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?