“…and for all these gifts, the gracious provision of your hand, we give you thanks, Amen.”
I’d just finished a heartfelt word of thanks before our evening meal when Johnny runs over from his end of the table with a finger stuck in one tightly scrunched eye, “Dad, I can pray with one eye!”
It’s hard to imagine what he was thinking about when he shared his news. And, as a three year old, I doubt he has the cognitive development or the vocabulary to explicate his ideas. It could have been any number of things.
It may have been a boast as in, “Dad, this matter of prayer has become so easy that I can do it with one arm (eye) tied behind my back.”
It might have been the discovery of a trick, “I can pray and keep an eye on my siblings at the same time.”
It might have been the simple revelation that he’d learned to close one eye instead of two.
It’s impossible to say, but his news raised several good questions about the nature of prayer.
What makes for earnest prayer? I certainly felt I’d offered an earnest prayer at the nightly grace. There was genuine feeling in my thoughts, but was I sincere enough, or did I just enjoy the sound of my voice? What was motivating me?
Sometimes, before meals, I pray in haste, more as a matter of habit or out of a guilty sense of obligation. It always feels like there’s something missing in those prayers.
The children take turns at the evening meal. There is a sameness to their words. “Thank you for this food and this day and give us a good night’s sleep, Amen.”
I’ve no doubt the prayer was first offered in sincerity, but year after year the repetition rings hollow, the heart withheld from the words.
Observing the children in the bedtime prayers it seems their conviction is that the tighter their eyes are closed the better: faces are scrunched up with hands firmly gripped and pressed against their nose in the posture of pious devotion.
Language is important and we are often tongue tied not only by a lack of words, but a feeling that any words we do offer will sound stupid or clumsy. I remember a weekly prayer meeting I organized for my first church. There was a fellow in the group who always prayed using the language of the King James Bible. “Thee and thou and thus and thinketh upon us, etc.” I always wanted to ask him why he did things that way, but he was the sort who was easily offended, so I just listened and tried to imagine him doing Shakespeare. Had I looked I’m sure I’d have seen him with his eyes shut tight.
Every Sunday at New Wellwynd an elder comes to pray with the ministers just before the service. I am always grateful for the words. But, too many times the elder will complain to me that his or her words were somehow “no good, and that they never feel comfortable praying out loud.”
“You did a fine job,” I tell them. “I loved it and thank you for doing it.” They always look unconvinced, as if prayer was best left to the “professionals.”
Posture seems to be important too. Catholics pray on their knees with heads bowed, while Evangelicals are inclined to pray on their feet with heads up and hands raised or opened as if they are reaching for something, or expect something to be dropped from heaven, a penny maybe?
I’ve tried both but praying on my knees hurts so much that all I can think about is the pain and when I’ve “done enough” to get up. I feel weird with my hands up or out. It’s just not right, for me.
I used to pray at my desk with my hands folded but all too often fell asleep in the middle of it. ‘Snoozing before the Lord,’ I called it.
Is snoozing before the Lord somehow better than lying in bed? Is it better to have eyes and hands scrunched; better on our knees or with a liberal use of “thee” and “thou”? Is it better to say the same thing every night or mix it up a bit? Jesus got up early to pray, but what if we’re not ‘early risers’? Do we really need to pray before the sun rises or can we do it at night? After all, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.
My priest friend counseled me once that my time with the Lord was the most important thing I would do. Whether I felt like it or not, whether I read my bible or not, whether I said the same prayer or nothing at all, whether I had my face scrunched or prayed with only one eye, it didn’t matter. The vital thing was to put myself in the presence of God.
“Let Christ love you in prayer,” he told me.
You can’t “do” prayer because prayer does you. We can’t make it happen, because in prayer something happens to us. We cannot begin to imagine the unfathomable mysteries that transpire when we come before the Divine power in prayer. We are like children in prayer, no matter how well versed or rehearsed.
So, if you want to pray like King Jim, that’s fine. If you want to pray on your knees or your feet or at your desk or in your jammies, that’s fine. If you want to pray in the morning or at night or while sitting in traffic, that’s o.k. If you don’t know what to say, don’t sweat it. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. You can even pray with one eye if that makes you feel good.
Just do it, just pray and let Christ love you.