My relationship with prayer is complicated. I grew up believing that prayer was a way of wish listing my needs and wants to persuade God to intervene and fix my life and the life of those that I love. I learned to pray using words that I didn’t normally use in every day conversations like “come before you” “burdened” “beseech” and “traveling mercies.” I listened very closely as the really Godly people in my life prayed, and I modeled my prayers after them. They all sounded so very spiritual, so I thought that prayer would be somehow more successful or fulfilling if I could learn how to pray RIGHT.
Praying in front of people was something that came naturally to me. I perfected a prayer ‘voice’ that made me sound like some kind of wise pray-er. I would lead congregational prayer time and people would come up to me in great affirmation of the words that had “touched their soul” that Sunday morning. They would ask me to pray “over” them for healing and peace, and I would gladly oblige. All of this only furthered my internal belief that I somehow mastered prayer.
This all works great until it does not. Until the day that your own life falls apart and you have no ability, much less desire to pray. As long as things were following the very conformable pattern of: live…hit a hard life issue…use the prayer words…things get better…praise the Lord…
But when you pray like you have been taught and suddenly you don’t experience the religious “feeling” then what? This was certainly the case in April of 2007. I was newly sober and the people that I went to for help in my darkest hour told me that my condition was a spiritual one. On one of my very raw days, I went to a meeting that I often attended. I was scared and angry and people kept talking about things like ‘let go and let God.’ It was all I could handle. I’m not sure if I had ever spoken in this meeting before, but they heard my voice that day. Through some colorful language and fierce passion, I explained to them that I knew a thing or two about God. What did they know that I did not?
You see, I went to school for Jesus-y things, my career was in the church, I was certain that I was far more qualified for the God conversations than this group. It was clear in my mind that if God could have saved me, I would not have ended up in these damp, dingy rooms with a pounding head and a broken soul. After I threw my public fit, NO ONE EVEN FLINCHED.
They let my pain hang in the air and one of my favorite men in the room said in his rough voice, “We’re glad you are here. Keep comin’ back.” That was it. No one tried to fix me. No one told me I was doing anything wrong. I didn’t get shamed. And most importantly for me that day, no one said, “Oh, honey, I’ll pray for you…”
It was in working the 12 steps that I realized that my understanding of prayer would never work for me again. I needed a bigger, more complex and simple and beautifully wonderful space to be still. Prayer had to change or I was sure that I would not pray again. No longer would I ask God to “fix things.” Instead, my prayers became space for me to align my heart to the heart of God. This shift is beautifully explained in a book we in recovery call the 12 and 12.
“It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. To all of us, this was a most wonderful revelation. Our whole trouble had been the mis-use of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God’s intention for us.” – The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions pg 40-41
So, for me ‘What if prayer doesn’t matter?‘ is not the best question for this subject. Rather, I go back to ‘What if authentic encounters with God require me to redefine prayer?‘ Because as I have opened myself to the reality of a more gracious and less boundaried experience of spiritual conversation, I have realized that my language, rather than my participation was the stumbling block. We all pray. With our very breath, we are taking in the life-giving energy that our body needs to thrive. Our intake of oxygen, whether recognized or not, is an act of inviting Spirit into our continued existence. We are praying as we breathe. The language and tone and voice and words merely complicate the delicate conversation you have been exchanging with the Creator since the moment that your sustained life was separated from your birth mother. I believe each breath is a prayer. And your “prayer life” started the moment that you first oxygenated the cells in your body.
So what if, just for today, you sit with your holy prayers of breath? Listen to the connection of your lungs filling, and as you do, imagine taking in with your inhale the very presence that longs to come alive in your soul. With each exhale, may you return back to the Universe anything that does not assist in aligning your spirit with God. That’s all prayer is. Sure, we can use words, but in our very basic life form we are praying creatures. May we realize that just as our breath gives us life, so does our connection to the heart of the Creator.