How do you pray?

I was raised Catholic, though with a rather large gap in my learning, going from First Communion catechism at a really young age — where learning about church meant making crosses out of popsicle sticks and singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” while walking from school to church together — to a rocky private schooling in the hopes I’d be confirmed before I married my first husband in the church.

The confirmation didn’t happen.  I was missing something big that prevented me from claiming to be confirmed, even at a time in my life when I was willing to say almost anything to avoid Bad Things (things like disappointment and disagreement and discussion).  Too many questions, too little time.

Almost ten years after that frustrating experience, I’m still searching for spirituality.  I’m a spiritual person, I know this, but all that discomfort keeps me from using the typical words to describe my beliefs.

I say “Universe” where you might say “God.”

I say “Believe” where you might say “Have Faith.”

I say “Trust Your Gut” where you might say “Follow His Word.”

I have epiphanies, clearly-defined moments where I from not knowing to Knowing.  I rely on my experiences — and those of others — for examples on how to act, what to do, how to be.  I have conversations with myself where I search out answers to unanswerable questions.

If there are wrong reasons for doing something, then does that mean there are right reasons?

I don’t want to be judgmental – don’t like how it feels – but I certainly believe there are right and wrong ways to live.  How do I reconcile that?

And the most succinct question of them all: what’s the point of it all?

I once had a very heady friendship with a man who was willing to debate everything.  Literally.  Every single thing.  It was as fantastic as it was dangerous, because when you spend all your time talking about life, you have very little left to actually live.  But the words and the thoughts, they were such a powerful infatuation.  (Not “temptation.” No, that’s not quite right.  There’s a better word.  “Infatuation,” yes, that’s it.  This is what I love… and how our conversations went.)

He was a recovering alcoholic; I was a recovering mess of a person.  His words intrigued me, I realize now, because they were laden with spirituality.  AA, after all, is rooted in religion.  I clearly, clearly remember finally understanding how to “let go of the oars.”  Though I wasn’t fighting an addiction to a substance, he was my sponsor.

A few days ago I downloaded A Maze of Grace:  A Memoir of Second Chances by Trish Ryan after Gretchen Rubin interviewed her.  I’m hooked.

Despite her fervent belief in Jesus (or perhaps because of it?), I find her completely relatable.  She references bloggers I know, stories I’ve told, feelings I’ve had – and have.  When she talks about praying for guidance, I think, “I’ve totally done that,” although perhaps with less conviction that it’s a natural or rational reaction when faced with frustration.  The idea of praying to some external being to fix your life is uncomfortable for me, but I’m realizing the answers often come from within, even if we look for them from external sources.

Spirituality is the ultimate paradox: something outside oneself that comes from within oneself.

In a strange way, then, I pray to myself all the time.  I pray when I ask myself, “What do I do? Do I stay silent? Can I yell? What’s the right thing? What’s the wrong thing?”  Sometimes, I even end with, “Please, God, what do I do?” most often while laying on the floor with my head on the ground, Elizabeth Gilbert-style.

{I first read the excerpt from “Eat, Pray, Love” in an Oprah magazine, then lost track of the magazine and the name of the book and/ or author for years.  Years!  Years later, then, while wandering a bookstore with my now-husband and his best friend, I saw the paperback and stood, stunned and speechless, tears in my eyes because I’d finally found That Book I’d been actively looking for since I had my own forehead-on-the-floor-while-thinking-“I just don’t want to be married anymore” moment.  I was hoping to find the answers at the time.  By the time I found the book, I just needed to relate to someone, having found and followed my own answers already.}

Is that prayer?  If it is, then I’m praying right now while I write this blog post, searching for answers for unanswerable questions, hoping to find other people who can relate.  Are we our own church? {Before you blow up at my blasphemy, hold on.  “Church,” by definition: a place for worship, a building or structure is to facilitate the meeting of a church, or group of people who have their own beliefs and forms of worship. One of the many wonders of the internet is the ability for like-minded people — or like-struggled people — to find each other. So I ask the question.}

I took a few days off to have conversations with myself, essentially to stop looking for my feelings in the carefully constructed conversations of my youth (thanks, Mom) but rather by spending some time with myself.  I think it worked.  Last night, my husband and I had a “real” conversation about kids and home renovations and why we’re here on this earth.  (Sort of.  No clear answers, but of course, that’s the whole point.  What I call a “real conversation” is actually a verbal meditation on our joint life.)

