Extreme Prayer With the Basi Brood

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In grade school, I had a principal who had once been a sister—at least, so I was told. The main thing I remember about her is how particular she
was about how we recited prayers as a school. I remember one day we all sat down in the church, and the teachers handed out cards in which the spaces between the phrases had been replaced by slashes and double slashes. She made us practice choral speaking until we all said them in unison.

Columns 2I think about this many nights now at bedtime, when my brood is sprawled out in various positions around whichever room we’ve occupied.

There’s Alex: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

And Nicholas: _________OURFATHERWHOARTINHEAVENHALLOWEDTHYNAME…”

And Julianna: “(off in la la land) “Oh! Our, Fadder, who art…”

And Michael, his hands folded, looking cherubic until the middle of the prayer, when one of his parents realizes he’s not speaking at all and scolds: “Michael!” At which point he picks up slowly and deliberately: “Die kinndom come, die wih-ohh be done…” And then, to wrap it up, he says, “In duh name of faddah and-a-son, and-a hoh-wy speet. Amen. What are we pwaying foh?” After which everyone fidgets and fights. (”I already prayed for that!” “I can pray for Father Brooke, too!” “No, you can’t!”)

I must admit: frequently, prayer time does not feel terribly prayerful in my house.

On the other hand, it’s very real.

For a long time, I felt guilty because we don’t do the whole on-our-knees-around-the-bed thing. That’s how I grew up. Christian rolled his eyes, because he grew up with bedtime prayers in bed. To me, it was one of those “the posture influences the attitude” things. To him, it just feels legalistic. But he’s learned to tell everyone to “find a quiet spot.” That way all the fighting for who gets to sit on Mom’s lap/with Mom’s arm around them (and elbowing Mom’s most sensitive body parts) is done before we start.

Truthfully, my mind wanders every bit as much when I’m on my knees as it does in any other position: prone, supine, criss-cross applesauce on the edge of a bluff…for me, prayer has by default become more catch-as-can than I would like. There’s a fine line to walk between accepting the season of life for what it is and settling for mediocrity.

So lately, when things get just a little too beat-em-up, big brother (”hallowed be thy—STOP KICKING ME! MOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMM, HE KICKED ME!”) or a little too distracted (like the one who likes to sit on top of the rocking horse and gallop his way through the prayer), I’ve been yelling, “STOP IT! WAIT A MINUTE!” And when dead silence falls in the room, I say, “We’re going to start over, and we’re going to say this like a prayer.”

It’s a place to start, anyway.

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In Which We Need Your Help, Because Prayer In Marriage is HARD.

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Photo by fotosiggi, via Flickr

The hardest thing about marriage, as far as I’m concerned, is praying together. My husband is deeply uncomfortable with extemporaneous vocal prayer, and over time I’ve come, not only to understand, but to agree. Praying aloud, I almost always become too self-aware, drift too close to showing off, as long as there is another person around to hear me. I remember a friend talking about “bouncing prayers off Heaven”–Lord, please help so-and-so do such-and-such, because I know s/he is capable of fill-in-the-blank.

So we’ve really struggled. Formula prayers, for us, run toward distraction, and rattling them off actually accomplishes very little prayer at all. Scripture reading leaves us frustrated because we want to be able to pull apart what it means and we are deeply unsatisfied with every resource we’ve tried so far.

More recently, we’ve read books. And God Said What? was a rare bright spot in our shared spiritual life, but although we understood the Scripture examples she laid out in the book, we don’t know how to go about systematically applying the lessons to other passages. The last couple of weeks we started watching a video series called Symbolon which our parish made available, but as much as I want to like it, mostly our mutual reaction has been to feel underwhelmed.

We are pretty well educated in our faith. But we want to go deeper. We want to know why: the historical context, the reasons behind the traditions and teachings–the rational basis, not the because-I-said-so. But it seems that everything we find is either dry and academic*, devoid of a real-life faith connection, or it’s aimed at people whose faith formation was cut off at the level of multiple choice tests. In other words, it’s basic stuff we already know and/or touchy-feely me-n-Jesus. Both of those are great and necessary things in the world, but it’s not what we need.

This is where you come in, my lovely readers.

Surely, among all my Catholic friends, someone has encountered the very thing we need. How do you pray in your marriages? What books or resources–daily reflections, online resources, Scripture commentaries–actually draw the connection between the historical context, the tradition, and real life? Writings of the saints that you’ve found worthwhile reading?

Please share!

*Dry and academic will work for me, personally, because I’m kind of geeky that way, but not for us communally.

When You Pray…

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It’s been a crazy weekend, and today’s slated to be an even crazier day, so I’m pulling one out of the archives today. Be back tomorrow with fresh thoughts!

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Pray without ceasing.” I Thessalonians 5:17

The Angelus by Millet ca 1857

I’ve known a lot of faithful people in my life. And one of the most striking things I have noticed is that it’s frighteningly easy to abuse faith. To turn it into an idol of its own.

