Teaching a Pessimist to Pray


leah abraham -teaching a pessimist to pray3

Hal the Owl Be Your Name

When I was young, my mom recited the Lord’s Prayer before bed regularly. I would keep my eyes shut and obediently repeat after her, “Hal the Owl be your name.”

Why did Jesus like owls so much? I wasn’t quite sure but I didn’t question it.

Prayer was this simple recitation, a mantra we practiced over and over again at church, at family prayers, before bed, alone and together.

The Middle School Contemplative

In middle school, my inner contemplative snuck out. During lunch breaks in school, I would head to a nearby chapel and sit in silence. I wouldn’t pray out loud or ponder life’s big questions. Rather, I would simply sit and relish. I looked at the stain glass, the simple wooden cross and the janitor who would sweep the floor.

Holy. Holy. Holy.

I didn’t know the words nor did I understand any theology. It didn’t matter. Each day I showed up faithfully in that small chapel, I dove head first into the transcendent. The stillness. The quiet. The simplicity.

Holy. It was all so holy.

Youth Group Prayers Need a Guitar

I was taught how to construct a prayer during my evangelical days. I learned from youth groups and bible studies how to rely on the power of prayer. We held hands and and dared to ask for healing, for transformation and the grace to abide by His word. We even got a guitar to set the mood with soft, inspirational background music.

This was when I began to grow into a writer. Intuitively, I knew how to craft prayers. I knew what my audience was looking for and I knew how to deliver. I peppered prayers with “Lord, God Almighty” and “In your glorious name…” I was the actor giving the perfect monologue, packed with every spiritual punch any believer would need.

When I was alone, prayers transformed into conversations with a trusted friend. There, in the sacred space, I was anointed by a secret relationship with a savior as I shared with him secrets, confessions and my heart. Through prayer, I was seen, I was heard, I was loved.

Meet the Mystic

Henri Nouwen was one of the first to guide me through the path of unlearning.

Soon, other saints watched over me and prodded me into a brave new world, one where I dared to leave behind the legalism of the church and instead follow the still, small voice of God.

God changed from father to mother.

My cookie-cutter prayers didn’t work in this new world. I didn’t mind. I was learning a new language and I was hungry to use words that mirrored my changing world.

I went back to my roots — back to liturgy of the saints who went before.

I prayed through movements. I prayed through labyrinths. I prayed through small deeds of kindness. I prayed through lit candles and ancient hymns. I prayed through swear words.

At every moment in that season, I’d have the words ready on my lips: “Have mercy, O Lord.”

Poetry and Lists

I don’t pray much anymore.

I’ve tried lighting candles. I’ve tried reading the Common Book of Prayer. I’ve tried sitting in silence (I last maybe 10 minutes).

But none of it feels organic. It doesn’t flow like water, like it once used to.

I don’t call God father or mother because I wrestle with understanding what it means to live in a world where gender is a social construct. Doubt sometimes creeps in and I wonder if God is a social construct as well.

“Oh Love that will not let me go,” I say out loud, recalling the old hymn but not quite believing that Love will hold on tight.

How do I pray when I’m so unsure about everything? Can I still dive head first into the transcendent when I’m knee deep in questions and uncertainty? Will I ever learn how to pray again?

How do you teach a pessimist to pray? How do you teach a doubter to believe in the transcendent once again?

Maybe point her to some poetry. Perhaps to Saint Mary Oliver.

“Just pay attention,” she’ll likely tell me.

Patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

A doorway into thanks? I can do that. I can enter that door.

My cup is overflowing anyway—family, friends, good books, my mom’s appam and chicken stew, the scent of instant coffee, the feel of a woolen blanket, houses decked out in Christmas lights, the colors of Jim LePage’s “Blessed to Death” series … I can list more.

Lists I can do. Thanks I can do.

Perhaps prayer is supposed to be learned and unlearned. Perhaps I need to practice small acts of grace, over and over again, until I’m able to dive into the transcendent once again.

Perhaps showing up and trying is praying itself.

SheLovelys, I have a lot of questions, and I’m curious to know about your relationship with prayer in this season. How do you pray? Do you prefer words or the quiet? Movement or stillness? What do you feel compelled to pray about these days? Does prayer come easily to you? Or do you struggle?

