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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Wednesday, November 11

By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
—Psalm 42:8

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” poet Mary Oliver writes in “The Summer Day.” But, she continues, “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/ into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields . . . .”

Most of us know what it’s like to feel incompetent at prayer, or to sense that our prayers don’t fit the mold. Perhaps they don’t sound poetic or “spiritual” enough. Perhaps they come haltingly, causing us to stumble over words. Or perhaps, even worse, the words don’t come at all.

Like many other people, I was first attracted to the Episcopal Church by the beauty of its prayers; they are poetry, and more often than not they’re able to articulate the thoughts and desires that I can’t. 

Using them as a yardstick, however, is comparable to gauging our financial success against Bill Gates’s: we’ll never measure up. If we insist on thinking of our prayers as “things,” as something we produce, we’ll forever feel inadequate, perhaps even frustrated to the point of giving up.

There are times when “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” either. At those times, however, I find the words of Thomas Merton to be of particular help. Writing in Seeds of Contemplation, he states,

[I]t is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, to see Him and to love Him is the one thing that matters. If you have desired to know Him and love Him, you have already done what is expected of you, and it is much better to desire God without being able to think clearly of Him, than to have marvelous thoughts about Him without desiring to enter into union with His will.


O God, when our spirits feel dry and the words won’t come, may we take comfort in the knowledge that even in silence, it is our hunger that pleases you, and desire that serves as our prayer.

These Signposts were originally published on in 2005.