The first prayer I ever learned was a bedtime prayer. It was a prayer that my grandfather taught to my mother, and she taught it to me, and I taught it to my children, and it’s now been passed down to at least one of my grandchildren.
Now I seek my nightly sleep
God almighty, care for me
Make that sleep be silent and sweet,
And my wakings happy be.
Forgive me if I have, this day
Done any wrong in work or play
Help me always do the right
Bless me every day and night.
I used to insert a lot of “God bless mommy and daddy and this and that person”s just before the Amen as I recall. I said it every night before going to sleep. Every night. I said it before I had any idea why I was saying it. I said it before I had any understanding of what I believed about God. At first, I said it because my parents told me that we said prayers at bedtime. That was good enough for me.
I knew that we said prayers in synagogue, too. And at home when we lit Chanukah candles (and then later, after I’d started Hebrew school and insisted that we also light Shabbat candles). I didn’t understand those prayers at first, because they were in Hebrew. But I knew we said them. Eventually, I learned what at least some of them meant. But I was still saying them because it was what we did. Still, this was helpful to me.
It was helpful to have a prayer life. It was helpful to learn the habit. It became natural. That way, when I needed to talk to God later on, I had a language for this.
Eventually, I left the synagogue – but in many ways the synagogue never left me. My experience with prayer before I came to Unitarian Universalism was limited to Jewish expressions of prayer, which is generally not intercessory. So I have perhaps an odd relationship with intercessory prayer now.
It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of intercessory prayer – but eventually I did warm up to this. After all, the psalms are full of intercessory prayers. This is not to say that I believe that if I pray God will give me everything I want. I do not believe that.
When Don was sick, I prayed all the time. We even went to Lourdes during our trip to France and spent much time there in prayer. It was tremendously healing, yet I didn’t believe that it would unconditionally cure his cancer. it didn’t. But healing takes many forms.
When I pray, I feel closer to God. Now, I do believe in God – a personal God, a God who touches us and acts in the world. I don’t know how prayer affects God – but I do know how it affects me. It clears my head. It calms me. It renews my spirit.
In her book, Journey Through The Psalms, Denise Dombkowski-Hopkins (one of my favorite professors) says that we pray to make sure God gets the details right. When I was doing my chaplaincy internship I would stop in the hospital chapel every day before going home and pray. I was giving God the details. I was handing off my work for the day to God. Here you go, Lord. I’ve done my best for you today. Now I’m leaving this in your hands.
When Don and I were in Lourdes and we were walking through the grotto the first time, it was during the recitation of the rosary. Even though it was in French, I could understand enough to understand the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys. It was comforting and strangely familiar, even in French, and even though I’m not a Catholic.
Recently, my cousin was undergoing a difficult surgery. I asked my colleague Rev. Catharine Clarenbach (you can read her blog from her website The Way of the River here) if she would pray the rosary with me (she has experience in this). We were able to do this via video conferencing, and we prayed together, reflecting on the joyful mysteries.
The rosary is repetitive, which, for me, makes it ideal for holding someone in prolonged prayer.
Paul tells us to pray without ceasing. I believe in this – but he’s talking about living our lives as a prayer. But I also like to pray in words.
I know that prayer means many different things to many different people. That’s the beauty of prayer. We don’t have to all mean the same thing by it to do it. We don’t even all have to believe the same things about God – or even all believe in God – to pray and to be changed ourselves by prayer. And if you’d like me to pray for you – just let me know.
That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.