One classical definition of prayer defines it this way: “Prayer is lifting mind and heart to God.”
That means lifting up, at any given moment, exactly what’s there and not what, ideally, might be there. It would be nice if we always felt warm, reverent, altruistic, full of faith, chaste, hopeful, connected with others and nature, happy about who we are and what life has dealt us. But that isn’t the case.
We all have moments and even seasons of doubt, anger, alienation, pettiness, boredom, obsession, and tiredness. Our thoughts are not always holy and our hearts are not always warm or pure. It’s at times like this we need prayer and what we need to take to prayer is, precisely, those bitter thoughts and unholy feelings.
All thoughts and feelings are valid material for prayer. Simply put: When you go to pray, lift up what’s inside of you at that moment. If you are bored, lift up that boredom; if you are angry, lift up your anger; if you are tired, lift up that tiredness; if you feel selfish, don’t be afraid to let God see that.
To “pray always” invites us rather to live our lives against a certain horizon. It doesn’t necessarily mean to stop work and go to formal prayer, important though that is at times. The point is rather that we need to do everything within the context of a certain awareness.
Our relationship with God is the same. We need to “pray always” by doing everything out of that kind of awareness. Moreover, when we do spend time in formal prayer, we need, like children do, to tell God exactly how we feel and invite God to deal with that.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel points out how, in prayer, the great figures of scripture did not always easily acquiesce to God and say: “Thy will be done!” They sometimes fought bitterly and said: “Thy will be changed!”
That can be good prayer. It lifts mind and heart to God.
“Work, work! . . . Work! Don’t waste a moment…. Calm yourself, quiet yourself, master your senses. Work. work! Just dress in old clothes, eat simple food…. feign ignorance, appear inarticulate. This is most economical with energy, yet effective.” – Hongren
The average river requires a million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles – James Trefil, quoted by Annie Dillard in For The Time Being
To be thankful for the Starbucks lady, Lucy,
who is pissed at me for asking too many questions
about my damn phone app
is one thing.
To be thankful for my wife plastering my face to the bathroom floor
with pancake batter
for missing the bus
is another thing.
I tried to be thankful for my eyes this morning
even though one of them is filled with puss
and the other with marigold juice.
Marigold juice is the stuff that comes from the flower
when you put it between your palms and rub, slowly in prayer,
even though nothing comes out.
It’s the imagined juice of God,
the thing you can’t see when you are not being thankful.
I try to be thankful for the lack of energy that is my laziness
and my lonely best friend with no wife and children
knowing I am as lonely as he
with one wife and two daughters.
Sometimes we travel five minutes to the pier in Red Hook
and it takes hours in our loneliness to know, in our thankfulness,
that if we held hands it’d be a quiet romance for the ages.
I’ll admit, I’m thankful for Justin Timberlake
because he’s better than Beethoven
and my friend Aaron
who lived in the woods with an axe and never used it once.
I try hard to forget love,
to abandon love,
so that one day I will actually be able to love.
Until then, I am thankful that Lucy wanted to spit in my coffee,
or imagined that she did,
and thanked her profusely
for showing me which buttons to push
and how to do it, with just the right amount of pressure,
the whole tips of all my fingers dancing like stars
through the blackness
of a mocha latte, black.
No matter how many times I’ve heard this – and I’ve heard it a lot – it always takes my breath away.