I felt somewhat comforted knowing someone else prays before driving. I never used to pray in the car, until I came to Chicago. Something about driving here reminds me daily of my mortality. I sometimes wonder how I arrive back home without an insurance claim. This all occurs in a car that is adorned by religious medals that my very-Catholic mother sneaks into it in the same manner she tries to hide $20 in my purse.
As much as I could talk at length about Chicago drivers, what stayed with me about that morning is that someone else prayed the same way I did. You see, I’ve been on a life-long quest to get prayer right.
It wasn’t until college when I was told that there is no right way to pray. Sr. Margaret Ann, my first grade teacher who I was deeply afraid of, would not like this at all.
For the majority of my life, I was almost compulsive and superstitious about prayer. I made lists upon lists of what to say and in what order. Ten Hail Mary’s, three Our Father’s, a Glory Be…I truly thought that if I slacked off or didn’t choose the right combination, something terrible would happen. If I didn’t pray, Catholic guilt would overcome me, and I was subsequently sure that something terrible would happen. Notice a pattern?
I’ve tried meditation, Taizé, praying the Rosary, singing, and reading the Bible (I’ve committed to reading the entire Bible at least four times in my life — no comment on the end result). And my favorite, numerous crying and arguing scenes in vacant churches or chapels. I’ve experienced many episodes of what I like to call Prayer Block, a close relative of Writer’s Block. Many people tell me to just “listen” to God and “He’ll speak to you,” but often times, I find myself groping around in the dark corners of my mind, looking for a thought or some enlightenment, which makes me think I’m doing this all wrong.
But wait, there’s no wrong way to pray.
You talk, God listens
Since prayer and I have had such an elusive history, I often ask myself why I pray at all? I remember liking the idea that God is a friend — we can’t just go to God when times are bad. What friend wants to feel like a doormat? But unlike our best friend, God can read our minds. So, if God can do that, what is the purpose in talking to Him?
It is this lingering question that eventually led to my most recent prayer practices. Whenever I talk to a best friend, I am not necessarily looking for him/her to fix my problems. Let’s be honest: some simply aren’t fixable. But I always feel better just talking about it. And each time I tell a story, I often find myself with one more small realization.
Knowing this about life, I’ve introduced this to my relationship with God. Most of the time, I just want someone to listen, some validation, and some support. What’s more encouraging about this idea is that I was already doing a lot of mental chattering.
Each night, I always think about (i.e., overanalyze) my life before I go to bed. If you are one of those people who put your head down on the pillow and is out in five minutes, I both can’t understand and admire you at the same time.
Eventually, after many attempts at formulaic prayer, I just simply began asking God to be present to my thoughts and then proceeded to think about my day. Sometimes, I’d realize something. Like a good therapist, I felt maybe God was there, accompanying my thoughts, leading me to ask myself the right questions in order to facilitate my own realizations. Wait, this is sounding a lot like prayer. But there was something different. Instead of putting it all out there and waiting for a spiritual light bulb, I was simply talking, without any expectation of a solution in return. And in simply talking like I would to a friend, I came to sort through what was sortable and to just release or vent what was frustrating.
What makes this better than simply talking to a friend? God is Ever-Present. Luckily, we don’t have to play phone tag. God is also abundantly forgiving, unconditionally loving, patient without limit, willing to drop everything in our time of need, and has a great sense of humor. What’s better, our friendship is unadulterated by the weaknesses of our own humanity. God is not only a good friend: He’s the model of friendship. God is what allows us to realize we have a good friend in others and what pushes us to be better friends ourselves.
As much as I’ve gained from this realization, prayer is still an enigma to me. Sometimes I wonder if prayer is the opposite: quieting the mind, instead of talking. Moreover, I’ve not all together abandoned my old ways. I enjoy walking and praying the Rosary, for instance. But, I’ve let myself off the hook, and honestly, I’ve let God off the hook, too. Instead of worrying about how to pray or waiting on the answer, I’ve just simply talked.