An Invitation to Prayer
“The nurse said what?” I asked.
It was after midnight, but I was already out of bed, groping sleepily for a shirt and a pair of pants.
“Something’s wrong.” On the other end of the phone, Ruth’s voice quavered. “The baby isn’t breathing properly.”
Ruth was thirty-nine years old and highly educated. She had given birth that afternoon to her third child after a difficult and perhaps not altogether welcome pregnancy.
She had already struggled through one major bout of depression, was having severe back pain from an old injury, and was overwhelmed by the demands of her two small boys. On top of this, she had an emotionally demanding job working with abused children. Because of her medical conditions and “advanced age,” her pregnancy was considered high-risk, which meant she had to drive two hours to a specialist every week for prenatal care.
Still, the day before, when I had bumped into Ruth at the community pool, she had seemed pretty upbeat. The water was entertaining her children and helping to support the weight of her belly, and as we chatted, she cheerfully told me that she thought she might already be in early labor.
Baby Nina was born that afternoon by cesarean section, and all had apparently gone well. The other children and Ruth’s husband, Wally, had come for a visit and then gone home. That was when, Ruth told me, things started to get strange. The baby wasn’t responding well to tests; her oxygen levels were lower than they should have been. Ruth was told that Nina would have to be taken to the neonatal intensive care nursery for a more extensive evaluation. The nurse who escorted Ruth back to her hospital room was silent while Ruth climbed into bed. On her way out, the nurse turned in the doorway and regarded Ruth for a moment.
“And then she told me to pray,” Ruth said.
With clumsy, sleepy fingers, I was fitting a white vinyl tab into the collar of my black shirt. The white parallelogram it made at my throat would declare me as clergy.
“Oh, Ruth,” I said.
“She said that was my job right now,” Ruth went on. “To pray for my baby girl. I’m really sorry to wake you up in the middle of the night, but I don’t know what she meant. I don’t even know how to pray… and I thought maybe, because you’re… you know, a minister… maybe you could just tell me, like, really quickly: How do I pray for my baby?”
“I’ll be right there,” I said.
I am ordained in a particular form of ministry known as “community ministry.” I don’t serve in a church, but rather, along with a growing company of clergy, I serve diverse populations out “in the world.” Some of us spend our time among the homeless, others as chaplains serving in the military, in hospitals, or with firefighters, police officers, and other first responders. As chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, the agency that polices the state’s roughly seventeen million acres of wildland, I accompany game wardens to accidents and drownings and search-and-rescue operations in the Maine woods. Regardless of the circumstances, community ministry brings us into close contact with people whose socioeconomic and religious backgrounds vary widely, and who may share with us little more than birth, illness, and death—the common features of human experience. Whatever theological or doctrinal systems a chaplain begins his ministry with, the work itself has a distinctly streamlining effect. A chaplain doesn’t have a leisurely hour in which to explain God. The suffering is right there, and its urgency demands an immediate response. We don’t give a lot of sermons out in the field or in the woods or streets. Instead, we are called upon to offer the spiritual equivalent of triage. We’re asked to pray.
Arriving at the hospital’s neonatal nursery, I expected to see a desperately sick little creature in an incubator. Instead, Nina was stretching and kicking her newborn legs, a lively, lovely baby girl, while a doctor in a white lab coat pressed a stethoscope to her stout little chest. In fact, despite the initially worrying signs, Nina turned out to be fine.
So what on earth was that nurse thinking? To tell the mother of a newborn “You should pray,” can only be interpreted as “Your baby is in terrible, terrible trouble.” Was the nurse an insensitive religious wacko?
No. She was a human being who had just made a mistake. Among the medicines Ruth had taken for her back pain was methadone. When the nurse reviewed Ruth’s file after the baby seemed to have trouble breathing, she saw the drug and jumped to the wrong conclusion: She had thought that Ruth was a heroin addict who had traveled to Bangor, where there is a methadone clinic, throughout her pregnancy.
This isn’t really an excuse for psychological cruelty, but it is an explanation: The nurse thought she was dealing with (yet another) substance abuser whose bad choices were inflicting harm on her own helpless offspring. I have felt the same frustration when witnessing catastrophic parental failures in my work as a chaplain.
I could leave it at that—Ruth had been the victim of misdirected and inappropriate anger. She wasn’t responsible for her baby’s troubles, which, in any case, had proved both mild and transient. Ruth didn’t need to pray. Except that she did need to pray. The nurse’s exhortations, right or wrong, had triggered an instinctive reaction. What’s more, Ruth wanted to pray but didn’t know how.
So I helped Ruth to pray. Here is the prayer we offered together.
O God, whose name is love
I offer the prayer of my yearning heart
I can’t hold or heal my child.
Please, hold her for me.
Love moves in the skilled hands of those who would heal my baby
Love is in their learning and their care
God be in my understanding.
God be in my patience
God be in my arms, as she is returned to me.
