an afternoon break at a retreat in northern Idaho, I sat on
a log and watched a fat honeybee roving around a big blue pasque
flower. She tasted its petals, snuffled at the opening, and
then drew back and literally hurled herself at the flower's
center. For all I know, that bee is there still, soaking up
whatever gifts the flower has to offer.
may as well reconcile yourself to the fact that God apparently
believes that opinion is more important than answer.
is obviously tilted toward green, brown, oceans, and beetles
because that’s what we have most of. So if you pray, “Should
I become a doctor?” and you hear, “Noticed the basswood
tree lately? Seen those June bugs?” you can only assume
that your need for guidance isn’t as important as your
need to acknowledge God’s love for the earth. And God’s
reason may not be clear.
now and then, someone brings out a book on efficacious prayer,
a sort of “pray to get results.” Which we don’t
always get or see. I’ve prayed for things that never came
true. I’ve begged God to do things I ultimately had to
do myself. And sometimes I’ve shaken my fist at heaven.
Prayers apparently go unanswered sometimes or have miraculous
responses at others, and that can make you think God is capricious.
When I was in my early teens every day I saw a blue neon sign
on a nearby church, a sign that flashed,“Prayer Changes
Things.” I’d like to go back to that church and
adjust the sign to say, “Prayer Changes People.”
I would not be a woman writing this book if I were not a woman
who was changed by constant prayer. Prayer made me who I am.
I would like to think my prayer also changed circumstances
and conditions, but until I translated prayer into doing—until,
as my Pentecostal friend likes to say—I “put legs
on those prayers”—efficacy was indeed out of reach.
And is efficacy really all I’m after? Is the measure of
benefit whether I prayed and I got?
think efficacious prayer isn’t about getting. What you
may want is an answer to a problem, or guidance about a job,
or even the right numbers for winning the lottery. But really
productive prayer is whatever makes you or me more fit for the
Kingdom. Norman Pittenger, the late theologian, author, and
seminary professor, said that praying
makes you want what God wants.1
So prayer, whether done or spoken, whether chanted or handsprung
or danced, makes people different. A praying person is not like
one who doesn’t even whisper “Amen.” Prayer,
if nothing else, is a blessing to the human personality.
man close to me practices “slogan Christianity,”
summing up theology in short phrases, lists, and aphorisms.
According to this maxim-monger, all human petitions to God receive
one of three
answers: Yes, No, or Wait. Nicely composed, but his succinct
analysis doesn’t work for most of us, who are trying to
penetrate the enigma of God and to confront the riddle of prayer.
His glib statement doesn’t help someone struggling to
understand why a loved one dies or a job doesn’t happen.
And such a simplistic explanation of prayer’s productivity
suggests that the deck is stacked, that every answer from God
is already predetermined.
don’t buy it. Thomas Paine, of American pre-Revolution
fame, wrote,“The Predestinarians . . . appear to acknowledge
but one attribute in God, that of power. . . . ”
wrote better than he knew. If God is both unmerciful and unchangeable,
why pray? If everything is predestined, if God has already decided
whom to favor and whom to reject, marked us before birth for
heaven or hell, then the church and prayer are useless. If you
reduce God to an angry, violent elder waiting to yell “Gotcha!”
then prayer would be neither efficacious nor even reasonable,
unless the prayer was a constant “Keep me from sin.”
And if God is only a wild ball of formless energy, that fireball
probably wouldn’t have the ability to hear prayers, either,
much less grant them.
Practice of Prayer
Growing up Episcopalian, I didn’t question whether prayer
worked or not. I prayed out of obedience to God and for love
of the language in our Book of Common Prayer. I murmured
with pleasure “grant us such a lively sense of thy mercies,”
“we have erred from thy ways like lost
sheep,” and “O ye whales and all that move in the
waters, bless ye the Lord.” Eventually I wanted something
richer than words, so after I was grown, when the Episcopal
day school where I taught began in 1967 to have chapel services
from new prayer book revisions, I detached myself from tradition
and embraced God’s continuing revelation. And finally,
I decided to do my prayers besides just saying them.
truth filters down to earth through many screens and sieves,
and I can’t know while I’m on earth how valid the
truth is about prayer. And that’s a good thing. Prayer
is—and should be—a mystery, the greatest mystery
of all because in it you try to engage the God who is unknowable
in ordinary conversation.
