My mom taught me to say my prayers when I was about three years old. “Now I lay me down to sleep … God bless mommy and daddy and David and Granny and Paw-paw and … Amen.” Kneeling by the bed, it all made sense. God was up in heaven and we were all going there someday but that was an infinity away.
When I was about five, I got the occasional privilege of saying grace. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him … Amen.” Or, if feeling bold: “Rub-a-dub-dub. Thanks for the grub. Yeah God.” Maybe then it wasn’t really prayer. Maybe it was performing or even showing off. Whichever, I was still praying at night as I’d learned from my mom.
At age six, I learned the Lord’s Prayer. It was immediately comfortable and comforting. The language was old and formal and familiar. And I had no idea what it meant. It was something I said at church sometimes but it wasn’t part of my praying away from church.
When I was about eight, my family started going to Berachah Church at the corner of Sage and Alabama in Houston. Up to that time, we had been Baptists. While attending Berachah, I learned from Mr. Hankins in Junior Church to “pray to the Father in the name of the Son” and about the idea of sin and that we needed forgiveness. I learned that forgiveness was ours for the asking as long as we confessed our sins. “Dear Father in heaven, please forgive me. I have lied and been mean to my brother and didn’t … ” Ever since Berachah, 1st John 1:9 has been every bit as familiar to me as John 3:16.
I learned that I could talk to God and that he answered prayers (although I didn’t really consider how). I understood the idea of asking God for help but I didn’t ask for much because I figured God was pretty busy. Sometime around then, I began to realize that God was responsible for a lot of the good things in my life and in the world so I began to pray “Thank you.”
As time passed, my parents divorced and both remarried. My mom and my stepfather (who was and is the silver lining of my parents’ divorce) took our combined family to a number of different churches. As the oldest kid, I had something of a vote and by seventh grade we had settled on Gethsemane Methodist. At first, nothing much changed. Then it came time for me to be confirmed. I took the confirmation class and … it was no longer simple and it no longer made sense. There was a Someone on the other end of what had so far been a one-way conversation. He wasn’t talking back – at least not in a way I could hear – but He was definitely there. I declined confirmation – not because I didn’t believe but because I wasn’t sure what I believed.
A couple years later, I accepted confirmation. I still wasn’t sure what I believed but by then I realized that that was not abnormal; a lot of people weren’t sure what they believed. Whatever else I learned about God and faith in my teenage years, my prayer life stayed pretty much the same. I was still praying “forgive me” and “thank you” a lot but maybe I was beginning to pray “help me” a bit more.
When I got to college, I joined a nominally Catholic fraternity. The prayer that opened our fraternity meetings ended with “St. Thomas Aquinas pray for us. Play ball.” I understood “Play ball” as a sort of college smart-ass way of saying “amen” but had no idea who St. Thomas Aquinus was and even less how he could pray for us. Nevertheless, I began to be aware of the ideas of the “communion of saints” and “the church at rest.” And I began to understand that we could pray for them and that some people – mostly my Catholic friends – thought that they could pray for us. As a Baptist-Berachah-Methodist, I had a tough time with the idea of praying to anyone but God.
In my mid-twenties (after marrying a cultural Catholic), I went to Catholic confirmation classes but the idea of “praying to saints” proved too much to overcome. I suppose it might have helped if I’d understood who and what saints were and that I would have been more asking them for their prayers than praying to them, but I wasn’t there yet.
A few years later, I wandered into an Episcopal church. I was still praying as I’d learned to pray at Berachah but I had a better idea of to Whom I was praying and more of a sense of the reasons I prayed. After being confirmed as an Episcopalian, I began to do some reading about God and the faith. I became a lay reader and began to pay a lot more attention to the liturgy. It was then that I realized that the liturgy was essentially an extended prayer. Since then, different parts of it have jumped out at me at me at different times.
When I learned that my brother had AIDS, I found that I didn’t have the words to pray for him. A fellow lay reader introduced me to the prayers for the sick in the Book of Common Prayer (page 348). It gave me exactly the words I needed. Other than the Lord’s Prayer, I had never before used a written prayer in my regular prayer. I began to learn that the Book of Common Prayer had a lot of prayers (for instance pages 813-835) that could give voice to my thoughts when my words would not come.
A few years later, I was in a dark time and struggling with being able to talk to God at all. I was reading the daily office lectionary everyday but I was torn up on the inside. One Sunday morning, the words
Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love Thee and worthily magnify Thy Holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP page 323)
sunk in. How many times had I heard these words spoken and never heard the meaning? That Sunday, meaning sunk in and some light began to come back in through the dark. “… All hearts are open, from whom no secrets are hid.” God knew what was in my heart and He could clean up that mess of both my heart and my life. There was comfort there as well as a realization that there would be more to learn from the words of the liturgy even though I had heard them countless times before.
In my reading. I bumped into Presbyterian priest Fredrick Buechner’s comments on the Lord’s prayer in which he refers to the words of the Episcopal service “Now, as our savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say” before we say the Lord’s Prayer. He says that we are bold indeed to say the Lord’s Prayer. He’s right. In a sense we condemn ourselves when we say “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” I must forgive in order to be forgiven? Not so simple that.
