the no-prayer prayer guide

Psalms ~ by SAID *

lord
pray
pray loudly against the noise of the human hand
which seeks to drown out
and appear on quiet soles
so that we might understand your footsteps
exert yourself
in order to recognize our prayers
even when they appear in a different garment
because no prayer ever looses itself from the source of the one praying

lord
take up the speech
by which i pray to you
grant me the gestures
which have grown within me in your absence
so that i might  remain true to my uneducable nature
and take your weakness upon me.

lord
stay by me
even if I nourish myself from ashes and salt
be still and listen to the name
which i lend to you
because i want to distinguish you from the idols
grant me patience to endure those who are vain
with their empty words
and the converts
who are zealous to confirm their opposite
and grant
that my waiting be full of revolt

(* translated from the German by Mark S. Burrowemphasis mine)

Over the years, I have navigated through many theological waters; from evangelical and charismatic swells, meditative rip-tides, Methodical straits, and liturgical whirlpools.  Through it all I’ve tried to understand and practice the art of prayer. I’ve read books on intercessory prayer; joined “prayer groups” with “prayer partners”; taught on the dangers of Tibetan prayer flags; solicited prayer in prayer letters; and filled encyclopedic piles of personal prayer journals.

The sum total of all these many years of worn-knee, squint-eyed prayer posturing has lead to a humble (if jaw-dropping) revelation. Namely: I don’t know squat about prayer.

Is such a confession shameful or embarrassing? Do I mind admitting such spiritual impotence / ignorance / ineptitude with a practice considered so “elementary” to the life of faith? And after all this time even…

The answer is No. I’m afraid I don’t feel any negative emotions for admitting this. In fact, my perplexity towards prayer (in all its futility, inscrutability, and mystery) has reached such critical mass that I can honestly say that I don’t pray anymore. Not in any immediate, recognizable way.

This will bother some good Christian people for very good reasons. I’ll name ten off the top of my head:

  1. Prayer is communication with God. It is simply talking to God, i.e. being in relationship with God.
  2. Prayer changes others’ lives and our own. Prayer moves the hand of God.
  3. Prayer alters one’s spirit (i.e. makes one more aware of God and the spiritual world)
  4. Prayer is healthy. Scientific studies show that people who pray are healthier than those who do not.
  5. Jesus prayed. Period. (We should, too.)
  6. Prayer can change the world.
  7. Prayer stands in opposition to evil.
  8. Prayer promotes humility. How can you talk to an invisible Being and share your deepest secrets, desires, struggles without feeling a strong dose of humility?
  9. Prayer grows faith. Prayer honors God.
  10. Prayer, done in faith, reminds us we are never alone.

Now even though I don’t pray like I used to pray, I am not going to try to refute any of the reasons to pray I’ve given above with any counter-arguments or rebuttals. I have arrived where I am today and (surely) benefited from the oft-acclaimed “power of prayer.” But what I am going to suggest is that I believe there are times in one’s life, if it is honestly and thoughtfully lived, where it is easy to name a hundred good, acceptable, and truthful proofs about the value of ‘X’ [insert anything of value here, e.g. prayer, tae kwon do, Pilates] without feeling it in the bones or living out of its truth. (In fact, it scares me just how fast I could come up with the value-of-prayer-list off the cuff without the underlying practice being vital to my heart / sustenance / experience–to have such knowledge and ingrained philosophy about prayer but having it mean so little to my orthopraxy–well, something is serioulsy wrong with that equation.) Prayer is no longer really prayer then, when expositional proofs alone give it its value.

Anne Lamott’s two favorite prayers come to mind in this reflection: “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” But I think my approach to prayer the last few years has been even more basic than Lamott’s. More stripped of all embellishment or intentionality anyway. While I may launch out my own abbreviated petitions in a spare moment, a “keep them safe, Lord” or “In the Name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit”, my main tactic or method of prayer has been antithetical: a disciplined withdrawal from its practice. This won’t sound intuitive at all, in fact it probably sounds outright nonsensical, lazy, or foolish, but my main goal has been abstinence, openness, and a refusal to strive towards something that no longer contains the meaning it once did. I understand that may sound fatalistic, but it isn’t.

This poem by SAID, an Iranian poet living in exile in Germany, drives to the heart of what I think prayer means for me right now. Prayer in the poem (a very beautiful and shudder-producing poem) is the recognition (praise?) of human complacence or more precisely inertia that awaits God’s exertion and accommodation. In all the prayer books I read growing up, God’s accommodation to us was never really highlighted. His sacrifice, sure. His paying the ransom: a lot of that. But the ways he is inconvenienced and put out and willfully made to be less than He is in order to be hospitable and interface directly with us: that part was left out of the prayer guides.

Why should God ever need to “exert Himself” or bend to “recognize our prayers”?

Omniscient types don’t need to flex their spirit-filled muscles do they? But if “no prayer ever looses itself from the source of the one praying” then it is tangled with our fallibility, sin, and incompetence, isn’t it? In other words, our prayers can’t be understood without God flexing some “divine” triceps.

And what about basking in our “uneducable” nature or  “taking on God’s weakness”? What does that mean exactly? For me it’s an honest assessment of our own humanity. We are God’s weakness (his only weakness) and giving in to that reality–owning it and owning what we can’t learn or do, e.g. prayer–is not defeatist. It’s oddly liberating. And even in our weakness we begin to understand our own glory enmeshed with God’s.

Finally, I think the practice of not-praying in order to pray has taught me what SAID is saying in the last stanza above. By waiting for God to exert Himself I am paradoxically making God be still. Or rather, I am asking him to accommodate again through the stillness that precludes borrowing a name. A name I have given Him. It may not be the name He would prefer, or even one of His true names (and who can know the capital-T True name or character of God, but God alone?) but it is a name that sets him apart from the idols I construct delay from within my reality.

A lot of people I’ve known are zealous (about prayer and other spiritual things) and as SAID suggests these zealots make converts in the opposite direction. I am not interested in that type of apostasy. I am not interested in their type of prayers. For now, I am more resigned to the hope that God will stay by me while I wait. Like SAID’s Psalm I expect  “that my waiting may be full of revolt”.

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