Leah Abraham
Leah is a storyteller + writer + journalist + creative + empathizing romantic + pessimistic realist + ISFP + Enneagram type 2 + much more. She lives in the Seattle area where she works as an education reporter and features writer. Bonus facts: She loves the great indoors, hates to floss, and is obsessed with Korean food and her dorky, immigrant family.
Leah Abraham
Leah Abraham

Latest posts by Leah Abraham (see all)


  1. I have learned to pray honestly because God knows all my thoughts and words anyway so I may as well tell him. I tell him when I am angry and confused (there were times when I screamed angry swear words at him in my head and then was terrified for doing so.. but he took it) I try to remember to tell him when I am delighted too and not just complain and sometimes he drops words in my heart and mind to encourage myself and others.. I remember when I was preparing for my first date a couple of years ago I was very nervous and he spoke to my heart, “don’t worry. He will be your husband.” And he was! Earlier that year a friend had heard from God and told me “you will meet your husband this year.” It is these words that help me during seasons of doubt. I have a special chair in a special prayer room but my prayers are not isolated to that spot. Just like I have special date nights with my husband but I can also call him at work. Today I dragged myself into prayer because my phone seemed more interesting.. yet I can’t avoid my Creator and Abba for long. Blessings on your journey Leah. You are very loved.

  2. Rekha Varghese says:

    Sometimes prayer becomes more about ‘doing’ and ‘being’, rather than ‘saying’. The more I think about it, I’m almost convinced that’s how it should be.

  3. Loved this (and you) so much, L.



  4. My prayers seem to vary from day to day lately. Some days it’s silence. some days its reading a passage of scripture and allowing that to roam around my mind a bit. some days it’s the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Some days it’s a song that plays on repeat in my head. some days it’s “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” There’s no consistency other than I do get up early 5 or 6 days a week and go to my special chair and wait. some days I fall asleep. No matter what I say or don’t say, hear or don’t hear, I know I’ve spent time with God, even if I’m not aware of his presence.

    • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

      I love your discipline of waking up early and going to your special chair. You show up. You believe God was WITH you. Sandy, I’m going to be thinking about this. There’s something in this that’s important for me to understand. Thank you.

  5. Lisa Sands Scandrette says:

    I’ve been in a space lately wondering what prayer is for, how it works, etc. That said, I am compelled to pray lately–sometimes it is pleas as I navigate my day and people come to mind, sometimes it is sitting quietly, sometimes it is being in nature and “simply feeling a prayer,” as Anne of Green Gables would say. How I pray ebbs overs time. Learning and unlearning is good…

    • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

      I was saw a woman get up on stage, say “Dear God. Thank you,” and leave the stage. It felt powerful. I think it invited the audience to the essence of the Anne of Green Gables quote. Love it.

  6. Prayer has been hard for me lately and I think it’s because I think of all the things it “should” be. I’m holding on to your words that perhaps it’s showing up and trying. And lists…yes, I can do that too. Thanks Leah. Such an honest piece.

    • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

      Ahh… “should be” … I know the feeling of feeling being constrained by it. You’re not alone. Figuring it all out with you, Debby. <3

  7. So good and honest and needed, Leah. Yes, I have learned and unlearned. I feel like I am in a season between having unlearned and not yet having learned again quite what works for me. I am struggling to find consistency. I am more comfortable in silence these days, having a hard time finding the words. It’s not because of doubt. I’m not sure, maybe it is because of my dive into the contemplative but my flesh’s resistance to the quiet. I am much more comfortable writing my prayers, like your poetry. But I miss the words flowing easily.

    • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

      I read somewhere that during an interview, Mother Theresa was asked what she prays about, and she answered she doesn’t pray about anything, but rather she listens to God. The interviewer then asked what God said, and she responded God didn’t say anything; he simply listened to her as well. Isn’t that something?

      May both of our prayers flow like water one day soon. Miss you!

  8. Henri Nouwen brought me into a space of deeper faith… Mostly because he seemed to help me ask more and more questions, rather than searching for answers. I still turn to him, especially during Advent, to help ground me in the mystery of faith.

    • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

      I love those who point us to more questions. Any Nouwen favorites?

      • I have “In Hopeful Joy” for Advent, which I love. I think “Can You Take This Bread?” is one I return to again and again… Plus, the Nouwen Society’s daily devotions give me a fix in the midst of busyness!

        • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

          I haven’t read In Hopeful Joy, and I’ve been looking for an Advent read. Thanks for the recommendation!

  9. I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with prayer. There have been season when I’ve patched it up with lists of people and causes, missionaries and near-strangers whose names and requests were carefully dated and updated. There have been seasons of silence when I met what I interpreted as God’s apathy with a stubborn neglect of my soul. There was a season when I did not trust my own words, but resorted to Scripture for prayer, particularly for loved ones. My view from today is that prayer is the hardest work there is, but it’s worth the effort. And I don’t think it will ever stop being an effort.

    • Leah Abraham Leah Abraham says:

      Wow. Michele, there’s a powerful story lurking in there. Thank you for sharing, for giving me a glimpse. Honored.

  10. Amanda Dick says:

    Leah, I’m sitting in the same space as you right now with all of this.
    It’s hard to know how to pray when it feels like all my theology is just lying in pieces on the ground waiting to be reconstructed…
    Thanks for the reminder that I’m not alone, and not crazy. This was a beautiful piece.
    Much love.

Speak Your Mind