Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart — Ghandi
One of the first prayers I remember learning was taught to me at the daycare where Nanny worked for a number of years:
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 your unchanging love
Corny isn't it? But for a toddler, it's perfect. It's easy to remember. Its message is simple and clear. Most importantly, I remember feeling as if God was actually listening, paying attention. I remember thinking that God was happy with my giving thanks, that it meant something to God. My words were sincere and God heeded them.
Then something changed. Between the ages of nine and ten, my sexuality surfaced and made itself irrefutably known to me. Just as my body changed, so also did my prayers. Daily, not just at night but throughout the school day, I found myself praying for change. There was this part of me that was dirty and disgusting, and I prayed without ceasing that God would purge it from within me. In a matter of months—months without any sign of change, months where the very part of me I wanted God only became stronger—my prayer life began to suffer and wither, until it finally died. I had poured out my love for God in silence, in tears, in screams of emotional and spiritual agony, and my prayers had gone unanswered. My biggest fear was not that God had simply stopped listening, but that God had actually answered my request with a resounding "no."
...So I did what seemed to be the most logical thing: I stopped praying
Sure, I would show up for the morning prayer group several of my high school friends had created and formed. Even there, more tears were shed than words said—at least on my part. All of my friends in that circle knew my prayer, and when I could no longer force the air out of my lungs and across my vocal chords in tangible, comprehensible mutterings, they began first to prayer for me, and later to simply cry with me. At least I was not alone.
When I left the church in 2003, my communiqués with God stopped, at least in spoken form. Instead, I turned to music, to the lyrics of others to serve as my prayers, as the hair-thin thread connecting me and the Creator. While our relationship was strained during this time, at least it was not completely dead. This went on for a number of years, and even today, music is a way in which I speak with and experience the presence of the Divine.
Upon entering seminary, I realized just how unwell I was spiritually. Sadly, despite how well I've done academically, how much time, effort, and thought I've put into not only my studies but also my vocational discernment, prayer continues to be an area of spiritual struggle for me (and for many of my seminary colleagues). And so recently I started doing something that goes against the part of my spiritual being that is still remotely Southern Baptist and defies my academic conscience all at the same time:
I've been plagiarizing my prayers for a while now, taking a little from here, a little from there. I purchased Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I found the knotted-twine Anglican rosary given to me by my in-laws and found a series of prayers to accompany them. My friend Abe loaned me his copy of Book of Hours by Thomas Merton. At first I felt bad about this, but then I realized something.
I've always wanted a prayer life, not so that I could brag about it or share it with others, but because I need it. It's not enough for me to talk about this pie-in-the-sky God who merely meddles in the affairs of humankind. I don't want to stop at letting God speak to me through scripture. I want a relationship, and if that can be catalyzed by using the words, the prayers, the petitions of others, then so be it. When I try to pray on my own, my words get jumbled up. I've tried silence. I've tried simply talking out loud as if God were Zeus come down to earth in mortal form. Most of the time I either lose focus or feel shame and guilt for not knowing what to say, who or what to pray for, or how to go about doing it all. Praying my own words and thoughts has only led to a degree of shame, guilt, fear, confusion, frustration, or self-loathing.
Since beginning this endeavor, my prayer life has improved, albeit minimally. But a little is better than not at all. Like the image above, my prayer life has experienced a long time of feeling frozen, stunted. Spring is coming. Life is coming. In the prayers of those who have gone before me, not only do I not have to worry about coming up with the right words, but I join the great cloud of witnesses, both those still alive and those long since passed. Their words become my words. Their faith strengthens my faith. Their love for God builds up my love for God.
Maybe in this instance, plagiarism isn't so bad...