By Donna Schaper
Abingdon Press, November 2014, 224 pp.
In this adapted excerpt from her book, Prayers for People Who Say They Can’t Pray, Donna Schaper discusses prayer as a way to “make the inner active,” and suggests that we may be praying more than we realize.
When we pray as people who kind of believe and sort of don’t, when we pray as ordinary people, we make the tentative a high art. By tentative I mean what ancient people meant by a tent, a place of shelter along a long journey. I also mean the tentative as the might be or may have been or could be. Tentative means a tendency to hope and lean forward, gladly, knowing we are sheltered on our way by something larger than ourselves.
Of course solid people, the kind with spiritual homes and not just spiritual tents, can pray solid prayers. Many cannot. Many don’t have a spiritual or religious cradle, much less a grown-up spiritual home. Cradle Christians like me have a head start on solid or memorized or ancient prayers. But many people did not go to Head Start spiritually or even to half-day spiritual kindergarten. As for those of us who grew up learning the ancient prayers, sometimes those prayers still seem to serve, and sometimes they feel worn-out. Sometimes the people who know the old prayers find themselves needing new ones. In fact, when we know the old prayers by heart, we often enjoy reading and writing new ones especially. Our capacity for wonder is awakened when there is a continuation of the traditions of prayer that we love.
When people say, “I don’t know how to pray,” what they often mean is “I don’t believe.” When people say, “I don’t believe,” they often mean a larger and more difficult disappointment. They mean I tried and I’m not going to try any more, at least for now. They also mean that they can’t trust.
When we say things we really do mean—like stop the violence against my mother and my planet—to deities who may or may not exist, we focus our inner lives. We make the inner active.
Prayer is a decision to move out of time on behalf of time. “Lord give me patience and make it snappy,” says one self-mocking person who is trying to pray. This good joke about prayer joins my other favorite misunderstanding of prayer, which happened while standing at the bedside of a dying patient. I asked if she would mind if I prayed. She said, “No, not at all, if it helps you.” Prayer has a habit of being misunderstood. It is more for us than for God.
Prayer finds the quiet corner in the loud party and there looks and listens. It tunes in to find out what it is we want, feel, desire and think. It is like a poem, which Robert Frost describes as a momentary stay against confusion.
Carl Jung—who thought we smuggled our biography into everything—kept a solid bronze plaque on the wall outside his office in Zurich which said, “Bidden or Not Bidden, God is Present.” (“Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit.”) I don’t completely agree. I think that is possible but not certain. My prayers are not sneaky ways to get you to recognize God. My goal is to recognize the experiences that evoke the language, “Oh My God.” A car accident evokes an “Oh, My God” horror which is comparable to the awe when we see a great sunset. When we say these three words, we are already praying. Because we misunderstand prayer as the property of believers, we call our language “just” an exclamation.
I had a writing teacher once who said that his students only got seven exclamation points a year. Maybe we should have a prayer allotment as well. But most of us would overspend that account: there is much that is both beautiful and ugly that requires exclamation points.
Prayers beckon exclamation points. They enchant us. They let us shiver with grace. We realize that the many times we say “Oh, My God!” we are sort of praying to a God we sort of imagine is out there.
Other cultures would argue that “OM” is a primordial sound, almost a grunt that acknowledges a mystery way beyond any need to believe in it. Prayer is often more sound than words, more chant than songs, and more instrumental than vocal. A signed benediction for the deaf can often be more useful to those with ears that can hear. Humming a hymn we sort of remember can be a kind of prayer as well. With apologies to the beauty of silence, I offer these words and prayers. Prayer is not the capturing of God for our own needs. Whenever I am asked to pray in public, I say, “God who is beyond any name by which we imprison you, God whom some know as Spirit, others as Jesus, others as Christ, others as Yahweh, or Ruach, or Breath, still others as Allah, yet others as Force or Divine, release us from the foolishness of thinking we know your name.”
Prayer is a human in full tilt boogie awareness that there is more to life than itself. Prayer happens in the “Oh My God” statement we make when we stand at the limit of what we understand and still have the audacity to speak or at least groan in a primitive kind of communication with ourselves at the edge of ourselves.
I write prayers for people who are tentative about God because I trust in the human being’s capacity to ask for a partner. I trust in the human’s capacity to need, exclaim, articulate, and focus. I trust in the groan. I trust in the enchantment. I know disenchantment reigns: but prayer, perhaps, can reenchant those who are disenchanted. Prayer is not just the need for help; it is also the understanding of beauty. The real polarity in life is not that between the sacred and the profane: it is the quarrel between the sacred and the desecrated, desacralized flatness. Prayer reenchants by noting the many levels, the densities of our existence.
I offer my prayers, as momentary stays against confusion, as poems, as pictures of what we might say if we were to speak our heart’s deepest longings. I don’t really care if you believe in God. I care mightily that you find a way to trust the universe and its partnership with you and me.
When I wake up in the morning, let my first thought be gladness to be alive. Let me slow into the waking and wake to a long slow day. Keep that cell phone and computer close by, but let them not be in charge. And if I can’t pray before I touch a button, let me pray right after I’ve checked out the world’s wide web. Amen.
—from Chapter 1: Ordinary Prayers When Waking, When Sleeping
Give me a way to understand that time is not my manager but that I am its manager. Relieve me of the burden of thinking that I can extend my days and help me not waste any more of my days worrying about them. Let me also stop worrying about worrying so much. Amen.
—from Chapter 2: Prayers for Those Who Are Too Busy to Pray
Let us be eager for the deep water, more afraid of silence than we are of speech, more afraid of risks refused than risks taken. Teach us to be chaos tolerant. And let our witness keep another from drowning. In the name of Spirited People everywhere, who plumb the depths so we can know the way. Amen.
—from Chapter 3: Prayers to Calm the Monkey’s Mind