Perhaps prayer takes many forms, sometimes as the act of conversing with oneself, other times as a conversation between spouses.  Havi Brooks’ theory on talking to your monsters? Also, I think, a form of prayer.

Way back when, after taking communion, I’d kneel in a pew and wonder how to pray.  Should I ask for something? What is that guy asking for?  What am I supposed to say, God, because apparently I never learned the right thing to do?  I think I know now, for myself at least, asking questions is how I pray, even when there are no answers.  Doing so seems to allow for the possibility of an answer from somewhere, at some point, all of which are out of my control.

That seems right.

Be gentle, but do tell: how do you pray?  This blog allows anonymous comments, so if you’re more candid in anonymity, go for it.

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17 thoughts on “How do you pray?

  1. I was raised Catholic too – from Baptism to Confirmation – but nothing about my family felt particularly “devout.” I explored other denominations of Christianity in high school, explored other religions in college, then post-college gave up on the idea of a God (in the sense I’d grown up with) entirely. Now I try to focus on believing in myself and making things happen with my own talents and networks. My “prayers,” then – I guess – would be to myself, or for myself, or something. I also believe the universe has a power bordering on what I would have once called “divine.” I have the utmost respect for it. It has more power than I do. But I have power too. And I have will, and I have drive (sometimes!). I can do all things through myself, and the universe – which gives me strength.

  2. I love this – only because this comment has come up recently in my life, in my thoughts, and my own “meditations” as you call it. My father died when I was a young teenager, and I spent a lot of my youth angry, disoriented, my family the same. I attended Christian summer camp – a non-denominational one that helped me become more “comfortable” to the idea of Christianity, but after leaving … I wasn’t an active follower. But I leaned on it for many years following my dad’s death, through the (many) years later full of therapy. It was a comfort, I think.

    My husband’s sister just lost her husband in a tragic accident two month and BAM! I’m back in the thick of some very raw emotions. The notion of losing your rock, the center of your world (for her) is heartbreaking to watch, and to, to some degree, relive. And I find myself dwelling on the notion of spirituality a lot these days, and what, if any, I can suggest or talk to her about. Such a large loss almost begs for some ruminations on what you think of the world, what the purpose of such pain is, your ideas of the afterlife, of reincarnation, etc etc.

    I took an incredible “World of Religions” class in university – and it, as a matter of fact, dealt with the three biggies (Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and some smaller eastern religions) and how they approach death. It was eye opening, to say the least. Christianity comes in dead LAST on rituals and traditions that help the grieving. Moving on though, I found myself far more interested in othe religions, and what they might be able to teach me.

    And I think that’s my main sticking point: religion is there to help guide you in a complicated world, help to establish tradition and ritual – and I agree with the other commenter, I may not believe in a singular particular God, but I believe that there is a divine power up there.

    (And just like in Avatar – I think that miss Mother Earth is also one we should treat with respect, and that everything is far more connected than we give her credit for.)

  3. I love that we can have a conversation about the ideas outside of the rhetoric. Are there churches like that, or, by definition, do churches follow a specific form of teaching? I have found that, if the questions get too hard, very religious people get very uncomfortable. I get that, and I don’t want them to be uncomfortable, but I do want to find like-minded people who can discuss big unanswerable questions.

    It reminds me of being asked, in my Weddingbee days, about why I was getting married if my fiance and I fought all the time. Lots of people were appalled by the question, PM’d me to tell me not to take the bait, tried to jump to my rescue… but I loved it. We should be able to ask people that. It was a great question and forming an answer was a great exercise. Plus, it reminded me that some things don’t have good or bad answers.

    This post is a lead-in to some discussions I’ve been having about kids and life and our purpose as people. I love this… thanks for joining the conversation.

    {Also, if you’re nervous about speaking up because you ARE religious, please don’t be. I promise we’ll be careful about being intentionally offensive, though I can’t promise we won’t be unintentionally offensive, but will try to learn.}

  4. Hey, I was raised Catholic too! Picked up most of the sacraments along the way, but as we were C&Eers (Christmas/Easter churchgoers) it never stuck. Quite a few years back I realized I wasn’t welcome as a member due to my own beliefs and circumstances. So I stopped it all.