In prayer you call up the eternal and ask it to be revealed
to the finite. Perhaps you whisper the Our Father
as you fall asleep, and say grace over your food, and holler
“Fix this!” at God when you watch the day’s
depressing news. But sometimes you can’t find words, or
you’re so mad at God you can’t form a sentence.
Or maybe you feel verbally inadequate to express your love or
anxiety or whatever. Or maybe it’s just that the nonrational
wins that day. You’re not just a mouth attached to a brain:
if God made all of you, then all of you needs to learn how to
communicate with God, and doing prayer responds to
Jews know how to do prayer. Prayer can of course mean recitation,
but many devout Jews put the emphasis on mitzvah, or
a good work. To love another as yourself would be prayer, and
so would picking up the oranges that have fallen to the sidewalk
at an outdoor fruit stand. You do prayer when you hand twenty
dollars to the homeless woman who stands in the median strip,
holding a sign. Taking your disabled neighbor’s garbage
can in is mitzvah and therefore a prayer that honors
God and your neighbor.
Converting spoken prayer to doing prayer may start with the
need to accompany words by moving the body: bowing again and
again while reading Torah, my kneeling and standing in church,
bending to light votive candles, an elderly couple raising their
hands and arms during praise, or your walking through the dark,
ferny woods as you recite the Jesus prayer. When you want to
move closer to God, when the “bee of your heart”
longs to taste heavenly nectar, you can take the next step and
the next thing you know, you’re doing prayer.
may already be doing prayer. Perhaps
all you need to do is notice what you do and dedicate that time
to God. For instance, one woman had spent a
couple of hours in prayer and meditation every afternoon. In
the year before she went to seminary, she listened to music
and engaged in spiritual reading and contemplative prayer after
lunch every day. But during her first months as a postulant
she felt absolutely frazzled: she had no free time to devote
to her contemplative exercises because she had piles of books
to read and papers to write, kitchen duty to help pay for her
tuition, and evening discussion groups with other students.
she realized that reading theology and understanding the Bible
and digging into church history were prayer So every day when
she sat down at the table in her tiny seminary apartment to
study, she lit a candle. At the end of her homework, she added
a doxology and said “Amen.” Not only did she feel
better about her prayer life, she began to enjoy study as much
as she had loved her afternoon music and devotion.When she graduated
and was ordained, she entered the priesthood with increased
doing prayer is intentional, but at other times, you realize
during or even after your activity that you have entered into
new communication with God. Maybe you were working in the
garden, which is one of the most meditative things people do;
maybe as you dug your fingers down into dark soil, you whispered,
“Oh, look! Red wigglers!” Or “Look! The nasturtiums
are coming through the soil!” When you trust the earth
to bring forth the seeds you plant, and praise the presence
of worms and seeds and insect-eating birds, you’ve joined
God in creation and found another way to do your prayers.
maybe you take a walk every day in a place that declares God’s
presence. I’m as aware of creation when I walk on the
nearby logging road in tree-spangled, rainy Oregon as I was
when, as a child in Arizona, I hiked beside the saguaro cactus
that lifted their arms to heaven, while lizards with blue undersides
swifted up the palo verde trees. Every
time you acknowledge Creation, you have prayed.
Zen Buddhists believe in a strict policy of
in which walking while thinking, taking pictures, listening
to a CD is unheard of. When you walk, you pay attention to walking.
And although the concepts of Zen Buddhism originated in the
East, they are not so different from those of Western mystics.
Once a novice found St. Teresa of Avila devouring a partridge,
holding the roasted carcass in her hands and ripping the meat
off with her teeth. “Well,” she told the horrified
novice, “when I pray, I pray. When I eat a partridge,
I eat a partridge.”
reminds us that eating and drinking can be holy occupations.
