Tuesday, February 2, 2016

what perhaps prayer is

Ava's Prayer

I was sitting in silence at the back of a church in Chicago, thinking that I should pray, and suddenly not knowing what that meant at all. When I say: "I will pray for him," what do I mean?
When I say to a friend: "I will pray for you," what will I do?

What did those words mean? Would I address God directly, and say, Lord watch over your servant? Would I remember them that night in prayer before I fell asleep? Would I offer up a prayer right there and then, as I typed those words? The simplest form of prayer-- petitionary--had completely stumped me.

I turned to the book of prayer intentions behind me on the wall, and began to flip through. Ava's message to God struck me. "Dear God, please pray for my little Sister Isla because she is going to make her first communion this Sunday.
Love, Ava"

While perhaps phrased in less-than-accurate theological language, Ava's prayer possessed a clarity of purpose and a simple message of communion that pierced the clouds of my confusion.


I think perhaps prayer is the tears I cry in place of my mother's, and perhaps it is an embrace between us in place of words. Perhaps to pray for another person in their sorrow means to sit silently besides them, and simply let them grieve, quietly. Maybe to hold their hand. But maybe just to witness to the sorrow that holds their heart.

Grief is so sacred and quiet. It dwells deep within your heart. Who could you allow to touch it or enter it? To speak of it loudly, in passing, to strangers or even loose acquaintances seems like trampling over holy ground. Only those who take off their shoes and walk gently can be admitted to your grief.
But grief is like a scar, chiseled into your forehead, for the entire world to see. If someone does not comment on it, it seems a callous oversight. How could they not see the throbbing scarlet wound that marks your brow, and not acknowledge that you are marked.

To pray with one who grieves perhaps mean to say nothing, but to feel their grief, heavy on your own heart.

There seems to be a prayer in reading through old letters, deciphering the script of the past, trying to make sense of long-dead stories. Reading the words of our grandparents from times long past, treasuring the bits of who they were caught in ink and paper, is a kind of communion with the deceased. Perhaps.


I know that prayer means a saving from myself. When I travel too often, or too long, my mind goes a little bit haywire, spinning in barrel rolls as the plane speeds through the air, I find myself running through the same thoughts over through my head. Tires spinning, going nowhere but growing more entrenched in the mud.
Then suddenly, a voice enters the chaos of my internal dialogue. That voice that is not my voice, and brings with it thoughts that are not of my creation. These thoughts are not my thoughts, and they speak of ways that are not my ways.

That voice: born out of something deeper inside me than myself, and so wholly foreign to my selfish being, that voice, perhaps, is prayer.


I was walking in the woods with my father, staking out the property line at my grandparents', our feet molding soft impressions into the damp earth. I was spilling tea from my mug each step we took, the steam from the spilt tea rising from the cold forest floor. And the woods smelled like pine straw in the rain. The sky was damp, and the air was filled with the smell of dormant life. We followed the dated and dilapidated barbed-wire fence through the near-empty creek bed, under fallen trees, and through the rivulets and ravines that snaked through the evergreens.

I walked with my father, and we talked together some. But mostly we just walked and marked the trees: with purple paint, orange nylon tape, and memory. Is this, I thought, a kind of prayer? Are my father and I praying together right now? Am I praying for him as I follow his steps through the woods, laughing over new memories and old?

I was pondering what it meant to be Mary the Mother of God, who did not do anything extraordinary, until all of a sudden she was asked to do the most extraordinary thing. She knows what it must be to have a plan, to know with peaceful certainty what life will bring her. But then, to have her ordinary frustrated by the extraordinary. She knows what it is to maneuver through the in-breakings of the miraculous that mire our simple lives in inconvenience.

She accomplished the decrease that accompanies God increasing. She was forced to make her life about God and not about her at all. Yet nothing about this woman full of grace is forced. Her acquiescence to the invasion of Divine Love is graceful, peaceful, and elegant. Nothing could be more natural.

I think that prayer is walking through the woods with my father, and
remembering, with a sudden force,
that my life is not about me.
My love is not about me.
Suddenly, seeing my life in the light of the cross.
Perhaps that is what prayer is:
allowing the cross,
some grief,
a voice,
to break into
my vision of my life--
with force--
but to be received with grace.

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