    Except I didn’t. I started to pray more, unfettered from the memorized prayers of my past and the notion that I have to speak to God either through a Priest or a rosary bead. In the morning, when I wake up, I say “Thank you for the blessing and the promise of this brand new (gorgeous, if the weather applies) day.” At night, I ask for help, or strength, or comfort for others I know are hurting. My prayer tone at night is almost whiny and sometimes irreverent (“Come on! He’s trying so hard to do this…give him a nudge, already!”) but it’s more geniune than 10 Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition ever were.

    • @Kimberly, Oh! You reminded me: I pray the Hail Mary when I don’t know what else to do. SO WEIRD. Suddenly I understood the necessity of words you don’t have to create when you are at your wit’s end. Literally, no more wit left. When you don’t know what else to do — and don’t want to scream or throw or cry anymore — you pray words you don’t have to create while they give your brain and heart a moment to rest.

      And once, in a moment of marital despair, I found my grandmother’s rosary (she of the fifty year marriage) and prayed a full rosary. I couldn’t have imagined it before then, but touching it felt like comfort and praying felt like relief.

      I once translated the Our Father into my own words and it was strikingly useful and real for me. Change the words to the ones you use in your head (Our Father = Dear Universe, etc) and wow, hey, that’s a really good one!

      My best prayers, I think, don’t involve words. They’re when I take a deep breath, look around me (usually outside) and just feel… everything.

  5. For some reason I thought that your post had quoted something about staying away from churches that claim to know the answers and now I can’t find that and it was exactly what I wanted to comment on.

    Oh well…I’ll comment on what you wanted me to…which is that I am a Christian, and I pray in those small moments of the day (or sometimes the week) that I can. Anne Lamotte once said that there are two basic prayers in the world…Thank you, Thank you, Thank you and Help me, Help me, Help me. I know that God knows my burdens and I don’t pray to God expecting to be eased from them, but rather I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is there to wrap Her arms around me and hold me through whatever I am praying for. I highly recommend reading some Anne Lamotte…you will not be disappointed.

    • @Coasting anon, Oh, how funny: as I read your quote from Anne Lamotte, I thought, I should read some Anne Lamotte. And then, a few sentences later, there was your suggestion. Do you recommend any particular Anne Lamotte?

      I am definitely a “Help me, help me, help me” kind of pray-er.

      When I went through that uncomfortable attempt at finding out enough about Catholicism to be confirmed, I was struck by how stupid it was that I was trying to prove I was worth loving and looking for confirmation that I was worth loving — from my fiance (ex-husband, now). The whole idea of Christianity is that we’re not, through our own actions, worthy or unworthy. We’re always worthy. Just like that. I’m only starting to understand that now.

  6. Great post. I was brought up Catholic, but now I would probably identify more as agnostic. I struggle a lot with issues of spirituality and I don’t really know what I believe any more. But I know that I frequently talk to God or the universe or someone/something out there throughout my day. I ask for help, guidance, a sign that I am making the right decisions or doing things the right way. I say thank you for all the little blessings in my life and the big ones. When I was younger I would get very caught up in the “right” way to pray, but now I just think of it as a constant, continuing dialogue. It brings me a lot of comfort.

  7. I love my church home and the family of people who support each other through mistakes and pick each other up when down; and I pray in the course of a day, help me with this, or give me strength to do that… but I pray most honestly and trust God most fully when outside. On morning walks when the air is less humid and the sun isn’t yet beating down with the force of the day. Sitting on a rock on a mountain, looking down over spans of grass, trees, hills, valleys and rivers, feeling small in the world. Feeling the sand between my toes and the waves on my feet on an ocean shore, looking out over the water and knowing that even though I can’t see the end of the water, where it meets another person’s shore, it does somehow, somewhere. I have found that when I search for answers, I find them best in God’s creation, His own cathedral. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that I am not all in the universe, you know- I don’t understand how flowers grow but I expect to see them every spring; I don’t know where rainbows come from but I know they appear after the rain. It’s sometimes in what I *don’t* understand that I find the answers for the things in life that baffle me or make me anxious. And sometimes it’s not even conscious praying but more of a conscious listening, watching, learning, breathing, growing. I don’t know if that makes sense. But more and more, I find myself going outside for a walk by myself when I struggle with answers and don’t know how to pray.

