I think I started to pray at the moment I stopped knowing how. It wasn’t a prayer made of words. I was at a loss for words. It was a prayer made of not knowing. So it was quiet. I’m not sure I would have called it a prayer at the time. I would have told you that I didn’t know how to pray anymore.
The reason I would have told you that, my senior year in college, was grief. I had returned home that fall to help take care of my father, who was struck by a very aggressive cancer. He lived only two months and we took care of him at home. The work was physically and emotionally exhausting; all the medicine and equipment, all the friends coming to say goodbye. But as tired as I was, I had trouble sleeping. Often after everyone had gone to bed, I sat up at the kitchen table, staring blankly at the empty pages of a notebook. I should write something, I thought. Maybe a prayer. But I didn’t know how. All I knew was how not to.
I knew from the start that I wasn’t going to pray for my father to get better. I had seen the scans and the doctors’ faces. I knew what pancreatic meant. Praying for him to get better seemed like a set-up. I could see him getting worse every day. No words whispered into the air would cure his jaundice or cause his hair to grow back. No unseen hand was going to reach down and turn the mutating cells. No miracle was going to happen that would reverse nature’s course when all the medicine in the world couldn’t do it. And I wasn’t going to pray for that. I knew better. I started off praying simply that I would be a good son and strong for my parents. Those prayers were earnest, but soon they, too fell into silence. I had nothing to say.
The great Chicago school theologian Bernard Meland once framed it this way: What we are trying to do, he said, is feel at home in the universe without cultivating any illusions. Meland wondered if we could ever really do that or if we could do it in such a way that developed deep reservoirs of joy and meaning and not just existential angst. I suppose it was my question, too, senior year. Sitting at the table I was trying not to cultivate any illusions. How then to pray in reality?
It’s a good question, I think, and one with which so many of us have struggled. Yet it isn’t one that’s asked often enough in religious circles, where traditions are commonly passed without explanation, forms assumed without thought, and clichés inserted into awkward silences. I’ll pray for you, we say, without saying any more. And though I found such sentiments somewhat comforting back during my own dark night, I also wondered what my friends and family meant. Were they bowing their heads and closing their eyes? Or were they wondering, too?
Looking back, the first real prayer that I was making was simply honest speech. Just saying that I didn’t know how to pray, didn’t hope for a miracle, wanted only to be helpful and loving and present, was an attunement toward the reality I was living. Anything else would have felt like a form of denial and the days seemed too short for that. But as they went, something began to happen, evolving with the hours as wordless prayers turned into practices. I will bring your medicine. I will hold your hand. I will laugh with you. I will read while you rest. I will be here trying not to worry and worrying anyway. That was the turn for me. I stopped worrying about the wrong things – How do I pray? Am I doing this right? – and I started worrying about the right things – How can I be fully present? How can I help? How can I be attuned to the here and now?
In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus offers some words to those of us who have wondered how to pray. As Willis Barnstone tells us, of all the gospels Matthew’s book is the most poetic, containing sayings and aphorisms to whisper like mantras. His Jesus draws close to the poor and disenfranchised, whether their outsider status is physical or spiritual. And his Jesus says this when teaching about authentic religious practice:
Take care not to perform your good deeds before other people
So as to be seen by them. . .
When you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet. . .
And when you pray, do not do so like the actors.
They love to stand in our synagogues and on the corners
Of the open squares, praying
So they will be seen. . .
I say to you, they have their own rewards.
When you pray, go into your inner room and close the door
And pray to your [Abba] who is in secret. . .
It sounds like something an itinerant rabbi would say, someone who had a knack for going into the wilderness or onto the mountainside by himself to think on things and pray over them in his own way. It is an encouragement toward honesty, I think. Do not pray self-consciously in the way that you think others expect. Or in the way that you have seen done before. Or in the way of words and the limits of their expression. Indeed, Jesus follows by saying that we should not babble so much; in Barnstone’s rendering he uses the word glut. A glut of words won’t help, he teaches, perhaps a bit playfully. And then he offers a mantra. One of his most well-known. The Lord’s Prayer. Here, try this, he says, and gives us lines to repeat, to hang our hats on, to sit with when we haven’t got any of our own, maybe mumble at the kitchen table in a pinch.
