Thursday, February 11, 2010

Prayer: A Personal History

I prayed the rosary as a kid. The rosary, for those who may not know, is a modified necklace of sorts. But instead of wearing the beads around one’s neck, one holds it in hand and pauses at each of the beads and prays a prayer. There’s a crucifix at the end of the necklace, and the prayer associated with the crucifix was called The Apostle’s Creed, a long recital of basic Christian doctrine. There then followed an Our Father, three Hail Marys, a Glory Be, another Our Father, and then the grueling grind: a Glory Be followed by ten Hail Marys, with that pattern repeating another four times.

These prayers – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Apostle’s Creed – were prayers that had been prayed by Christians for a couple thousand years. Mary gets about ten times the prayer focus as God the Father or Jesus – a problem in Protestant circles – but at the time, as a child, I didn’t think too much about it. All I knew was that after months, perhaps years, of intense practice, I had knocked down my rosary time from an excruciating half hour to just over fifteen minutes. I could zip through the rosary like nobody’s business.

I had good teachers. Father Soltis, our parish priest, could power through the 6:30 a.m. Mass in just over 20 minutes. He was an absolute speed demon, although “demon” is perhaps the wrong word to use given the context. But there were only about three old women in the pews, and they were only half there mentally anyway, so I don’t think Father Soltis had much compunction about finishing as quickly as possible and heading back to bed. I served as an altar boy at a lot of those Masses, and rang the bells whenever he lifted the Host over his head. At one point he told me to 1) not ring the bells so loudly, and 2) not ring the bells for so long. His advice probably cut another five seconds off the total Mass time.

The lesson that I took away from all this was that prayer and worship were obligations that one hustled through as quickly as possible. By about fourteen I had figured out that I could save even more time if I ignored them altogether. So I did.

In college, as a young, Born Again Jesus Freak, decidedly of the Protestant Persuasion, I learned that prayer was simply conversing with God. One didn’t need rote, flowery prayers, and God probably didn’t like them anyway. One didn’t approach one’s best friend and recite Shakespearian sonnets; why should one do that with one’s Cosmic Buddy? I started attending prayer meetings – furtive little gatherings in dorm rooms and off-campus apartments where people sat on the floor in a circle and said things like, “Lord, we just want to praise you. Yes, Jesus, yes.” It was simply conversing with God all right, but it was all kind of boring. If I was God, I would have been mildly freaked out by it, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone out of my way to hang out with these people. I’d have looked for excuses to take in a comparative religions class or a Quaker meeting or something.

But one of the lessons that stayed with me from that era was that it was imperative to have a Quiet Time. A Quiet Time was a daily time – usually first thing in the morning -- of prayer, meditation, Bible study, and worship. Since the worship, in true Jesus Freak fashion, could sometimes get fairly loud and rowdy, it was actually a bit of a misnomer, but the basic idea was that one needed regular, daily time with God; time to center one’s thoughts and attitudes, to reorient one’s life, to grow in knowledge and wisdom, to pray for your needs and the needs of others, to honor and praise God, to remember who He was and who you, with a small Y, were and were not. To this day I think it’s a perfectly decent notion.

The thing that derailed all these wonderful plans was called Sin. I wasn’t very good at Quiet Time. Here’s a little-acknowledged fact: when you’re a screwup, and you don’t know how not to be a screwup, you don’t particularly want to spend time with God. I know, I know. That’s what repentance is for. You screw up, and you confess your sin, and God forgives you and you move on. But here’s the deal: repentance implies that you want to change. And my own experience was that it wasn’t that simple. I was dealing with habitual, nay, addictive sin in my life. Part of me desperately wanted to change. Part of me wanted to be left alone to wallow in my sin. Part of me was scared to death to change. Part of me was scared to death not to change. Welcome to the wonderful world of addiction. It’s fun for you and the whole family.

In such an environment, the notion of Quiet Time was supremely threatening. I’ll let God sort out the theological and salvific implications of all that, although you’re welcome to give it a go. Others have. My own belief is that I was a Christian, and a lousy, ineffective, hypocritical one. I know that I prayed during those years – and yes, they were years – and that sometimes I prayed fervently. Often my prayers were of the “oh shit, help me” variety. But I didn’t really want to spend time with God. I didn’t want to come face to face with God, and I didn’t want to come face to face with myself, with the person I’d become.

These days I’m a screwup who tries to spend a lot of time with God. I don’t have a Quiet Time. I have a number of times during the day when I stop, shut up, try to focus, and pray flowery, rote prayers that the Church has prayed for a couple thousand years. I pray the Divine Hours, the same prayers that monks in monasteries all over the world pray. I’m not a monk, and life happens and I can’t always stop a 2:00 p.m. work meeting so I can step away and pray. So I pick up at 5:00 and pray those prayers, and move on. I don’t worry about it. But at regular intervals throughout the day, I stop, focus, re-orient myself, and am blessed by the words of others, who help me recall what it is I believe, and why.

Here is a prayer that I prayed this morning, shortly after rising:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

I think that’s a pretty good prayer, and when I think about it, focus on it, align my thoughts and my will with what is being expressed, it becomes my prayer as well. There’s nothing flowery or rote about it. It’s what I desire. I need help to achieve it. Help me, O God.

I am still undoing, and God is still undoing, the lessons I learned as a child. I don’t have to hurry. I don’t have to escape. I can sit, in all my discomfort and malaise, before a God who loves me. Help me not to sin involuntarily. Hell, help me not to sin voluntarily, and to wish for the painful death of the smug asshole who …. Oh, help me, God.

I actually pray this way. The sins of omission are important, and I’d like to think that I’ll get to them. But for now, I’ll settle for not blatantly, deliberately sinning. Help me, God.


Jim Janknegt said...

Great post. Thanks!

I too, pray the Divine Office. It took me quit awhile to realize that it is more of a listening prayer than a talking prayer, if you know what I mean. so much of what I was used to from my Jesus Freak days was telling God how to fix the world, mostly my world, mostly me, me, me. Psalm 95 contains the phrase "today, listen to his voice" which was a big tip off that the whole purpose is to hear what is on God's mind, not so much to tell him what is on mine.

Fred said...


cnb said...

I also try to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I don't do very well, for lots of reasons. Mostly because I'm not a very good pray-er. I also sometimes feel that it is too many words, words, words.

But, like you, I used to believe that reading or repeating set prayers was the sure sign of a dead faith, and I no longer think that. One prays such prayers in a different spirit: receptively. That seems to be what you're saying too. Thanks.

allcedars said...

Thanks for writing about this. It's good to hear about honest doubts/struggles from other Christians.

Where did you get your copy of Divine Hours?

Andy Whitman said...

Thanks, Meredith. I have a three-volume set called "The Divine Hours," edited by Phyllis Tickle. There are separate volumes for Spring, Summer, and Fall/Winter. Inexplicably, spring starts in February, so I'm currently praying springtime prayers while looking out over a foot of snow. The books should be readily available, but I bought mine from Amazon.

Hayseed said...

Great post, Andy.

Pilgrim said...

I like Frederica Mathewes-Green's recent book on The Jesus Prayer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this--it's encouraging.

And I'd also like to throw a vote down for Frederica's book "The Jesus Prayer." Good stuff.