How shall I pray?
Prayer isn't easy. There's a reason it's called a discipline.
How do you pray? The way I pray changes often. Sometimes it’s intentional, quiet, in front of a candle even. At other times, it’s simply sitting quietly on my commute to work, purposefully avoiding my email and social media while I mindfully observe my surroundings. For a while there in the summer, after putting my son to bed, I would sit on my back porch and attempt watercolor paintings of the scenery around me. I’m not a visual artist, but the way the colors would pretty much do their own thing once I dabbed them onto the paper was an interesting discipline and opportunity for me to learn about praying with intention. But then the weather turned cold and I started climbing into bed and under the covers a little earlier and earlier every night. Instead of allowing my mind to wander and quiet, I rewatched old episodes of The West Wing. That felt restful to me.
Lent has offered the incentive to delve back into something a little more intentional. I’m not exactly a pious person, whatever that means. Well, here’s what I mean: I go to Mass every week. But I stand and sing after receiving communion. I don’t pray the rosary, like, ever. But my family does evening prayer with readings from the lectionary followed by personal petitions, an Our Father, and a collect. It just all takes place over dinner. We read scripture with food in our mouths and pass our prayer book while taking swigs of beer. Sometimes we light a candle. It’s an intentional practice in that my family intends when we open our prayer book every night to be together, to give thanks together, and to remind ourselves to keep doing this, together.
This year, I’ve taken more seriously the other two disciplines of Lent—fasting and almsgiving—than I normally do. These divisive times and all. The fasting and almsgiving feel so straightforward: You either eat or don’t eat. Give alms (in my case, money) or don’t give alms. Sure, there should be a little reflection involved, but as disciplines, they’re much more active. Prayer on the other hand is a little trickier. It seems to put me in more of a receptive or passive position, a deeply uncomfortable place for me.
Likewise, I never really know how I’m supposed to “feel” when praying. It feels like a win just to tune out the mental grocery list. I wonder, what does it mean to focus on Jesus while praying?
Recently, I told my my spiritual director that I while I do a lot of prayerful things, I don’t know if they count as prayer because it’s not like I’m feeling super spiritual when I do them. He suggested imagining Jesus sitting on my son’s bed, joining us for our bedtime ritual of stories, songs, and prayers. I tried it. It felt ridiculous. I suppose my spirituality, while certainly incarnational, has never been real Jesus-y—at least in the way that involves imagining Jesus, in robes, sandals, hanging out with my family as we tuck the toddler in. I might as well have been imagining Abraham Lincoln, beard, top hat, sitting on the bed.
Still, I think it was an important exercise because it reminded me of what I already know about my spiritual life. Personally, my spiritual life is more likely to thrive in the practice of faith: the being who we are and the doing what we do as Christian people. This is what I mean when I say I have an incarnational spirituality. I have difficulty separating the “stuff” of our lives from spirituality because the very stuff is where I find God. And so, for Lent, I’m thinking about my prayer less in terms of closing my eyes and quieting my mind. I’m opening my hands, turning my palms up, keeping my eyes open, figuratively and literally. You won’t see me bowing my head at Mass, but looking around at all the blessed souls I’m praying with. And I’m allowing my fasting and almsgiving help me to sink a little deeper into the stuff, to help me think a little less about me and a lot more about others. I’m not talking about mere mindfulness but cultivating disciplines I hope will be an opportunity for deeper awareness of the presence of God.
What about you? How do you pray? Do you change it up for Lent? Have you tried a form of prayer that just wasn’t a good personal fit? Is there a particular discipline you hope to cultivate for carrying on even after Lent?