This morning, an elderly woman swathed in a flowered marmalade scarf fingered her rosary beads throughout the service. All around her, voices joined in other prayers, like the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. And still, the beads slipped through her aged fingers gliding into the next decades. I began to think about prayer and what it can mean in life. But I lingered first with the dominant secularism in a society so heavily invested in what is nondenominationally described as “wellness” and seems to borrow heavily from the practices which evolved through centuries of religious traditions. There seems a hollowness to it, to the absence of belief in something greater than self while wrangling with the rigors and rewards of being humans. And so I wondered about what it is prayer and practice offered to those human beings of past centuries who dared to try it. Not the big names or the famous writers or even the well-known theologians like Bonaventure: the ordinary people who sat in churches and knelt in mosques and met in synagogues and visited temples. Those people. What did they experience? Why did they believe? Is it true it was because they simply “did not know better” as some claim? Or had they stumbled upon something of genius in prayer?
The practice of prayer in various traditions invites a focus upon something other than self while simultaneously inviting a consideration of personal experience. There is a paradox to it and an element of habit, of ritualism. Laying out the offerings before a Hindu shrine or carefully lighting incense in a Buddhist temple are acts of culture and of faith. Celebrating the Bar Mitzvah and receiving First Holy Communion are acts of traditon and identity…and faith. Imagine, though, that prayer from any tradition, allows the processing of life’s turbulence with a compassionate God, with a non-judgmental partner who willingly accepts whatever is offered: the grief, the burden, the concerns and the joys. There are all sorts of prayer: intercessory prayer, centering prayer, the Rosary and Gospel mediation, examinations of conscience….It is all about connecting with God and self. It is about finding a rhythm to wellness with a sense that there is far more to life than we often imagine.
Prayer means acknowledging that no matter what concern you place on the altar, you are no longer alone in that. Contemplative prayer is a sounding board that creates time to reflect and re-imagine next steps. Prayer is not the mere recitation of words, but the sense that someone is listening, not just hearing you. It can allow you to lay bear the secret of your heart, relaease you fro the confines of self-imposed prisons. The ebb and flow of words themselves can become a pathway to step into a deeper awareness of what is real. And “real” is different for everyone, changes through life, and offers a kind of buffer through the process of living. It is the space where truth can be known, understood and acted upon without fear; it is the also the place where fears can be quelled like angry ocean waves made calm and peaceful. Prayer is confidence in a higher being and requires a confidence in being able to share what is happening in living.
The wealth and diversity of types of prayer are on parade in Christian and Catholic traditions: there is the simplicity of Terese of Liseux and her urging to become the plaything of Jesus and the practicality of Teresa of Avila about becoming the hands and heart of Christ for one another. There is the directness of the Serenity Prayer and the trusting words of the Lord’s Prayer, the poetry of the psalms.
Maybe the key to it all is recognizing that there is a certain genius to prayer: it enables us to connect, to be fully present and to be securely attentive to the whisper of God in life. Quiet, silent prayer helps us listen and helps us speak. Community prayer helps us see more clearly who we are as humans and act together with the sense that each one matters. There is a genius to the idea that prayer is a tool there for the using, something fully open to each of us.