6.15.2012

Daily Prayer

You know what Quakers are really bad at? Actually talking about our spiritual lives. Kind of at all. Ever.

I remember when I started out in Quakerism, I kept hearing how important it was to have a “daily devotional practice.” I remember having little idea what that even meant, let alone how to implement it, and I had even less idea who to ask for help! It would have been so useful for me to have someone to talk to.

Do we think it’s embarrassing to talk about such things? Too private to discuss? Do we feel inadequate? Perhaps we’re worried about offending each other. I’ve felt all of the above. Yet unless we share our practice and struggles with each other, how can we learn, or support each other in spiritual growth?  I haven’t become an expert in the seven years since my convincement, but I want to set an example. Therefore, I am screwing my courage to the sticking plate and writing this post.

Brief Background:

The ultimate goal of my personal devotional life is to make possible the unceasing prayer and submission so beautifully described in Thomas Kelley’s A Testament of Devotion, Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God, Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity . . . etc., etc.

Unceasing prayer is sort of a tall order, and I am nowhere near to it. At the best of times, my awareness of God flickers in and out, like a guttering candle. I set myself up to encourage the flickers, coax them into a flame, abide in them. Each of the specific practices I list below kindles a flicker.

When I first came to Quakerism from Catholicism (via atheism), I thought I had to throw out all the memorized prayers I had once used. I thought there was something inherently un-Quakerly in praying with words, especially memorized words. I no longer feel this way. Words help me slip into an attitude of prayer when I’m not in a prayerful state of mind at all. Memorized words, especially the words of other people, release me from the need to be perfect on my own.

Specific Practices:

I pray every time I hear a siren.

This was the very first prayer practice I took up as a Quaker. The autumn after my convincement, I was living directly across the street from the local hospital, just a few doors down from the ambulance station. There were many sirens!

For years now, I’ve paused when I hear a siren, praying for compassion and wisdom in those going to help, courage and peace in those they will be helping. Sometimes I don’t use words at all, but hold the EMTs (cops, firefighters) in my heart, as well as whomever they are driving towards.

I pray while my morning tea is steeping.

I got this idea from Laurel’s Kitchen, believe it or not. I like my tea strong, but not stewed, and a decade of the rosary (on my fingers) is just about the right time. (That’s an Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and a Glory Be, for all you folks who didn’t grow up Catholic!)

There are prescribed meditations (mysteries) for each day of the week, but I don’t worry about that. Sometimes I pick one, but mostly I just pray. I don’t consider myself “Quatholic,” but I do enjoy this connection to the faith of my childhood.

I pray before meals—when I remember!

Rob, my husband, loves this practice (he's wonderful at gratitude) and is good at reminding me. Usually we hold hands and have a “Quaker moment”—maybe a minute’s grateful silence before we eat. If I’m in a larger group of friends with mixed religious (or irreligious) backgrounds, I get everyone to hold hands, and we smile at each other and say, “Blessings on the meal!”

If I’m alone I close my eyes and offer simple gratitude. If I’m in public it really is only a moment, as I’m shy. Sometimes I mentally recite my childhood grace, the one my family used: “God, we thank you for this food, for rest and home and all things good. For wind and rain and sun above, but most of all for those we love. Amen.” If I forget to offer gratitude before I eat, I offer it afterwards. Sometimes I offer it afterwards anyway.

I pray on my runs.

I reserve my runs for intercessory prayer, an idea I got from Kate Braestrup’s book Beginner’s Grace.  I always start with myself, and I say, “Dear God, please give me love, and health, and my daily bread. Please give me courage, and wisdom, and peace.” I repeat over and over until I feel sated (this is my time for self care), and then I move outward, in widening circles.

Rob is always first. Then I pray for anyone in my daily life who has been annoying me, hurting me, or frustrating me. Then I pray for anyone in my daily life who needs extra love, healing, or help. Then I pray for loved ones, usually one by one, anyone who rises to mind. Then I pray for organizations, nations, the planet.

Ideally daily, but really a few times a week, I have my own Meeting for Worship.

I’m semi-programmed. I almost always start with a book, although I’m very picky about devotional literature. I often use the Bible. New Seeds of Contemplation is an old favorite. A Testament of Devotion is a newer favorite. Linda Chidsey from NYYM introduced me to Elizabeth Yates’s A Book of Hours (sadly out of print), which I cherish. I love the poetry of Rilke, Hopkins, and Donne, and use all three devotionally. As weather allows, I sit outside on our deck.

I read until a line or a verse catches my attention, and then I slip into silent contemplation. If I lose focus, I pick up the book again until I find another starting place. Merton describes my experience exactly:

“If giving up [active prayer] simply means that your mind goes dead and your will gets petrified, and you lean against the wall and spend your half hour of meditation wondering what you are going to get for supper, you had better keep yourself occupied with something definite. . . .

. . . This is where a book may sometimes help you. It is quite normal to use the Bible, or a spiritual book of some kind, to “get started” even in the kind of prayer where you do not do much actual “thinking.” When you find some paragraph or sentence that interests you, stop reading and turn it over in your mind and absorb it and contemplate it and rest in the general, serene, effortless consideration of the thought, not in its details but as a whole, as something held and savored in its entirety: and so pass from this to rest in the quiet expectancy of God. If you find yourself getting distracted, go back to the book, to the same sentence or to another. You can start your mental prayer in this way not only by using a book but also by looking at a picture or a crucifix or best of all in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but also out in the woods and under the trees. The sweep and serenity of a landscape, fields and hills, are enough to keep a contemplative riding the quiet interior tide of his peace and his desire for hours at a time.”

I didn’t wake up one morning and begin all these practices at once. I added them one at a time, letting each become a comfortable habit (I do often forget to pray before meals, for whatever reason), then adding another. Daily contemplation is my newest habit (I had thought it should be my first, but found I couldn't sustain it without all the smaller habits I listed), which is why I still only manage it a few times a week!

So what is your practice?