Reimagining Prayer

I’ve spent a lot of my life bouncing prayers off the ceiling. I’ve also had some good experiences with it—times when I felt uncannily heard, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I needed to say. As if sometimes the desires of my heart just managed to express themselves more effectively than I did. But how to account for that unevenness of experience?

For many decades, I’ve been consistent in trying to pray. Why hadn’t it ever quite become a place where I could find reliable personal refuge from the storms of life?

I think prayer has often functioned for me as a way to express my fear and voice my desire for control of the things about which I feel helpless, even though I’ve often yearned for it to be something more. I never dared stray far from the same, well-worn strand of words that slipped through my mind starting in childhood. 

And then about a year ago, I finally attempted to reclaim prayer for myself by coming at it from a new direction. I decided to spend a month writing a prayer every day. I wanted to use words completely different from anything I’d been taught to say by someone else. I wanted to put my prayers into the universe under their own power, unfettered even by the constraints of their previously prescribed destination—recipient unknown.

These written prayers were comprised of the observations of my every day—small things I found worthy of note as I went, things I wanted to write and hold and even share, but not with anyone I could identify. When I’d feel a nod from the Universe, I wanted from these prayers a tangible way to acknowledge it with a nod in return. Here’s one of them, the prayer sitting at the heart of the project itself:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN—

You have given me a voice from the beginning. Did you not expect that I would want to use it? Filled me with the press of questions, with wonders deserving the honor of my attention but also my words. Trusted me with children who could not grow strong under my silence, in addition to yours. We must both tell them what we know.

You’ve demanded—commanded—my honesty, but not the kind that speaks in my language, not the secret begging for daylight. How could you have placed me here within this world’s tangled knot, asked me to let the thread ends lie helpless on the table?

Am I meant to walk in silence? Am I meant to notice only the things pointed out by someone else? When will it be my turn to point and name, to ask but also answer, to speak my way to the front of the question?

Let me draw close to you with my mouth, press my shell heart against your ear. You’ll know when I have said what I needed to say. When my foot finally rests from its eternity of nervous beating. When my silence becomes listening, rather than marking time.

That particular project to remake my personal prayers did make a difference for me. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t have trouble thinking of them as prayers, but I did have to give myself permission to write them. New permission, every single day. As if the prohibition of such a radical act was deeply imprinted somewhere too complicated to reach.

Since that project I’ve added other new things to my “prayer life,” in addition to the usual Mormon-style prayers that still punctuate my days and from which I do continue to draw real comfort. Meditative evening walks now fall under the prayer heading for me. These are less about words than they are about reaching for something without them. I’ve come to suspect I may have so far relied on language too much in my attempts to communicate with God.

I’ve started having non-prayer conversations with God too, right out loud and whenever I like. I feel we can call ourselves by our first names in these conversations, so to speak. As if our friendship has finally become just that. We use whatever kind of language suits us at the moment. We can each say what we need to say. Not everyone would recognize these as prayers, but they function like that for me, in the same way I feel better after pouring my whole self out across a table to someone for whom I don’t need to explain much.

Trying new approaches in my desire to pray has brought me closer to something that feels like two-way communication. I’ve come to the realization that praying always must surely allow prayer to look like as many different moments as there are in my day. Somehow, my “heretical” experiment with written prayers got me out of my own way just enough to finally let myself speak directly to God.

On March 19, 2020, Latter-day Faith will be hosing a virtual fireside discussion exploring ways we might approach prayer. We hope you’ll join us.
 

Author: Susan M. Hinckley

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