Maybe I should be more specific. It’s easy to abuse religious practice. Like prayer, for instance.

I’ve known people who substitute prayer for action. I’ve known people who go for quantity of words, as if they think if they go on long enough, they’ll beat God into submission. I’ve known people who go for flowery language, thinking it makes their prayers more important. I’ve known people who use prayer, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to lecture other people in the room. (I should add that at least once in every category above, “people” refers to me.)

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Garth Brooks

And I’ve known people who have bought into the idea of the unanswered prayer. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, because there is no such thing. That lesson, learned in my youngest elementary school days at Catholic school, still forms my world view. God answers every prayer. Every one. But sometimes, the answer is “no.”

And sometimes, the answer is “not yet.”

“If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky – up – up – up- into that lovely blue sky that looks like there’s no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” Anne Shirley

At some point in my life, someone offered this “formula” for prayer:

First praise, then thanksgiving, and then (and only then), petition.

I struggled for years with the difference between praise and thanksgiving, but finally my daughter taught me the answer to that one.

The trouble is with that last bit. The petition bit. The part that overwhelms prayer for most of us.

The trouble is that we grow up with a wrong-headed idea of what prayer is supposed to do. Prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind. I mean, do you REALLY think you’re going to change the mind of the maker of the entire universe? If that was even possible, I’d lose my faith instantly; who can depend on a God that fickle?

No, prayer is about changing me. It is a lesson in humility, an opportunity to stretch my soul by bending my will to someone else’s. It’s about shifting my attitude from what I want, what I need, what I fear, to what God wants. To what God is asking of me.

That kind of prayer is a lot harder. But it’s also liberating.

I learned the power of this prayer during three years of infertility, when all my life was consumed by the desperate desire for a child. It was such a bruising experience, to pray two dozen times a day, every day for three years, for the same thing, and never once to hear a “yes” in reply. That is spiritual exercise of the most powerful kind. I thought I would never know the reason why God said “not yet” for so long. But in time, that question was answered, too.

“Pray without ceasing.” I Thessalonians 5:17

When I was a kid, I used to hear that quote and shake my head. What a boring life. Are you supposed to just live on your knees? But now I understand that life itself can be a prayer. It doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t need words at all. It begins with praise, it continues with thanksgiving, and ends with “Thy Will be done.”

And when I manage to live up to it…it works for me.

When Prayer Feels Empty

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Photo by Carlos 90, via Flickr

I seem to be collecting a lot of prayer intentions lately. Not that there’s anything strange about that–it’s just that for some reason, recently they seem to be hitting a lot closer to home. In times past, I used to promise to pray and then forget all about it. (Yes, I was one of those people, I’m sorry to admit.) Eventually I learned when someone requested prayers, I had to stop whatever I was doing and pray then and there.

But these days, it seems I can’t get these people out of my mind. At odd times during the day I surface from the depths of my own affairs with a heaviness in my chest, a heaviness surrounding a name or two.

We are urged to be specific and forward in our prayers–in other words, to expect miracles. But I’ve grown suspicious of this kind of prayer. The longer I live, the more I see the value of the process. I believe God can work massive, instantaneous change, but most often He doesn’t…because there is value to the process, to the change wrought in us that would not happen if we were miraculously and instantly rescued from suffering.

So for the past several weeks, I’ve prayed for healing from my lingering ear infection, from the leftover fluid and hearing loss…but with no expectation that it will vanish overnight, despite a friend’s prayer for exactly that. Maybe that shows lack of faith. But on the other hand, through this process I’ve learned empathy for the elderly as they are slowly robbed of their hearing–a lesson I would not have gained otherwise. This experience reaffirms a different approach to prayer–one that focuses on grace to endure, on strength and understanding instead of relief from pain. Change my heart, this time. That, after all, is the purpose of prayer: not to force God to do our will, but to open our minds and hearts to accept God’s. I’ve learned to stop asking God to “fix it,” and to ask instead for the grace to accept what is. To say, “What do you want me to learn from this, Lord?”

But it’s one thing to embrace the search for wisdom and insight through suffering in myself. It’s altogether different to try to philosophize away someone else’s pain. I pray grace and strength and insight for them, too…but mostly I beg God to identify a quick exit from their suffering. And the words seem empty. Isn’t a pithy “Lord, please (fill in the blank)” just a pious platitude unless I put action behind it? Shouldn’t I seek some way to ease a friend’s suffering?

I’ve never wished I had Godlike powers so much as when I hear pain and confusion in the voices of those I care about. Yet the reality is that I have no control at all. I can’t heal broken bodies or broken relationships. I can’t remove the circumstances of another’s suffering.

So I pray, recognizing that only God has the answers. And maybe that’s the point, after all: that hurting with those who hurt binds me not only to them, but to God.

(Sharing with Michelle’s community on week one of focusing on the pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.)