also more able to be attentive to God in every moment, praying or not.
I think the best way this type of prayer can be described is through a story: Mother Teresa was once approached by Dan Rather, CBS anchor, who asked her "When you pray, what do you say to God?"
Mother Teresa replied, "I listen."
Rather then returned confidently with "Then what is it that God says to you when you pray?"
This stopped Rather in his tracks. What did that mean? But before he could get in another question, Mother Teresa added "And if you can't understand the meaning of what I've just said, I'm sorry but there's no way I can explain it any better."
I know from personal experience that listening can be extremely difficult: Along with other members of UPCaM, I volunteer with the Listening Post, a place where my only job as volunteer is to listen to those who walk by and share their days and troubles. Yet even as I try to put others' needs first, I struggle to quiet my mind from its anxieties: that I'm not doing a good job, that I don't know how to help this person, that I don't have a good enough response. Mother Teresa reminds us that listening is not about talking or solving a problem. Listening is about listening. Listening as an act of prayer is a way of sacrificing time and attention to God alone, straining to hear the quiet wind that is His voice. Although it may seem impossible to 'mutually listen' with God, the very act of doing this (perhaps, of only trying) is a prayer in itself. He may never say anything--but that's not the point.
This story has been shared often, and with good reason. There is a level of attentiveness associated with deep listening that we rarely see in our everyday lives and conversations. More often than not, our conversations are more about waiting to speak and, even when we do hear our friends and co-workers, we don't always listen to their meanings. Not only is it a unique and precious thing to share a moment of listening with anyone, but it is an honor to share such a moment of deep quietude with our God Himself.