Here are my cards on the table: until the last few years, I have more or less treated prayer as something that happens to me—it is something that takes me by surprise, and at times, it is something that I am doing before I realize what is happening.
This may be good in moments, very good, in fact. But it is fair to say this is an inconstant sort of prayer life, one that is difficult to maintain, even two days in a row. And as I learned from Teresa of Avila this month, even saints experience “spiritual dryness” on a semi-regular basis.
Very simply, one thing has led to another, and I know it is important for me to do this praying thing on a regular basis. Even when I don’t feel like it, even when it feels like I have not a clue what I am actually doing, even when I wish I could say I did something more tangible, like make toothpaste tubes.
And sometimes, I feel a little lost.
I think I forget that He sees the struggle and the floundering, the myriad ways and days that I try to open my heart, to acknowledge Him rightly, to commune. That even on days when the field looks barren, the verses seem distant, the stirrings seem muddled, He knows that, too, sees that, too.
He knows. He sees.
It’s not like He’s waiting by the phone, wondering why it hasn’t rung as I drive through a tunnel or frantically shove the battery back in after I’ve dropped my cell for the tenth time that day.
Alright, so I might not actually think about it in quite those 21st-century/anthropomorphic terms, but perhaps that’s something of the sentiment, in effect. (This faulty metaphor may also have something to do with the countless phone troubles I’ve had lately.)
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down
and and are acquainted with all my ways.” Ps 139: 1-3
“So [Hagar] called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God [who sees me].’” Gen 16:13
“But the Lord was with Joseph…” Gen. 29:31
“And [Jesus] said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’” Luke 8:48
He knows. He sees.
I think there is something the fumbling that can be blessed, too, and that my clumsiness doesn’t shoo Him away somehow. And, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The categories in the Prayer Book,” for example, “are for sharpening my intention, not for winning God’s attention.”
To be clear, I think there are some types of prayers that are more faithful than others, and I’m not talking about written vs. spontaneous vs. intercessory vs. contemplative, and so on. Rather, at the core, there are thoughtless prayers and ones with the best kind of intentionality; there are those that seek and praise Who He Is, and those that, at best, express a self-referential love. There are those that acknowledge His holiness, and those that only make Him out to be my tame imaginary friend who tells me I’m pretty when I’m having a bad hair day.
And then there are motions and surprises and trips to the grocery store and laughter and brisket sandwiches and tears and songs that can fit these categories, that can be prayerful, too.
These things I do believe.
But in stubbornness or shortsightedness or even forgetfulness, I often neglect to bring even these things to Him. Perhaps it is because it seems to be a strange inversion—how do I begin to (as a friend put it this week) “pray about prayer?”
I think one of the most vivid pictures C. S. Lewis offers in Mere Christianity is on the question of what it means when we talk about God helping us:
When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it.
Maybe there is something mysterious and trusting about asking Him to grip my hand a little tighter, because the letters I’m forming seem more jagged and wild and lost today or this month. And they still might not flow well, and I still might not get the answers I want.
Maybe there is grace in the request itself, and that is a good place to start.