And the words try to bring heaven and earth together, attune them somehow in the present moment. On earth as it is in heaven. Today is our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive. So may it be. It’s a very beautiful prayer and not much of a petition, honestly. Jesus is not really teaching us to ask that the world be changed to suit us, but that we develop a prayerful practice so that we might serve the world. Remember his own prayer that he wished the cup would pass but he intuitively knew it wouldn’t? Remember his mysticism that the truest prayer was in ordinary physical acts of kindness and love? But when did we help you when you were hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison? Oh, when you did it for anyone, you did it for me.
Maybe that was Jesus’ way back. After all, he had known his share of religious people and he had seen them praying loudly and publicly. He was publicly engaged, too, as we all should be, but this engagement came from his private grounding, his own deep spiritual practice. And at its heart, that’s all prayer is.
Brother David Steindl-Rast writes that what matters most is prayer, not prayers. It is the practice of the thing that counts, not the words. And the practice takes many forms. Some of those forms actually are public. And many are private. Some are made of words. And many are quieter still. Some require the closing of the eyes. And many ask that we open them ever wider. Which is what I tried to do this week as I considered the subject of prayer and hoped to offer us a few pathways into it. Here is what I saw, alongside many of you:
Sunday we sat together in the curved pews, listening as a person here or there stood and named a person, a joy, or a concern. The voice speaking was the truest prayer of all. Pray for my friend. Pray for my daughter. Pray for my worry. Please. And then we did. Attuned ourselves in silence to what is really happening in life. Said words of love and courage.
Monday I wrote a poem. Sent it to dear friends whose sons are growing and soon to leave home. Images of those boys, whom our son had admired, doing the dishes on a church retreat. Brothers cheerfully drying pots and pans. A prayerful memory rekindling feelings of joy, gratitude, and friendship.
Tuesday we sat for noontime meditation on the shaded balcony of the Meeting House. Striking the bowl three times, a small group of staff and friends sat in silence. We breathed. We listened to the many varieties of birdsong. We felt the sweat bead on our backs and the cool breeze funnel between the buildings. We can train ourselves, we said, to be more “open and accepting. . .[to] lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds” so that we might better work with whatever life brings us.
Wednesday we gathered with our friend and youth minister Matt to hear his story and to celebrate his path toward ministry in our progressive Christian tradition. We listened and shared. We asked clarifying questions. We spoke of hopes and fears. And then someone got up and took a book from the shelf. She read a blessing for the way ahead. A prayer not of benediction, but beginning.
Thursday we pulled chairs into a circle in a hospital waiting room. We did bow our heads and close our eyes. Focused our attention amidst the loud televisions playing soap operas and local news. We took deep breaths and we said words of prayer for a dear friend and husband and father. For the doctors and the nurses. For the hands of love. But when did we care for you when you were sick? Right now. God be with them all, we prayed. Love be present here.
Friday I ran on the treadmill. Punctuated the regular pace with bursts of nine and ten miles per hour. Lungs filling, heart pumping, muscles singing and stretching. It was a childlike prayer, a jubilant embrace of having a body and feeling its pleasure. The old monk’s mantra came to mind. With every step, I have arrived. With every step, I am home. Trainers pounded the treadmill in gratitude.
And Saturday we stood together on the beach. Feet in the sand, hands joined in a great human chain, bearing witness to the beauty of the earth and our deep concern for its well-being. We do not want seismic testing to harm our marine mammals and fishes, we said. We do not want to industrialize our shore and drill in its fragile waters. We want to protect this place. We want to reduce our consumption and invest in cleaner forms of energy for a sustainable future. It was a prayer of love and protest, ending in the best place of all: barefoot by the sea.
So every day there was a kind of prayer, its forms spread throughout the week, changed by the context. But every one of them was an honest way of speaking. Every one was an attempt to relate to reality without cultivating any illusions. Which is all any of us are trying to do, whether we are standing in church to name something we would like held in prayerful concern or sitting at the kitchen table without any words at all. It’s okay, Jesus said. The not knowing. Just the doing. We can pray in secret. We can pray a mantra. We can go into the wilderness or onto the side of a mountain. And there find what we need.
That’s what I found at the kitchen table. The not knowing was just the first step.
 Bernard Meland, “Elementalism and Creaturalism,” in The Chicago School of Theology—Pioneers in Religious Inquiry, Volume II, ed. Creighton Peden and Jerome Stone (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), 220-221.
 Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 218.
 Ibid., 234-235.
 Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast, The Ground We Share: Everday Practice, Buddhist and Christian (Boston: Shambhala, 1996), 65.
 Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind (Boulder: Sounds True, 2013), 1-2.