"Chaplain, will you pray for me?"
"What about praying together?"
"I don't know how."
I wonder how many of us are actually in this category of unknowing. Not knowing how. Or maybe not feeling that we are worthy of prayer. I know the incarcerated young people I work with often think of themselves as unworthy and unknowing. Before I deepened my spiritual life, I think I most often thought of prayer as that thing that was done in stilted language at the Thanksgiving Dinner table asking to bless the meal. It went something like this:
Gracious God, thou art good. Thank you for providing this food this day. I as thou to bless it. We are grateful that thou hast brought us together on this day. Bless us and may blessing reign down from heaven. Amen.
I can't even communicate the duration it felt the prayer took, either!
Here we were, little kids, staring at piles of mouth-water, tantalizing, herbacious food and some adult is over there letting the food get cold! And what is with the thou's and the hast's? What does that even mean?
Clearly, I didn't go to church as a kid. And clearly, family prayer at the dinner table wasn't something we participated in.
During childhood and adolescence, even though I didn't go to church often (there were rare visits to the grandparents that entailed a church visit), I felt, for me, what I describe as the presence of God. Not that I heard external voices from God, just a presence of a force in the universe that was beyond all and within all.
When I was in North Carolina as a teen, we lived out in the country. Real country. On 40 acres of hilly land where you could walk into the woods and escape the view of any people. I would occasionally walk the woods and occasionally just camp out in the backyard. I would pitch a tent just out of view of the house, build a campfire, cook my food, and contemplate the universe. The beauty of nature and the sky. It was a contemplative and meditative exercise. My favorite campfire food was to saute a can of mushrooms over the open fire. Canned mushrooms were all we knew then. I wish I had done more of this. But like so many things I love to do, I forgot how much I love to do it! Until it is rediscovered and re-experienced. Then the ancient memory rises up, "Oh yes! Here, there is life!"
Perhaps I have always been a contemplative soul inside a cheerleader's personality. Not an actual cheerleader, mind you, but the personality of exuberance, exultation, and, well, loudness. I have never ever ever been accused of being quiet. But I am.
This tension between quietude and exuberance is felt most keenly when contemplating prayer and spiritual practices. I do not know why so many of us think that the only good prayer is a quiet prayer. Or the only good retreat is a silent one. Although there is something to the movement of the spirit that can happen in the silence, there is very much possibilities for connecting to all-that-is by engaging in play or loud, exuberant music with hand clapping and bodies swaying! That is the charismatic movement in a nutshell. The need to connect to God exuberantly. This is a style of prayer that is most often neglected in our mainline churches.
I remember years ago our pastor asked the pianist to play music underneath the prayer time. This practice was discontinued because the pianist felt like he was manipulating the congregation. Somehow, he got the idea that music that moves us is manipulation. What if it is just spirit-filled? Beautiful? What if it simply engages another learning style than the approved anglo-saxon style of words, all the time, words. Or silence. But you better not be clapping, throwing your hands up in the air, or any such thing like that unless it is an approved time to do so. And only then will you do it awkwardly and without touching anybody!
Okay, maybe I'm a little harsh.
But back to prayer. Prayer is communicating or connecting to the bigger story of the cosmos in whatever way you can. Music, writing, silence, exuberance, play, proscribed prayer, spontaneous words, no words, swaying, quaking, study, together, alone, wandering the streets of an urban village or climbing the hills of a rural farm. Maybe it doesn't even have to be intentional. I'm fairly certain that I did not intend to connect to the divine in my trek through the hills to camp, but I did. The greater story of beauty that was laid before me found an echo within my heart.
Maybe I don't know how to pray either. If prayer is a constant litany of asking for this or for that, I may not know how. But if prayer is opening up my heart to you or the young people I encounter or to the sight of Mt. Rainier in the distance, then I do know how to pray. If prayer is being present to the beauty and angst in the cosmos, I know how to pray.
My prayer is that you will be able to find a bigger story to connect to. A story that lifts you up and challenges you. That calls you to greater compassion, wisdom, and mercy. That will open your heart to being present to the story and being open to the connection it creates between us all.
May it be so.