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Toward a Broader
Definition of Prayer
God works in moments.
Old French Saying
Oh, God!" we yelp as it becomes crystal clear that the truck barreling down on us intends to run the yellow light. "Help!" we moan as we spot the return address of an IRS audit team in our pile of mail. "Oh, Jesus," we breathe when we can read the grim diagnosis on the doctor's face even before she speaks.
For many people, these agonized cries in the face of disaster constitute prayer. Crisis prompts their only communication with the Deity. Their prayers are heartfelt, urgent, directthough some might argue that this approach to prayer is like phoning a friend only when we desperately need a favor.
Most of us feel less guilty about making that call if we've already established a context for it. If we have wasted time with the friend, know her quirky habits, share lots of meals, run a few of her stupid errands, and frequently get lost on the highway together, we're less reluctant to plead, "My basement is flooding! Can you bring your Shop-Vac right away?"
God, like a friend, doesn't rule out last-ditch pleas. But it's nice, when we suddenly find ourselves in a predicament, if our yelps of pain, surprise, or grief are set in the context of an ongoing relationship. We aren't afraid to contact heaven suddenly when we've established an ongoing conversation, when we're always trying to deepen our relationship with God. We can approach Godconfidently, because we've learned to have an attitude of prayer in all circumstances.
PEOPLE AT PRAYER
Such an attitude is possible for all of us. Unfortunately, what may hamper this attitude for some is a stereotyped notion of prayer. People may get stuck on one face of prayer: to them, it's an easily recognizable activity. The folks kneeling in church, fingering rosary beadssurely they are praying. The monks or nuns in brown robes, singing the Psalms as they have for centurieswe know they are praying.
Yet if we are too certain that only saying formal words with other people constitutes prayer, we may be closing ourselves to other possibilities. Outworn ideas of prayer can get stuck in a narrow niche, growing mossy and irrelevant. If we rethink prayer in broader terms, we are not being irreverent. Rather, knowing how much we need prayer, we seek to make it vital, attractive, and accessible.
Prayer can in fact wear many faces. Some may startle; some may simply surprise. Nor is there always correspondence between the outer face and the inner motive.
A nurse at work, for instance, might be deeply involved with patients and paperwork. But sometimes she pauses to consider that she works not only for the paycheck that supports her children. She recalls also that her work taps God's unique gifts to her; her compassion contributes to healing the suffering Christ in human beings. That pause to reflect may last only the length of a coffee break, but it transforms her work. She is centered and reenergized by knowing that God goes with her, into the oncology ward as well as into the coffee shop. She has not fallen to her knees or fingered a rosary, but she has an ongoing relationship with God, an attitude of prayer.
By contrast, some monks and nuns would readilyand probably humorouslyadmit that while they appear to be praying the Psalms, they may in fact be worrying about a dental appointment or wondering what to cook for dinner. It's usually hard to gauge an inner state by an outward appearance.
From a brief description, we may not know what's going on within the people described in the following cameos. But if they are deliberately trying to know God better, they may all represent people at prayer.
* the climber who reaches the peak of the 14,654-foot mountain. With legs aching, she sinks to the ground and savors a long drink of water. With full appreciation, the mountaineer looks at the surrounding peaks, frothing like waves against the sky. She smiles with wordless praise.
* the husband who watches beside the hospital bed of his wife. He says nothing; he holds her hand as he has for two weeks.
* the young woman who spends the first or last moments of the day bent over a journal. Her roommates think she's doodling; in fact, she is making sense of her life, struggling to understand the day's twists and turns, gifts and challenges.
* the mother who rises to nurse the baby for the third time that night. With half-opened eyes, she bumbles toward the crib, scoops up the infant, and feeds him sleepily.
* the student who completes a week of final exams, three term papers, a group project, and the organization of a canned-food drive. He dives into bed, but pauses for a moment before falling asleep. Words addressed to the mysterious Holy One come muffled by exhaustion: "Thanks. I got it all done."
* the dancer who takes a deep breath, then leaps onto the stage. As the music swells, he knows that this is the moment into which long hours of practice have poured. The dancer pirouettes and pivots with utter joy in the strength and grace of a body trained for dance.
* the business executive who knows that a long day looms ahead. She faces the window and lifts both hands in an eloquent gesture. "Thank you for a new day," her hands seem to say. "I am yours, O God. Help me to be kind as well as efficient."
* the two friends who meet over coffee to talk through a dilemma that concerns them both. They listen carefully, lean across the table toward each other, joke, respect each other's truth. They leave knowing clearly what action they must take the caffeine was in the conversation.
* the protester who takes a deep breath and steps across the line at the nuclear weapons plant, thinking, "if I go to jail I go to jail. But I can't let conscience lie down and die."
* the artist who launches a new project, excited about its potential while still aware that it will take many long hours to complete. Still, a tantalizing intrigue hovers over the beginning: How will this look when it's finished? What will emerge?
* the older sister who knows it's drudgery, but does it anyway. "Just this once, Sam," she tells her younger brother. "I'll throw your jeans in the wash with my dark load so you'll have clean ones for the party." They grin at each other in the easy camaraderie of people who know they'll fail again, and once again, they'll bail each other out.
These are fully alive human beings, perhaps not conscious of all the implications of what they are doing, but nevertheless deeply engaged. Some prayerful moments are as dramatic as bounding across a stage; others as humble as laundry. The common denominator is the spirit of the creator stirring within the person and the human response to that voice.