  8. I experienced a great freedom in my prayer life when I realized that prayers don’t HAVE to start with “Dear God” and end in “Amen”. I was raised in the Methodist church and am married to a Methodist youth minister, and my faith is still very much a central element of my life. My prayers do take the form of internal dialogue and giving in to that “gut” feeling. Many evangelicals call that “gut” feeling the Holy Spirit. When I feel the NEED to read a particular Scripture, or take a different route home (I have a completely irrational fear of car wrecks), I do it. I’ve always made it home safely, and there is always insight in the Scripture I read that I haven’t noticed before. I may not particularly like the insight I get, but it’s there nonetheless.

    I know you’re an avid reader–do you have a copy of the Bible on your Kindle? There are some fascinating stories in there, even if you don’t identify yourself as a Christian/Believer/what have you. And, as I’ve discovered as an adult believer, there is more to the stories than the felt boards in 4th grade Sunday School told me. (and I’d recommend a translation like NLT-New Living Translation-for ease of reading. The Message is certainly colloquial, but I struggle because it’s so clearly NOT what the original text says–throwing in modern references and such, and it just rubs me the wrong way. That’s completely my personal opinion though). If you can’t find a cheap one on Kindle, try McKays–they have a whole section of Bibles and you can usually find them for around $5. (I’m from Knoxville, too).

    As for your question about churches and rhetoric, I really think it depends upon the church. Some churches are all rhetoric and rules and damnation (and I’d venture a guess that their numbers are getting smaller, not larger). I’ll admit that I’ve attended the same church all my life, but we’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, and surprisingly enough, that one church has met my changing needs as I’ve “grown up”. We have a Celebrate Recovery service which is based on the 12 steps and their Scriptural parallels, so that might interest you, given your affinity to AA and the spirituality that resides in that program. The difference for Celebrate Recovery is that the higher power is named specifically as the Judeo-Christian God. And Celebrate is not just for folks addicted to or recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol–the catch phrase is that it’s for people with “hurts, habits and hang-ups.” I certainly fall into that category. I don’t in any way want to shove “Church” on you though–so I’ll stop there. I’m open to tell you more about it if you’d like to know.

    I suppose my point in all of this is that I think that prayer is different for everyone. Much like conversations are usually a little different for everyone. I may not start a conversation with “How are you doing today?” (More like, “Hey, what’s up?”), but that doesn’t make my conversation more or less of a conversation. There aren’t scripts and there aren’t rules and there isn’t a right or wrong. It just is. (I TOTALLY agree with you on your thoughts on the Hail Mary–I’m not Catholic so I never learned that prayer, but I do find when I’m at a loss for words of my own, I’ll “pray” song lyrics that come to mind. It’s nice to let my mind rest on something familiar in that way.)

  9. I’m really not very good at praying either. Back when I still believed in (the Christian version of) God (now I’m not sure what I believe – agnostic? atheist?) I just figured that since he was omni-everything I didn’t need to phrase things into words. He already knew what was in my heart so I just opened myself and I guess kind of visualized sending my unformed thoughts out into space. That doesn’t happen very often though.
    I’m not a very spiritual person but I am a grateful one. Most of my “prayers” are a deep breath, a smile and a Thank You sent out from everything and nothing.
    It’s even more interesting for me because my husband is spiritual and I’ve always known that religion would need to be a part of his life. (A very scary realization for me since I was badly burned by Christianity once before and have been leary of getting close to it ever since.) I thought for awhile that we wouldn’t need but that’s turned out not to be the case. However, I think it will be good for both of us. It’s probably time I confronted my fears.

  10. I wanted to come out of the woodwork on this one to wholeheartedly agree with beka and Ashley C. I too find God outdoors. And it took me far to long to realize that prayer doesn’t have to be a recitation or start with “Dear God” . . .

