Growing up, I was taught two things about prayer. Prayer comes from quiet, sacred spaces, and you should pray without ceasing. As a graduate student, I was able to hold these messages together simultaneously. The interior of the library where I spent a decade knee-deep in the nuances of German Lutheranism was brutally quiet. I wrote my dissertation fueled by soft snacks because eating crunchy pretzels in that place felt like an act of sonic violence.
Beside my coffee and cheese sticks, I kept Anselm’s invocation to the Proslogion:
Come now, insignificant mortal. Leave behind your concerns for a little while, and retreat for a short time from your restless thoughts. Cast off your burdens and cares; set aside your labor and toil. Just for a little while make room for God, and rest awhile in [God].
Anselm’s pleading to find a quiet, clear space to be present to the mystery of God spoke my own longing and matched what I had been taught about where and how to pray. In the library, I could make my life a prayer. My stack of books was an altar, the library a sanctuary. Anselm was a call to worship from which my research on the mysteries of God mirrored what I had been taught.
My life now is noisy, though. As a parent, writer, and church educator, there is the literal noise of multiple competing Zoom calls. There is the circus noise of clown-car pandemic living with my two boys, my husband, and our foster cats piled on top of each other all the time. There is the silent but deafening static of ever-growing task lists for my church work, consulting gigs, writing, and nonprofit business startup, all amid the emotional noise of anxiety, grief, and anger about the pandemic, presidential election, and ongoing work for racial justice.
Nothing I had been taught about prayer traveled well from my graduate school library to my current living room. Then, into the din of my post-library life came Arianne Braithwaite Lehn’s book, Ash and Starlight. I can’t remember how I heard about this book, but I requested that my library buy a copy and put it on hold for me. It arrived like an answer to a prayer I didn’t even know I was praying. Unlike Anselm, she prays from the muddy, messy, noisy middle of life rather than from life’s quiet, tucked away corners. Since I started reading her book, Lehn has been teaching me to pray in places where the volume is turned way up. Here’s a slice of what she offers:
Remind me of the
unbelievable power of perseverance,
the choice to open my eyes
each morning and say,
Yes, I will keep going.
I will find grace here.
I will live from courage
instead of fear.
I will dwell in the One
Who dwells in me.
When I read Lehn’s achingly beautiful prayers, I feel like she is praying with me. Perseverance. Courage. Openness. Grace. She doesn’t wait for a quiet time or a sanctioned sacred place. She prays from and into the noisy spaces where it can be hard to hear the still small whispers that need most to be heard. Lehn has become my pandemic prayer partner because her prayers have been a solace and a complete disruption—as I now understand that the best prayers always are. Listen again to the way she moves prayers away from a laundry list of unmet wants to a place of trust and agency:
What is true in my fritter of activity
proves true in my prayers.
I so swiftly swipe away the
sweetness of one answered prayer
because I’ve already focused
on the next need.
Like a cloud, my anxiety shifts,
hovering from one corner
of life’s landscape to the next.
But, for today—
and maybe I’ll only make it today—
I trust that there is enough time to
do and be that for which you ask […]
I will use what time I have
to make it a resting ground for
all your children.
In most of the churches I have been a part of, we ask: For what and for whom should we pray? I have taught my children and my Sunday school classes the classic, five-fingered prayer. Your hand tells you “for whom” to pray; each finger is a reminder to pray for a particular group. You pray your thumb for family and friends, one finger for leaders, one finger for teachers, one finger for the weak and the sick, and one finger for yourself. It’s a somatic way to remember for whom we should pray.
However, praying with Lehn has forced me to ask new questions: From where and with whom should we pray? When prayer comes out of our hushed sanctuaries and into noisy streets and living rooms, we have to learn and teach new ways to communicate with God. How can we pray with the people we find without conjuring the comfortable quiet we’ve been taught we need?
This fall when my family was on strict lockdown after a Covid-19 exposure, my eleven-year-old son lamented rightly: “Mom, this whole thing sucks.” To which I replied, “Yes, but we have much to give thanks for; it could be so much worse.” We prayed our five-fingered prayers, gave thanks, and said good night. Lehn would be proud, I thought; we were praying from exactly where we were. Even if we hadn’t been on lockdown, we needed to learn how to pray from these noisy places of our lives.
However, after sleeping on it, I knew that I had cheated. I had manufactured a “quiet” from my gratitude that dismissed my son’s disquieting lament. I had created a sonic violence—not the crunchy-pretzel-in-the-library kind—but the silencing kind. I had prayed over him; I had not prayed with him. I thought I was teaching him how to pray from where we were, but I prayed over top of his prayers. Praying from the noise requires listening, being open to the needs of the people we meet, and letting their prayers become ours. One of my new prayers is for God to stay with me as I imperfectly learn to pray from the noise and with the beloved people there. Lehn offers some words for this, too.
Keep me walking forward,
courageous albeit shaky.
Give me trust and faithfulness
as my guardrails.
Here we go.