Excerpt from When in Doubt, Sing
Good-bye, Sir, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.
I must end this letter—I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept, having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.
We give you thanks
for this food which is our life,
for the fruits of the earth,
conceived in darkness
rooted in the secret soil.
We offer you our part in the mess of creativity.
We wash, prepare, cook, present;
we eat and taste and enjoy with our bodies;
we clear away the mess.
We embrace with you the chaos that fulfils,
the secret labor that maintains life.
I asked my father, a Unitarian Universalist, about his views and experience of prayer. He replied that he and my mother rejected the idea of “addressing prayer to some being up there who might say yes or no to entreaties. . . . Our prayer is more like self-examination and meditation, and activities not labeled “prayer.” “Our prayer expresses itself in love, in work, in reverence for life and nature, in making human connections, in working for social justice, in helping others, in being a good friend. All these are forms of prayer for us. So is thrilling to good music, from Mozart to Errol Garner. Cooking is more than an art – it is also prayer. Baking bread is prayer. Our feeling of awe at a beautiful sunset is prayer.” My friend Charles, a poet and arts administrator in Boston, raised a Catholic and no longer churchgoing, expressed kindred sentiments. “Some people,” he wrote,” pray by praying. Some people pray by holding a door open for the person walking behind them. Or by taking a deep breath and whistling ‘Love Me Tender’ when they’re late and the subway car glides off just as they run to the platform. Or by cooking lasagna for a depressed friend. Or by humming the Mission Impossible theme song when they’re stuck in traffic. Or by listening to Rostropovich play Bach’s cello suites. Or by lending a frazzled coworker a hand. Or by apologizing for something they said, or didn’t say. Or by trying to remember what it was like to be three years old and happy to play in a mud pile.”
When am I praying? When am I not? Is everything prayer? If everything is prayer, or potentially prayer, or infused with prayer, do I really need to set time aside for something called “prayer” that is distinct from other activities? The Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast adds a layer of complexity to these questions with a story: “Suppose you are reciting Psalms. If all goes well, they may be a truly prayerful experience. But all doesn’t always go well. While reciting Psalms, you might experience nothing but a struggle against distractions. Half an hour later you are watering your African violets. Now, suddenly the prayerfulness that never came during the prayers overwhelms you. You come alive from within. Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up to you. The watering and drinking become a give-and-take so intimate that you cannot separate your pouring of the water from the roots’ receiving, the flowers giving of joy from your drinking it in. And in a rush of gratefulness your heart celebrates this belonging together. As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense. You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God. Which was the real prayer, the Psalms or the watering of your African violet?”
Steindl-Rast goes on to distinguish between prayers and prayer. “Sooner or later, we discover that prayers are not always prayer,” he writes. “That is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without any prayers. If we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and ‘pray continually’ we must distinguish praying from saying prayers. Otherwise, to pray continually would mean saying prayers uninterruptedly day and night. We need hardly attempt this to realize that it would not get us very far. If, on the other hand, prayer is simply communication with God, it can go on continually. In peak moments of awareness this communication will be more intense, of course. At other times it will be low key. But there is no reason why we should not be able to communicate with God in and through everything we do or suffer and so ‘pray without ceasing.”
What matters, says Brother David, “is prayer, not prayers.” But here he and my father part company. Steindl-Rast continues: “If prayerfulness is all that counts, who needs prayers? The answer is simple: everyone. Prayers fill a need we all experience, the need to express our prayerfulness. We cannot be mindful without being grateful.”
Time set apart for “prayers” – or, more broadly, prayer practice – does matter, and it nourishes the times of spontaneous prayer, silent communion, or mindfulness-in-the-moment. “As the expression of our prayerfulness,” says Brother David, “prayers make us more prayerful. And that greater prayerfulness needs to express itself again in prayers. We might not have much to begin with, but the spiral expands according to its own inner dynamics, as long as we stay with it.”
“Staying with it” is the key. In other words, pray daily, intentionally, in some form. Get a routine, any routine – one that suits you, not someone else. Then be faithful to it. Faithfulness is crucial here, not performance. This is not the spiritual Olympics, but regular exercise does make a difference. Steindl-Rast writes: “Some people stay healthy on a vegetarian diet, others on meat; some eat only once a day, others eat several times. One discipline may be as healthy as another, but without discipline in food and drink no one can stay healthy for long. The same is true for discipline in prayer.”
Shortly after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago died, Terry Morgan, director of the priests’ sabbatical program at the North American College in Rome, told the following story: Years before he came to Chicago, Bernardin had “a kind of a conversion experience, in his early Cincinnati years,” about which he told Morgan years later and which has, Morgan said, “changed the way I ‘do’ my own day, every day. Archbishop Bernardin had been giving an intimate Day of Reflection to a handful of Cincinnati priests whom he had ordained a few months earlier; a kind of ‘touch-up’ retreat for the new guys. In the midst of one conference, on “Practicalities of Prayer for the Diocesan Priest,” he had told the young priests that he had found that, as a busy bishop, his pastoral responsibilities did not really allow him to sit down for a block of time, even fifteen minutes, and simply pray. ‘What I’ve learned to do is make my work my prayer,’ he told the new priests.” Bernardin told Morgan, “Instead of taking in the wisdom of their bishop, three of them came up and told me they were flabbergasted. One told me he was scandalized.’ The three new priests didn’t just offer a protest. ‘They told me that they would support me in any way possible to start a habit of setting aside a significant block of time each day for personal prayer,’ he said. And they followed through. They came over and prayed with him. They sent notes of encouragement. They ‘stayed on his case.’
“It changed my life,” Bernardin told Morgan’s sabbatical residents at the North American College. “It changed my priesthood, it changed my personal relation with Christ.”
Morgan recounted that Bernardin told the priests “how he had begun to set aside the very first hour of his day for personal prayer. ‘Usually, that hour begins at five-thirty. But if I have to get an early start, I just have to get up a little earlier for what has become the most important hour of my day.’ ‘Joseph our brother’ didn’t tell his story to us as Saint Joseph the Perfect, but rather as Joe, a brother priest who confessed that he had got so caught up in doing the Lord’s work that even as a bishop he was oftentimes losing contact with the Lord. When he visited the house a month ago – to say goodbye to the college and to Rome and to the Holy Father [because he knew he was terminally ill], he winked and asked me, ‘Are you still getting up early, Terry?’”
Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness