By: Maggie Leonard
I have a confession to make. For most of my life I have not been good at praying—I do not mean that I did not pray well, I mean that I did not pray.
During church service prayers I colored loudly (according to my parents). I groaned and protested at going to youth group.
In college, I hid when asked to pray aloud at the campus ministry.
In seminary, there was no room for heart in my formal prayers, beautifully crafted words of hope that pointed to a carefully plotted theology of God’s promises. Moreover, I learned about spiritual formation and spiritual direction and thought it to be a boring practice for self-indulgent, lazy, and/or privileged people. I knew that good Christians, and especially pastors, prayed, and I felt sort of bad that I did not, but there was too much to do and prayer felt trite.
When I was a chaplain at a local hospital, because it was my job, I prayed with people and asked for things—but never too much, just in case a healing was not in God’s plan, and carefully choosing my words so not to offend my own theology.
Yes. I was a bad pray-er.
Or at least I was bad at what I thought it should look like.
When I first started at Mercy, we prayed unscripted prayers before meals and once during the Sunday service. That was it; and it suited me just fine. After a few months the hives I develped from having to pray without warning, on cue, and without specific theme, had almost started to disapate. We Presbyterians have prayers of confession, for illumination, of intercession, of Great Thanksgiving, before the offering, after the offering—each one separate and spoken at the appropriate time during the service. When we first decided to switch the schedule and Chad suggested that we have an hour of prayer every time we met, I almost quit—or at least gave him a look of disbelief and skepticism. To spend long periods of time in our little noisy church each day in prayer? He must have gone crazy.
The hour was boring enough, but I had to act like it meant something to me, and I had to herd others who were equally uninterested and skeptical into the room. Together we started to explore the Psalms, the Rosary, “silence” (Chad playing music in the background, bags rustling, food being eaten), and Ignatius’ Examen—which I thought of as looking at the highs and lows of the day. Most days, words felt empty and, if I were doing the Examen, I was so aware of my failures—when I spoke in a harsh voice, acted in spite, paid less attention to someone than they deserved, or took something personally that was not meant with ill-intent—that I forgot about grace. Reviewing my day only brought guilt.
I prayed, like a good Christian, about once a year, and it was not while I was at Mercy. I had a stirring in my soul when I journeyed to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to help facilitate conferences or retreats. The worship services on those retreats always filled me and left me with a great energy and sense of peace. The one time I journaled that year would be while there—in the quiet of that place, staring off into the expansive plains behind which majestic mountains and cliffs stood, I could see how God had been at work in my life that past year.
I always felt refreshed after my time in New Mexico, but, at best, that opportunity only came around once a year. The other 360 days a year, I would try to calm my anxiety with action, doing something about the problem. God was busy—and only helps those who help themselves—so it all depended on me, I thought. My call was set before me; I already understood it, so I set to work. I would return to herding at Mercy. The fix was temporary, it was not sustainable, nor would my work be if I did not change something. I had to find ways to incorporate what I did at Ghost Ranch in my everyday life—being unplugged, journaling, praying, silence, hiking, reflecting. I realized that many of those things could be done at home.
I started hiking on Saturdays and realized that they were indeed walking prayers. I read a chapter on a book of spirituality toward the beginning of my hike which gave me a framework for my thoughts. The processing I do, an opportunity to reflect on my week, allows me to imagine new ways of engaging old problems, and see where God has been at work.
I also found myself sitting in my bedroom, lighting a candle and meditating. Perpetually, I am in my head—worrying, analyzing, dreaming. Breath prayers became crucial for my sanity; a break from the business, a break from the anxiety, a break from the fear that I hold. In those moments when I bring my attention to my breath and slow it down, I start to become aware of the energy in my body.
I recently visited a little house of prayer in south Georgia called Green Bough, excited to see a dear friend. I was surprised to discover that I left not only with a full heart from seeing a kindred spirit, but also with an awakened sense of rhythm. At Green Bough we prayed together multiple times a day—midmorning, evening, and night—and I also had short devotions by myself first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. Upon returning home, I yearned for those moments of communal quiet and the rhythm of stopping to appreciate what God was doing that day. I actually wanted to come back and pray at, with, and for Mercy. I wanted to make a regular and nightly ritual of prayer and remembrance.
The funny thing is, when one starts to feel the rhythm of prayer, its hard not to discount where prayer is. I may have been bad at praying the way I though prayer was supposed to look—mountain-top experiences every day—but I was, by no means, a stranger to prayer.
Maybe there was prayer in those early years too. Toward the end of high school, my heart would flutter at certain scripture passages, and I found myself stirred when reading the word “BEHOLD!”
While in campus ministry, I found myself more confident in myself than ever before and love just seemed to pour out of me in all kinds of wholesome directions. I also started to see the scriptures in an unfamiliar light and became curious and excited to put into action the new challenges I heard. Faith started to have real life consequences.
During my volunteer year in Guatemala, I wept. And I cried. And I boo-hooed. And I was broken beyond words. And I was lonely. And I had a hardened heart. And I felt rigid. And I was loved. And I was sung to. And I had to try and listen because I didn’t know how to speak. And I softened. And I learned. And I laughed. And I loved.
In seminary, I learned that my emotions were okay, even good, and that I did not have to stifle or apologize for them. I learned my limits and was liberated by the realization that saving the world did not depend on me—God was at work!
While I was at the hospital and miserable, I clung to my yoga practice. I learned about grace and flexibility and breathing and process and gained an appreciation for silence.
I suppose the softening of our hearts takes time. As we get older, I think we also come to appreciate more our humanness, our limitations—not just that we are mortal and therefore must be careful, but that we cannot and should not think that we have to do it all. It is only in being aware of our limitations that we can truly be forgiving of the limitations of others.
I have heard it said that we are not human beings trying to become more spiritual, but that we are spiritual beings trying to become more human. I think this to be true. Our flaws present us with opportunities for us to grow, a reason to offer grace to others—they are just as broken as we are— and to turn to God because God is working in a much bigger way than we can imagine.
At Mercy, we talk constantly about process. Praying is not about arriving somewhere. It is about being truly present to the moment in which we find ourselves. It is about understanding our motivations—especially our fears and insecurities—so that we might respond in a less reactionary way. It is about sitting quietly and listening, that we might put our worries aside for a few moments and sense God’s comfort and call on our lives. All in all, we find the opportunity to be more human, more loving, and to open ourselves to true growth and transformation. Now, when I neglect the rhythm of prayer and meditation in my life, I miss it.
I now see how broken and perfect my prayers have been.