Thinking about Prayer

Circumstances in my family’s life lately have resulted in more prayer, heightened prayer, more intense prayer. What follows are some of my thoughts on prayer: what it is, what makes it work, different ways to think about prayer.

Prayer is a mystery I’ve never quite figured out.  Some regard it as merely self-therapy, an occasion to verbalize, order, and make sense of the jumble of conflicts they feel.  Certainly it is that, but certainly it is also more than that.  If it were not, a tape recorder or a good friend could replace a deity, and supernatural intervention would not exist, only human decisions.

Yet I have too often been guilty of practicing prayer at this level: it has been, at times, only a sorting through process that helps me to organize my chaos, see it more clearly and lay it in order before me so I can make a more intelligent choice and act upon it.  Maybe God allows us at times to use prayer that way; maybe he stills us enough through prayer to let our God-given brains  kick in and function as they should, and then allows us to believe we have solved the problem or made peace for ourselves when it was he all along. Perhaps this is what Emerson had in mind when he called prayer the “soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the Spirit of God pronouncing his works good.” Yet I know that prayer is much more than a soliloquy.  There is power beyond.

No longer, however, does prayer contain the flash and thunder that it often had in the Old TestamentBthere is no rumbling from a mountain that makes the earth quake beneath my feet, no fire jagging from heaven, no audible, decipherable words from God himself, no immediate action of the Lord before the words even leave my mouth.  There is not even a still, small voice that I strain to hear–certainly no outline of angels in the darkness, no wet fleece or rushing mighty wind or dove above my head.  Even if there were, would my brilliant, enlightened human mind explain it away with reasonable logic, even as they did while standing before Christ himself–“Some thought it was only thunder”?

Annie Dillard argues that God withdrew his awe-full voice at our request; the Israelites, she said, could not bear the terror of shaking mountains, rumblings from clouds, the heat from pillars of fire or flaming bushes, and thus they begged God to be silent.  It is we, she says, who have “gagged the landscape” so that rocks no longer cry out.  Perhaps this is so.  Perhaps God would like to speak to us in thunder, whisper to us on quiet nights, but we are too afraid to truly encounter him or cannot comprehend the terrible implications of shushing his voice.  Only Moses was bold enough to ask to see God face to face but settled–gladly–to see only his back as he passed, Moses himself only peering out from a cleft in the rock.

I have not even the cleft.  Too often, prayer is only a duty, though a grateful one, said before food, after travel, or in response to something good and unexpected in my life.  At other times, it is almost ritual, reciting the needs of others, or my changeless litany of thanks.  Not often enough is it a genuine soliloquy, and even more rarely is it a conversation.  How can one listen, make two-sided a conversation, when God is silent?  There must be a wordless language he speaks that I do not attend to or that I cannot hear because of my own loud voice.  I know this is true, and yet I do not cultivate my own silence, do not allow myself to slip into a state of unselfconsciousness which, as Jane Yolen notes, is as necessary to the act of writing as it is to prayer: “The writer in the midst of writing, like the penitent in the midst of prayer, finds the self falling away.  Or getting out of the way.  Only when we slip out of our writer bodies do we truly don the skin of story.”

Sometimes I cannot get beyond the “formula” of prayer, the certain form it is “supposed” to take, the language it is to use, the components it must have.  It is hard to break through into a pure language that is mine alone, into uncomposed speech that is as natural as breath.  Yet at times I do discover it, and minutes are uncounted and structures are gone, and I am lost in the liberty of not choosing my words.  At these times, I know that there is someone listening, unseen and silent, yet very present, and caring with a depth I cannot fathom.

Such times have multiplied since I have begun to regard my writing practice as prayer.  Looking at writing this way helps me to see the worth in what I’m doing;writing seen this way is not a waste of time (whether I produce something salvageable or not) nor just a frivolous pastime.   It helps me to see that what I do is serious, even sacred, participating in small degree in the holiness of God and his creativity.  I can worship him through my words, I can attend to and point others to the mysteries writing reveals to me, I can offer something worthwhile to the world and to God.  Anne Lamott seems to hint at this mysterious dynamic between writing and prayerful attentiveness when she notes that “when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening.  And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect.”  My talent is in this way multiplied and given back in conversation with the Word. All our talents have the potential to be prayer, if prayer is worshiping God, giving to him, delighting in and using the abilities he has gifted us with: baking, singing, gardening, hospitality, cleaning, speaking can all be praise, service, worship, prayer.

Of the gifts I have been given, writing is perhaps the greatest; there is pleasure in the creativity of language, there is skill in putting words together, and hopefully there is a usefulness, a service available in my ability to use language.  This is what I want, and what prayer at its best should be.  Madeleine L’Engle, the great Christian writer, explained this connection well: “As I understand the gift of the spirit in art, so I understand prayer, and there is very little difference for me between praying and writing.  At their best, both become completely unselfconscious activities; the self-conscious, fragmented person is totally thrown away and integrated in work, and for the moments of such work, be it prayer or writing, I know wholeness, and sunside and nightside are no longer divided.”

Writing is meditation, musing, noticing intently, concentrating on seeing and hearing God, quieting myself, listening, searching for meaning and sometimes answers, refusing to believe that I address silence, trusting that there is an audience for my words.  Writing petitions and asks for something; it shows gratefulness and acknowledges a need for God.  All of these are elements of prayer, and the thin lines of my pen on paper are waverings of incense sent up before God.  He notices, he cares; hopefully he is pleased by my efforts.  I know that he does not consider it a waste of time even if I sometimes do.  I need to work towards having his faith in what I do, believing in myself as much as he does.

If these holy moments are rare, it is because I exclude myself from them.  I fill the empty pockets of my days with clods of dirt instead of with the smooth, solid stones that time with God can be.  As with everything else in my life, I must make time for writing and for prayer, value it enough, need it enough, to allow for it.  As L’Engle also wrote, “If I pray only when I feel like it, God may choose not to speak.  The greatest moments of prayer come in the midst of fumbling and faltering prayer rather than at the odd moments when one decides to try to turn to God.”  Days without exercise make me anxious and guilty, days without my children make me lonely, days without food deplete me.  I should be as hungry for the savor of prayer.


“Is not prayer also a study of truth, a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite?” –Emerson, Nature

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