While on the subject of forgiveness: I have always had a little bit of a problem with the general confession as we say it in the Episcopal Church in morning and evening prayer and at the Eucharist. My problem is that it is too general. It seemed to me that, as we weren’t confessing our specific sins, the prayer didn’t seem wholly truthful. One Sunday in Lent, as we knelt saying the confession during the penitential order, I was struck by the juxtaposition of our Lord’s words in the summary of the law we read and a section of the general confession.
Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31
I have long understood that all our possible sins involve disobeying one or both of these two commandments – love God and love our neighbor. That day when we prayed
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
I realized that in confessing this we confess truthfully and we confess all. Our confession is true.
I still think I need to confess privately as well because I still think we need to remember, confess, and ask forgiveness for our every sin, but the problem of a general confession is now (for me) resolved. And I even see a use in it I wouldn’t have imagined before. In our general confession, we confess all those sins that we have forgotten against both God and our neighbor. May both God and neighbor forgive me.
Not too long after being confirmed as an Episcopalian, I somehow got into a routine of attending worship – whether a Eucharistic service or morning or evening prayer – almost everyday. At the time, I had a very flexible work schedule. When I missed a day, I felt it. Then I got a new job and my schedule changed; I could no longer attend most weekday services. I still felt like I needed the daily service so I began reading the Daily Office – usually Morning Prayer – at home. Somehow as time passed, this devolved into just reading the lectionary and not reading the psalms or the prayers. I’m certain the daily Bible reading did me good but even though I thought to myself that I was reading “Morning Prayer”, I realize now that I was leaving out the most important part – the prayer. So I thought I was praying more than I actually was.
I began to fix the problem – maybe before realizing there was a problem – after reading C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis got me to read the psalms and I began to understand that whatever else they are, the psalms are prayers. As I added the psalms back into my daily ritual, I was again using both the lectionary book and the Book of Common prayer (because that’s where the psalms are) so I slowly began to re-add the other elements of the Daily Office back into my daily prayer. I will admit that I sometimes break it in half at or after the creed and read the latter half a bit later in the day. I usually omit the canticles but I try not to omit many of the prayers.
As I began again to pray the Daily Office, I incorporated a lot of my prayer duty into it as well. Prayer duty? Performing my prayer duty is praying for all the people and things I want-to, need-to, and/or am-supposed-to pray for or about. Prayer duty is the list I keep on my computer to remind me to pray about/for certain people and things. It is a sort of obsessive-compulsive adult form of “God bless mommy and daddy and David and …” but not quite the “Prayers of the People”. I pray for the ill, the departed, the grieving, those in trouble or need, and for the conversion of my friends who are not Christians. I am trying to learn to pray for my enemies, such as they are.
While I still sometimes pray the daily office using the lectionary and the Book of Common Prayer, I now often use some other tools to help with my prayer – my computer and my IPhone. There is a website called Mission St. Clare (http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html) that gives the complete text of each day’s morning and evening prayer with all the readings and prayers in place so there in no going back and forth from book to book. I can pull up the site on my laptop or even on my IPhone and so read the daily office anywhere. If I use the text version and don’t close the window, I can even put the device to sleep while I board an airplane and then begin reading it again, even while not connected to the internet. I had never thought that technology would positively impact my prayer life; I wonder if Gutenberg may have felt the same way.
So my obligation (Duty? Need?) for prayer is filled by the formal form of the Daily Office (usually Morning Prayer, Rite II) having replaced “saying my prayers” before bedtime. But I still pray at many other times and those prayers are no more or less heartfelt. Some are formulaic and occasion specific:
“Father, we thank you for these your gifts of food and wine which you have given us to nourish our bodies and make glad our hearts …”
“Father, please bless this airplane and all who fly on her, her passengers, pilots, and crew, and grant her safe flights and landing on all her journeys …”
And so on.
Sometime over the last few years, I have moved from the formality of the Rite I language to the (for me) clearer language of Rite II. Nevertheless, an occasional “thee” or “thou” sometimes still slips its way into my prayers.
I still pray from panic (“God help me”) and need (“God help me”) and for forgiveness (Also “God help me”). I still pray “Wow” and still pray “Thank you”. And I pray more about silly things and trivial things – things that I am half embarrassed even to pray about and things that sometimes feel to me as if I am wasting God’s time (but thankfully I have read enough to believe if not to know that God operates outside of time so it is impossible to “waste his time.”)
The other day I prayed a trivial prayer and I knew before it was answered that it would be because even as I began to belittle myself for praying such a prayer, a voice inside my head (but not my voice) said “Trust in the Lord, always.” And as my prayer was answered I heard “My grace is sufficient for you.” I know that “Trust in the Lord always” is from Isaiah and that “My grace is sufficient for you” is from St. Paul but both phrases came unbidden and I both know and believe that they are/were indicative of a grace given to me in that moment.
I pray while I am walking my dog Connor and I often pray while I am driving. Sometimes my mind wanders as I pray just as it sometimes wanders in the midst of the Eucharistic service. I used to get mad at myself about my lack of focus but now I have begun to think that my mind wandering is sometimes God directing my mind and consequently my prayer to an area that needs attention. Of course sometimes my mind wandering is simply my mind wandering. In any case, I remember reading (Lewis again) that as we pray to the Father, the Holy Spirit is inside us giving us the words and the Son is behind and beside us supporting and directing us.
I seem to have spent much of my life learning to pray. I pray more now than ever before but I know that I still have much more to learn about prayer. There is always so much more to learn …
– Charles M. Bear Dalton