May my child and all children be blessed
My family and all families blessed
May God’s love enfold us, dwell in us, give us comfort
And grant us peace.
When I invented this Hospital Prayer, more or less on the spot for Ruth and Nina, I drew it from a well that I’d spent years digging. There was a time when I would have imagined that, having dug my well, I could also claim credit for the water.
Why would it occur to Ruth to pray, and how would she know how to do it? Like Ruth’s family, my family of origin did not pray and only rarely went to church. I learned enough about religion to be politely silent when prayers were offered at the services I visited with friends and at weddings or funerals. The same culture that taught me both “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah, Teacher hit me with a ruler” taught me the words of the Lord’s Prayer, but it never occurred to me to actually say it. That is, to pray it.
In my early twenties, I felt an unfocused longing—not new but never so acute—that made itself known to me through the insistent if prosaic passions of a young woman who took herself and her life very (and probably too) seriously: the intensity of my love for my husband, the moment when another human being gave his first flutter of greeting from deep within my body, and then in the bloody drama of childbirth.
I wanted to name the longing and respond somehow to its source, by some magnificent gesture if possible, but at least with a moment’s deliberate attention. No nurse was around to tell me that what I wanted was to pray.
I was of two minds about prayer—correction: I was of more than two minds. I had a whole crowd inside my skull, all jabbering away and no one listening.
Do I have to kneel? Why can’t I pray just as well in the shower? Is there anyone to pray to other than the anachronistic God of oily televangelists and creeps? (Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the door, and cheat all the people… ) Praying on my knees is humiliating, especially when I’m kneeling on a carpet that was probably made by Nepalese teenagers, working their tiny fingers to the bone without even a boom box to make the weary hours fly. What am I supposed to do with my hands? Really, I should get off the floor and make supper or something…
This is an example of what the Buddha called “the monkey mind”: the running stream-of-consciousness commentary that is the opposite of the clear, calm, contemplative mindfulness a person is supposed to have when she is praying. Right?
I always thought so. And because my mind was never empty, never clear, jibber jabber jibber jabber, I couldn’t conjure even a moment’s meditative mood, which made me feel inadequate and therefore huffy. Untangling myself from the lotus position after trying to meditate, or hoisting myself from the pew after trying to pray, I would self-righteously declare that it was more important to do something useful for the Poor and Downtrodden than to sit around praying.
In short, mindfulness with its moments of attention (let alone a magnificent gesture) turned out to be a tall order for my mind, which was well stuffed with both the concerns of new motherhood and the details of everyday life. There were immunization appointments, the Iran-Contra fiasco, grocery lists, Penelope Leach vs. Dr. Spock, the oil bill, a freelance editing job, my husband’s state police uniforms to pick up at the dry cleaner, and a child’s persistent need for a fresh diaper.
Prayer was already present and available to me in more ways than I realized. Saying grace before a meal or a prayer at bedtime was familiar to me from visits to friends’ houses and from books and other media, even if my family didn’t engage in it. On the face of it, prayer seemed harmless enough to try, just for the heck of it. The major obstacle for me was ignorance: I really didn’t understand what prayer was. I had thought that conquering the monkey mind and bringing myself into a conscious attentiveness were prerequisites for prayer, but they are not: They are prayer’s result. If I was restless, dubious, and distracted whenever I’d try to pray, so what? Everyone is!
What keeps you from prayer?
Ask that question in a roomful of people who don’t pray, and you will get a raft of answers: Oh, I’m too busy. I’m uncomfortable. All the people I know who pray are real jerks, and I don’t want to be one of them. I have bad memories of abusive religious figures. I wouldn’t know who I was praying to. I don’t know what to say.
Here and there one comes across that true rarity, a person who is wholly neutral when it comes to prayer, but most people have strong opinions, at least about when, how, and to whom we would rather not pray. We don’t want to be forced to pray in the forms and words of a religion we don’t subscribe to, or to a God we don’t believe in. So we don’t pray at all, and life moves along in its busy, mindless, distracted way until an eighteen-wheeler is veering over the double line into our lane and life is suddenly very simple.
This is a book about bringing true prayer to real life, preferably before real life includes an eighteen-wheeler or other looming disaster. I won’t claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won’t help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won’t even make life easier.
What it can do—what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done—is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer.
There are many ways to pray and many reasons to choose one way over another. These we will explore in the pages ahead. There are also plenty of sources to draw on if the prayers included here don’t seem quite right.
Since I am a minister in the Protestant tradition, you might expect me to recommend reading the Bible from cover to cover before you do anything else. Well, I tried that strategy back in the day. I made a pretty good start in the Garden of Eden. Then, like so many others, I got bogged down in the “begats”—the seemingly endless genealogies of Genesis 10.
