As far back as the days of my Christian fundamentalism, I have struggled with the notion that I should pray. I remember trying all the things that I thought made for proper prayer: kneeling by my bedside, closing my eyes, placing my hands just right underneath my chin. Do I intertwine my fingers, or let my hands rest flat against one another? I remember looking up “Prayer” in the concordance of my Gideon’s Bible, searching for guidance on how to participate in this most important act of the Christian faith. Yet, even with my hands held below my chin and the most earnest desire I could muster, I would offer prayers to God and sometimes feel nothing in the moments, days, or years of silence that seemed to follow my petition. Or, I would feel as if a prayer were answered, and after that rush of satisfaction find that my next few requests went by the wayside.
I thought I was listening to God. I thought I was asking for the right things. I thought I was creating as pure a heart as a fifteen year old could, in order to then bring my requests to God. Somehow, though, my prayers always felt like they lacked the special ingredient that made them worthy of God’s ears, or that if I did get what I asked for, it was a short-lived grace.
Later, after my confirmation in the Episcopal Church, I found prayer to honestly be no easier. I thought, for a while, that because I now had liturgy, things would be different. My prayers would not be trapped in the confines of my own judgment of efficacy, and would instead be freed by the sacrament to feel the way they were always supposed to feel.
Prayer isn’t about me anymore; prayer is about the work of the people. While these are parts of my belief around prayer, I regret to inform you that I still struggle with my calling to pray. Kneeling, hands folded just below my chin, I continue to sometimes find myself sitting inside that same silent chasm.
I say this to acknowledge that I am still on a journey of figuring out what it means to be called to a life of prayer, and I know I surely won’t solve it during the season of Lent. Still, we will spend five evenings thinking specifically about what it means to be called to a life of prayer, because I wonder if maybe you’ve had some of the same thoughts about prayer, and even prayed to become more comfortable with prayer, too.
In our Baptismal Covenant, we vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in prayer. Our catechism defines prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” We are, as a Church, called to a life of prayer, but that can be made manifest in myriad ways, and challenge us in just as many ways.
Our Lenten Wednesday lecture series this year focuses on different aspects of prayer. We began with a theological teaching on intercessory prayer from our own The Rev. Paul Bradshaw. Last Wednesday, Rabbi-Educator Ariel Boxman from Temple Shalom helped us explore Jewish prayer practices that can influence and enrich our own. Tonight we will learn about prayer in monastic life with Methodist pastor and prior for the Missional Wisdom Foundation, The Rev. Adam White. In the coming weeks we will become pilgrims alongside Danielle Shroyer as we journey through the Holy Land praying The Lord’s Prayer. We will wrestle with the reality of trying to pray when we face grief, and the times when we are called to a life of prayer but do not want to talk to God at all, with Dr. Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Professor of Pastoral Care at SMU-Perkins. During our Lenten program, we have Eucharist every Wednesday evening at 6:00 p.m., as is our weekly custom. I hope you will join us and participate in this act of prayer. We will also end each lecture with a different type of evening prayer, with this structure as a reminder that our time together begins and is ended in prayer.
As I continue to struggle through my own prayer life, I am finding my peace around prayer through releasing my intertwined fingers, my rules for how it is that I must present myself to God. I am exploring different ways of thinking about prayer—everything from the grand liturgy of the Easter Vigil to the simplicity of five minutes in silence each morning. My prayer is changing from petition to presence, and I’m finding that God feels closer to me for it. As I relinquish the confines that only I have put on prayer, I am reminded by God that it is the love of God, not my work, that creates the space where prayer begins.
God is faithful to join us in bread and wine, and just as faithful to join me as I curl up on my sofa while I sit in what feels like a silent chasm. As I try to live into this life of prayer, I find myself more comforted by the silence, not because it offers me answers, but because it frees me from the heresy that everything I wonder should have an answer. As I continue to explore prayer, I am drawn further into the belief that it is the exploration that it is the act of prayer, not what follows when I have said my “Amen.” It is my prayer that through this season of Lent we will be formed as a community and given direction in our common prayer life, as well as how we pray when we are alone. I look forward to how this prayer will change us, and how this prayer will change me.
-Erin Jean Warde+