I’ve never been very good at prayer.
Well, not if “prayer” is kneeling by the bed. If prayer is rehearsed immature rhymes and tick lists of requests and begging and grovelling and words I don’t understand to a god I don’t want to know.
Thank God that none of those things have to be prayer. Not if they don’t work.
I’m grateful to a great spiritual thinker, John Drane, for the various conversations he invites on his social media pages about life. John is perceptive, wise, and real. And he says that there are some important questions for us to ask about prayer. Even if – especially if – we’ve never prayed before:
How should we pray?
Who should we pray to?
What should we pray for?
What if I get it wrong?
Naming the reality
I love disaster movies. I often wondered what it would be like to live through a life-changing, worldview-shifting event. I’d be the planner. The organised one. The one who kept cool and dealt with the tough stuff later.
Turns out the truth wasn’t far off. I’ve been pretty organised and I’ve Got Things Done. But, perhaps behind the curve, it has taken me weeks to realise that we are living through disaster. What is happening around is will change life as we know it. Whether we feel it yet or not, we are living through trauma.
Humans have done this before. Yesterday marked three years since my own community was traumatised by a terror attack. The difference with the Covid trauma is the scale. We are facing this as communities, as nations, as the world.
When an individual suffers trauma, we expect a support system to kick in. They might seek comfort in the ongoing normality around them: touch, company, talking, socialising.
“Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, life goes on”.
With this trauma, life will not go on. Not as we knew it. We are living through immense loss, pain, grief, transition, and uncertainty. We are living through mass trauma. Everything we might turn to has gone, or evolved. Communal support, religious rituals, a stable healthcare service, financial security… all gone, or precarious.
This trauma is complex and multi-layered. There is the primary trauma of a pandemic illness. But then the secondary trauma of injustice (why is this pandemic affecting peoples historically oppressed disproportionately?), abuse (of people, systems, and rules), of loss (of people, relationships, ways of life, money, rituals, and touch). The nature of this trauma is that we are in a heightened state of stress and responsiveness for a prolonged period. We are not done. We are in the thick of it now. It is agonisingly painful and desperately tough, with more that lies ahead.
I am more and more convinced that even as we live through this, even now we can prepare the ground for healing. Not “fixing”. “Fixing” is a Western notion that control is within our grasp. We can put this right if we throw the right treatment at it.
We cannot fix this with drugs, with money, with planning.
It is out of our control.
“Healing” is different to “fixing”. The notion of “healing” takes away our need for control. Instead of fighting the current, we go with it, we travel together – in this case on a global journey through a pandemic – and we wait to see what good emerges.
And the first step to healing, I believe, is naming the reality.
This is trauma.
We are traumatised.
The worst days may still lie ahead.
This isn’t how life should be. This isn’t how I expected it to be.
But this is my reality.
There. I named it.
Prayer as naming reality
So if prayer doesn’t have to be recited rhymes or tick lists or great long lines of archaic language, then what is it?
I think the most effective prayer you can pray right now is to name your reality.
“God, this is terrible.”
You see, prayer is never about getting our own way. It’s not about demanding or pleading or begging for the best-case scenario to be the one that comes true. It’s not even about asking for second best, for anything except the worst.
Sometimes the worst happens anyway. Where is God then?
Prayer is many things, but it is not a magic wand.
And the first step in prayer is to name what is happening.
Sounds easy, right?
But to name something we have to notice it.
And we’re not so good at noticing. I was swept along for weeks with home schooling and supporting students and caring for a parish and conducting funerals and planning for a ‘new normal’, that I hardly noticed what was happening around me.
To notice something, we have to stop and look. “Listen with your eyes”, says the old rainbow song.
So, the first steps into prayer are:
Rest, relax, clear your mind for a moment. Seriously, just take a cup of tea and sit quietly for 5 minutes and breathe.
Listen to yourself, to what you have absorbed, to your 6 senses, to memories and fears and hopes and worries and the noise around you.
What has passed you by before this moment?
Say it. How do you feel? What is bothering you? What is eating you up? Say it.
You just prayed.
Prayer as deepening awareness
Prayer isn’t necessarily about ploughing through words.
Prayer is about noticing. How often do we stop like that, and notice our feelings, our reactions, our desires? Prayer is meditation. It draws us deeper into ourselves, and it simultaneously draws us out beyond ourselves, to something bigger and greater than our own inwardness.
What is going on inside me?
What is going on beyond me?
How much time do we give to those questions in the rush of life?
To ask these questions is to begin to pray.
Prayer as connection
Nope, still few words.
As we become aware, of ourselves, of others, what desires and yearnings begin to surface?
What deep unfillable holes within ourselves do we try to fill with food and people and Netflix and spending – only to find they fall through like sand and leave us unfilled, unsatisfied, empty?
To pray is to find deeper connection and deeper meaning. We are terribly disconnected. The Western world prioritises the individual to a point where we rarely ask what impact our actions have on anything and anyone.
As we stop, and become aware, what deeper connections begin to form? What peace fills us? What yearnings begin to be met in ways that don’t immediately slip away again?
In this way, prayer begins to join us to something bigger. A movement beyond ourselves and our own time. An awareness of life beyond ourselves: our own smallness and at the same time our amazing capacity to bring huge change, increased connection, and peace-filled justice.
Prayer as letting go
And still few words in this prayer.
As we name reality, and deepen awareness, and build connection, so it becomes easier to let go in prayer. Suddenly, prayer isn’t about what I want. It’s not about changing God’s mind or grovelling and begging to some distant, miserly deity.
Pray isn’t something that changes God. Prayer is something that changes me.
As I grow into prayer, I let go of my need to control life, to control others, to control God.
Instead, prayer becomes something that is honestly me, and honestly God. It is about noticing, resting, connecting, and letting go – and through this becoming more authentically myself.
Prayer isn’t a struggle, a battle, or a chore. Prayer is simply being, accepting, communing.
To pray is to become more authentically ourselves.
What if I get this wrong?
I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.Jesus
In these words, Jesus is telling his friends about what will happen after his own death. It is only Thomas who dares to voice the question they are all thinking: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how will we know the way?”
Underneath this simple question is a whole host of worry and uncertainty. Jesus has already assured his friends that he is going ahead of them, to his Father’s house, to prepare a place for each of them. He has promised to return, to lead them to this place. And still Thomas is anxious.
I wonder how many of us share similar anxieties about life and death? Is God really there, and does he care? Will God really remember us, and return for us? Has God really prepared a place in his house for each of us?
It takes great courage to ask the deepest and darkest questions of God. And Thomas’s question gives rise to one of the great statements of Jesus. Jesus is reassuring Thomas that he doesn’t need to worry about how he will find his Father’s House – whether there will be a place for him. Jesus has already said he will return to take us there himself. And there is no risk of getting lost along the way, because Jesus is the only way – there are no detours, no dead ends, no wrong turns.
These words are used, sometimes, to present an exclusive view of the Christian faith. That Christianity – or a narrow version of it – is the only way to be a person of authentic faith and spirituality.
But I don’t hear these words as exclusive, but inclusive. There is no way to God but through Jesus. There is only one way. And that way is through the one who took on everything of our own humanity to be sure that we would find our way to God. It is the way we are all on, regardless of what faith or not we hold, because to be human is to be on the path of Jesus.
So I don’t think it is possible to go wrong in prayer. Even before we take the first steps of naming the reality and deepening awareness, God is already there, waiting.
The God who waits is the same God who will lead us home. Authentically ourselves, and transformed by these brief, fleeting moments of awareness, connection, and letting go.