Perhaps there are people who can chomp their way straight through the duller bits of the Bible and extract a spiritual awakening from the (let’s face it) pretty weird and violent stories that make up the more interesting parts. Maybe there are those so attuned to the Word that they can crack open the Bible and have both faith and practice all sussed out by the middle of Second Kings. If so, I’m not among them. I have been wrestling with this complex, infuriating, wonderful, awful text in various ways for nearly thirty years now, and though the Book holds blessings, they didn’t yield themselves easily.
Books on spiritual practice and prayer are generally aimed at specific audiences—Buddhists, Christians, Jews, recovering alcoholics, or willing believers who need extra help with a specific problem. When I began having my own barely articulated questions about prayer, I didn’t fit into any of these categories.
There were plenty of churches and other religious institutions in the neighborhood that would have been pleased to take me in, but I thought I knew all about Organized Religion. At least I knew enough to know I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I wasn’t seeking to become Catholic, Methodist, or Jewish. I couldn’t picture myself attending weekly services, joining a choir, and organizing the rummage sale. The strange, restless longing that compelled my search was still too fresh to name with what I thought of as the usual depleted words—“God,” for example. I just wanted to respond to it—and to life around me—without feeling false or foolish. I didn’t want someone to tell me what to be (Episcopalian! Saved!). I needed someone to tell me what to do.
Finally, of course, someone did.
I was going through a miserable time. It was probably postpartum depression. Naturally, I concealed my distress, and I thought I was doing so successfully. Then I ran into Pastor Larry, a large, gray-bearded retired Methodist minister, an experienced hospital chaplain with a lovely, deep, rumbling Hebrew Patriarch sort of voice. I recognized that voice immediately, even before I saw him, as it carried from the other side of the self-help stack at Second Read Books in Rockland, Maine (now known as Rock City Books & Coffee), where I was browsing. Feminist though I am, on that unhappy day, “patriarchal” didn’t seem all that negative a quality. In fact, if I could have gotten away with it, I would’ve crawled into his lap—Father! Abba!—and bawled. Instead, I said, “Hello! How are you?”
Pastor Larry looked at me from under his luxuriant gray eyebrows. Then he calmly announced he was going to write me a prescription.
Rooting around in his jacket pockets, he unearthed an old envelope and a ballpoint pen. Mystified, I watched him write. Because his enormous left hand completely engulfed and concealed the envelope, I couldn’t actually see the words. There seemed to be an awful lot of them.
“There,” Larry said at last. He folded the paper in half. “Twice a day,” he said, holding it out to me. “More, if necessary.”
I unfolded the paper. Larry had written out the Twenty-third Psalm.
Faith is so often the attitude of last resort. I could not imagine an end to my unhappiness, let alone conjure words that could describe or assuage it. I bowed my head. “Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
And so the atheist in her foxhole prayed the Twenty-third Psalm about ten times a day. I could have recited it—I soon knew the thing by heart—but I didn’t. Taking the paper out of my pocket, unfolding it carefully, and seeing Larry’s handwriting was the most comforting aspect of the ritual. Later, when life began to improve a bit, I realized that the paper, the handwriting, and my mental image of Pastor Larry’s kind, fatherly face were of a piece with the psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you art with me;
your rod and your staff–
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Although he called the psalm a “prescription,” Larry didn’t actually make any healing claims for prayer. A variety of religions do lay claim to miraculous abilities to cure all manner of human ills through prayer or other rituals, from obesity to cancer. Some say they are able to personally persuade or even require the Deity du Jour to give us riches, affection, safety, and thin thighs and take away our loneliness, bad weather, enemies, or acne—poof!—just like that.
Alternatively, religious practice can be made to sound like a recreational drug. “Melt one tab of prayer under your tongue, and you shall visualize whirled peas and angels dancing on the head of a pin. Take two tabs, and Trinitarian theory will make sense, and thou shalt be able to read the begats without boredom…”
Prayer is sometimes offered to us coated with a scientific gloss: It exercises our body’s cells in specific ways, it is said, or it is a way to lasso and harness a powerful but furtive energy and turn it to our own ends. I am not a new ager or a mystic. I’ve neither conjured visions of the Virgin nor, to the best of my knowledge, vanquished even a single pimple by praying.
Even now that I am a chaplain, my expectations for prayer are pretty low. Though sometimes moved to spontaneous prayer by an experience of the sacred (sacred sorrow or sacred joy), more often I pray because I have committed myself to it as a practice or because it’s my job. So what remains the most surprising fact about prayer for me is that it consistently exceeds my expectations.
Just as long as I have breath
I must answer yes to life
Though with pain I made my way
Still with hope I meet each day
If they ask what I did well
Tell them I said yes to life.
Just as long as vision lasts
I must answer yes to truth
In my dream and in my dark
Always that elusive spark
If they ask what I did well
Tell them I said yes to truth.
Just as long as my heart beats
I must answer yes to love
Disappointment pierced me through
Still I kept on loving you.
If they ask what I did best
Tell them I said yes to love.
Copyright©1981 Alicia S. Carpenter.
May not be reprinted without written
permission of the author.
© 2010 Kate Braestrup