These people are not praying in long, uninterrupted stretches or with precise, formal words. They might nod their heads in agreement with Jacob's surprise: "Surely the Lord is in this placeand I did not know it!" (Genesis 28:16). In reflection before, after, or during the event mentioned, they might recognize God's presence and continual invitation to grow in friendship. While every action is potentially prayer, they have chosen to consecrate theirs.
An attitude of prayer requires two parts, like two hands clapping or two wings beating. Bringing God into daily life means a constant movement back and forth between the action and the reflection. This heightened level of consciousness characterizes these people, and many more who are not described. Together, they constitute a chorus of people praying even when external appearances might not suggest it.
TOWARD A DEFINITION OF PRAYER
In a small town in the Colorado Rockies, people come to church wearing hiking boots and cowboy shirts. They gather in the basement to sit on folding chairs, drink coffee, and talk about prayer. As the discussion evolves, they are surprised that prayer can be so simple, so much a part of their daily routine. As people describe an ongoing conversation with God, one woman gasps, "Why, I do that all the time! How affirming to know that it's prayer!"
Jesuit priest Richard Hauser writes about his struggles to pray when he taught young students in South Dakota. Because of sheer physical exhaustion, he would sleep through the hour scheduled for morning prayer. He felt guilty about it, because daily prayer was crucial to his identity. But each night, when the dorms would quiet down, he'd go for a walk down the highway. Hauser writes, "I recall being discouraged and lonely and pouring out my heart to God. I also recall returning from these walks peaceful, feeling close to Christ and wondering how I could survive without these walks."
Then he had a startling realization: he wasn't skipping daily prayer; he was simply doing it at night. "I was walking down that highway each night to be with the Lordnot to fulfill a religious obligation. I had discovered a rhythm of being totally open to and comforted by God. I had learned to pray."
Casual observers might say, "There's a guy strolling down the highway." It's highly unlikely they'd say, "That guy is praying." Yet for Hauser, an evening walk was often a more meaningful, heartfelt activity than routinely going to church and reciting rote prayers in the amnesia of early morning.
Prayer is bigger than tried-and-true formulas. It means opening ourselves to a whole splendid range of possibility. The God who created hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone and an infinite number of snowflake patterns must love variety. God relishes human beings surging with life, not shadows keeling over with boredom at mind-numbing repetition. It's unlikely that God would reject a prayer because it didn't follow a particular formula.
Furthermore, God initiates the conversation. People who feel that all the burden is on their shoulders to work and succeed at prayer often feel needless anxiety and guilt. God comes to us in a myriad of ways, because God is infinitely creative about revealing God's self in ways that will best communicate with an individual. The human response is a sensitivity to God's initiative, an alertness to God's activity.
If we frame prayer as an attitude of sensitivity and openness to God, limitless possibilities are revealed: countless different styles, techniques, and rhythms are all welcome.
COMPONENTS OF PRAYER
While prayer eludes strict definition, we have seen that several components are vital. Prayer is a deliberate effort to respond to God's grace in our lives and deepen our relationship. God initiates the conversation in a number of ways; we answer with alertness and sensitivity, often in a language that is wordless. Sometimes we respond to God's presence in other people, a place, or an event, knowing that God's grace is mediated by people, places, and things. The theme of prayer might be "You grace me in varied ways, my creator; I respond in my unique voice. Help me always to know you better and love you more."
The individuality of this exchange is captured in St. Thérèse of Lisieux's definition of prayer: "For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love." Yet for seven years running, she admits elsewhere, she slept through her formal times of prayer.
Prayer is an attitude, not a formula; a journey, not a place. Jesus once asked two would-be followers, "What do you want?" In the best Hebrew tradition of answering one question with another, they replied, "Where do you live?" All seekers can be grateful that Jesus did not reply, "Fourth floor of the papal palace." Instead, he answered, "Come and see."
The staggering breadth of that invitation reminds me of my first experience of snorkeling, it was a rainy morning in the Florida Keys, the waves were roiling, and the Boy Scouts on our excursion boat had already gotten sick over the stern. When we reached the coral reef, the captain threw the ladder into the Atlantic with bravado and announced with a flourish, "Pool's open!"
Never mind that we were shivering in our wet suits or that we were clueless about our equipment. Never mind that we gauged the ten-foot waves with sheer terror. Somewhere beneath the surface, angelfish quivered through lacy violet fronds. The world under the sea awaited, abundant in beauty and hidden life. Such promise tantalizes our curiosity and calls us beyond our comfort zones.
If starting to pray is like jumping into the ocean, then jump. Come and see.
At the end of each chapter appear questions for reflection or discussion and "prayer prompts." These are intended to help the reader absorb and take ownership of the material, relate it to individual experience, perhaps discuss it with a friend or study group. They are never meant as assignments, "must do's," or mandatory work. While they may help some, they may annoy others. As with most suggestions, follow them if they help. Ignore them if they don't.
To the list of people "being prayer" (the climber, the husband,
etc.), add your own favorite example of yourself or another
person "being prayer." * Have you ever had an experience like
the Colorado woman's or Father Hauser's that surprised you
with some insight about the nature of your own prayer? If so,
Bless the beginning. If it feels natural, make some gesture such
as a sign of the cross or a peaceful, enclosing circle over this
book and yourself. Ask God to fill your reading and reflecting
with light, challenge, and gift.
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