There was a time when those four words would have sent me into orgy of self -loathing. I just didn’t pray – or at least I didn’t think I did. I hadn’t yet been introduced to the idea that prayer was rather more than the prescribed ‘Hands together, eyes closed’ instruction of my childhood. I thought that God saw no point in me, because he was so busy listening to all those people who were down on their knees getting it right.
Last night, I had my first meeting with my Novice Guardian since I was made a novice in the Third Order of Franciscans. Still chock-full of imposter syndrome (but that’s another story) my immediate internal response to her query, ‘How do you pray?’ was to revert to panic. My first reaction was to say ‘I don’t’ - but that’s not a good look when you’re exploring being a member of a religious order, and so I toned it down and took another run at it, so to speak.
And I talked about what prayer hadn’t been for me for years and years because that felt like the best place to start. Sitting in a meeting, age five, the faithful bursting out in tongues around me, their eyes closed in a rapturous, ecstatic, heavenly trance whilst I watched, didn’t feel like prayer. Standing in serried ranks at my grammar school intoning the ‘Our Father’ whilst the school bully nicked my hymnbook which I’d inadvertently left on the floor didn’t feel like prayer. Making myself as small as I possibly could, incoherent and tongue-tied in extempore evangelical meetings didn’t feel like prayer. Curling up inside when a well-meaning, beaming friend asked me to say grace over the spag bol didn’t feel like prayer.
I concluded that only certain people could pray and I wasn’t one of them.
So, when I was asked last night, ‘How do you pray?’ I got all of that off my chest as a starter for ten whilst my Novice Guardian who is lovely, listened patiently (and I suspect prayerfully). And then I began to talk about what prayer is for me now with all that history of not talking to God (or so I thought) and God definitely not talking to me because I was such a spiritual loser.
You know, it’s quite a revelation to realise that God doesn’t want me to be eternally angry and sad. God wants me to join in. God wants me to say, ‘Let’s talk’ and for me to be able to listen without being terrified I might be struck down with a thunderbolt for not being a good enough Christian.
So, I began to name the ways I pray now. In my childhood church this would simply not have been understood and would have been viewed with suspicion as some sort of heretical cop-out. There was only one way to pray and they had it totally sorted.
Now, I pray when I’m walking. I love being outside in the fresh air and feeling the ground beneath my feet, repeating my mantra with every step. I want to talk to God about the people I love, and the people I know who are sick, and the people who are struggling with impossible family situations and all my sisters and brothers in the Third Order and the climate emergency and the homeless and the refugees and...
Sometimes I walk quite a long way.
And I stand in my choir and I sing music that reaches down into the very depths of my guts and pulls them inside out but in a good way because when they settle back, I know that |I have been in touch with God, and that’s prayer too.
And I sit at my laptop, as I’m doing now, and I write, and God dances with me over the keys and I ask her what I should say, and I don’t know how it works, but she likes writing as well.
And then, because I feel connected when I do those things, I say my Community Obedience for the Third Order every morning and I say Compline every night. And the words become as familiar to me as my school song was back in the day, but now these words of prayer bring me to life, and so even if I’m distracted or dog-tired or just cranky, I can still pray.
My Novice Guardian told me last night that the novitiate is a slow process of finding my way. Fine by me. I’m not looking to break records. A slow process of finding out how I pray, and how I meet God. And that can change over time.
So that’s how I pray. And the most important word for me in all this is ‘connection.’ Breathe in, breathe out and on every breath, God is. God connects with me. I connect with God. One step at a time.
How do you pray?