    My religion background: raised & confirmed Methodist, studied & nearly converted to Judaism, member of a Disciples of Christ (maybe, like “Baptist Lite”) church, close Mormon friends, Lutheran husband. My step-mom believes in the power of the Universe and Something Bigger — sounds much like you. She has a reworded Our Father she prays too, I think.

    Anyway, to answer the question, I pray through song. Music moves me. I’m not a singer or musician but songs come to me and through me as a way of communicating with God. He knows my heart and desires and He can understand me any way I say it, even if it’s off-key 😉

    To answer more of your questions, I do believe there are right reasons for doing something. Just as I believe there are right and wrong ways to live. I DON’T, however, believe that it’s my job to preach to everyone what I think is right. Making your choices and living them honestly shows what you think is “right” without being judgmental.

    When you talk to yourself or read something and really connect with it, yes, that is praying (in my opinion). Prayer is communication with the Universe or God or Your Better Self or whatever, in whatever way is comfortable. I’m a “help me, help me” pray-er too and I often find that God helps me discover answers through talking to Him about it or through mindfully talking to my husband about it. Something that was not there becomes clear in my brain. For me, that’s God. (Maybe not for you or for everyone, but for me.) I also don’t think that prayer is always asking for something (though I was fascinated by what other people might be asking for too! still am!) Sometimes it’s just admitting that I need help or posing a question or expressing a hope.

    Wow, this is super long & you don’t even know me but I feel like I’ve been there with you too . . . and I’m so struck by the one question you asked that I don’t really have an easy answer to: What’s the point of it all. And I don’t really know. But for me, the beginning of it all is God and the point is to try to figure out the point, through and with Him.

    hope that helps . . .

  11. I’m not great at long distance praying. There are folks at my church that can (and do) pray for hours. That tends to put me back into my own head, like, “What’s wrong with me? Am I even doing this right?” I tend to sprint pray – short little bursts throughout the day. That said, I actively put myself near long distance pray- ers regularly. I think it is good for me to experience something a little outside of what I feel good at.

    I love what you say about being the church. I go to a church where we are taught that church isn’t limited to Sunday morning. Church is community and “how can I give?” – it’s 24/7. So, yeah. We can be church just by sharing our ideas and supporting each other. We can worship (give worth to God) by encouraging each other. Which, if you ask me, sounds like heaven on Earth.

    Great post – very thoughtful!

  12. I was raised a casual Catholic. I never took the religion very seriously and stopped going to confirmation classes after a rather heated debate with the class leader over a few issues I had with their interpretation of certain Bible passages. In college, I gave religion a genuine go, attending church, focusing my mind on the ideas, trying to let go of my inner skeptic and find this ever-elusive faith, but it wasn’t to be. I’m now perfectly happy with the idea that life is what it is, and that there is likely no higher power that exists in the universe aside from the brute universe itself that we all are physically a part of. I find comfort in the view.

    I don’t pray. I see prayer as a means of communication with an entity outside of oneself, whether it be God, the earth, the Universe, etc. As a comfortable, content aetheist the idea of the existence of a powerful entity outside of myself that can comprehend my human mind and that I can also connect with via thoughts is something I can’t reconcile (I guess I could say I’m agnostic, as there is no way to be 100% sure that such an entity doesn’t exist, but the odds seem to suggest that there isn’t).

    That said, I do believe that introspection (some call it meditation) is a necessary component of being a well-adjusted, relaxed human being. To sit down and reflect on those things that nag at the brain and to mentally work through them. When life becomes exceptionally difficult, instead of seeking help or guidance from a higher power, I seek the nerve and grit I know exists within myself. That or I bug family members. In this way, I’ve always found Buddhism to be the most striking religion, though given my background, I’m still much more comfortable around the familiar ritualistic nature of the Catholic church.

    • @Rudy, As an addendum, I do believe that it’s impossible to know whether or not any view is the correct view when it comes to prayer and religion in general, so although I have my own beliefs, I have no way of knowing that others are correct or incorrect. Prayer as a concept seems to be very individualistic in nature, which, I think, makes it fascinating. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s responses.

  13. Love this post… Was raised by a preacher (obvs not Catholic) in a very religious home, and I pulled away from it years ago. But when terrible things happen, I understand why people pray. And when I see beauty in nature, I understand why people believe.

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