So can looking at your environment, or an icon, or a person’s
face. The prayer of the eye needs no words, because what you
see dances straight through your brain and your nervous system
and imprints forever on both memory and spirit. Dance and listening
to music can all be spiritual activities that you can dedicate
to God. In her novel, Household Saints, Francine Prose
wrote about a young girl who imitated the Little Flower, the
saint who gloried in small tasks. That girl was so enraptured
doing work for God that as she folded laundry, she stretched
her arms out in ecstasy as her arms and hands held the sheets
up like huge wings.2
You might want to start by making a list of things you like
to do, and choose one to start your new prayer life. These
don’t have to be brand-new, untried exercises. Tonight
as I sliced potatoes, onions, and parsley into the frying pan
and laid a fresh trout below the broiler, I turned my work into
prayer. I love to slice potatoes, seeing the faint flowery pattern
in their centers. And the rainbow that shimmered on the side
of the trout reminded me of God’s very first covenant.
When I put dinner on the table, I waited until my husband said
grace, and answered “Amen”—to both my potato
prayer and the one my husband spoke.
doing prayer can be spontaneous. Today, in the middle of August,
I looked out at the big snowball bush that grows by my window.
Although its big pompom blossoms have faded and dropped, the
dark green leaves now shade the house; and today, the wind moved
in them, dappling sunlight on my window and reminding me that
the wind bloweth where it listeth. I spread my arms upward like
branches in wordless invitation to the Spirit to blow through
me, too. So you’re as welcome to the wind as I am.
first step in doing prayer is making your activity intentional
“Intentional” means you decide beforehand what you’re
going to do and “consecrated” implies that you will
commit a sacred act dedicated to God. If you find yourself singing
as you walk the dog, you might feel prayerful and God will certainly
honor your celebration; but we’re talking here about planned
Matthew Fox says, “Everyone is a mystic.” He explains
that we were born full of wonder, and can recover that sense
of wonder at any time by exercising our awe. So approach your
first efforts with delight and expectation. Say to yourself,
“This is how I am going to pray,” and then begin.
Choose an activity—juggling, journaling, painting, poetry,
hiking, or haiku, and dedicate it to God as prayer. Before you
begin, create a ritual: you could light a candle, or wash your
hands, to remind yourself of your baptism, and of the refreshment
of living water. Or make a physical motion: place your hands
together in front of you in the namaste, or prayer
position, then bow, genuflect, or take a few dance steps. The
hymn “God Be in My Head,” is a good one to sing
as you start on this journey:
be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.3
create or continue an activity, dedicating it as prayer.At the
end of your walk or painting or garden work, say “Amen,”
extinguish your candle, and let gratitude for God’s approval
fill your heart.
Prayer for Your New Prayer Adventures
Dear God, please be in my understanding. I’m going
to learn a whole new way of praying, and I am both excited and
scared. Help me find the kind of “doing” that’s
best for me. Amen
Norman Pittinger, Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
(Grand Rapids,Mich.:William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,
Francine Prose, Household Saints (New York: St.Martin's
Be in My Head," from the 1538 Sarum Primer. "Sarum
Use"is the name applied to the particular rendering of
divine worship in the English Church that was developed at Salisbury,
in Wiltshire, from the early thirteenth century, a local expression
of the Western or Roman Rite in England up to the Reformation.
"Sarum" is the abbreviation of "Sarisburium,"
the Latin word for Salisbury, which was and is both a city and
a diocese in south central England. Words: Sarum Primer,
1538; Music; God be in my head, by Sidney Lytlington, (1875-1947);
Meter: Irregular. "God Be in My Head" is # 694 in
the Episcopal Hymnbook 1982, ©1985 by The Church Pension
Fund, 800 Second Ave., New York, NY 10017.
from Beyond Words: 15 Ways to Do Prayer by Kristen
Johnson Ingram. Copyright ©2004 Kristen Johnson Ingram.
Used with permission by Morehouse Publishing. Beyond Words
is an explorefaith.org
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