02 February 2007

Habit-forming Prayer

The Orans or Orante, one of the most common images in early Christian art,
depicts a woman praying with her arms outstretched and her head covered.

When my family gathers around the dinner table to eat (on the nights when we're not eating in front of the t.v.), my dad has always said the same prayer. Well, at least, the prayer always had the same structure, rhythm and intonation. There was a flexible part: in the portion usually reserved for thanking God for each member of our family, thanksgiving for the presence of any guests was always included. Sometimes Dad said the prayer so quickly that, if I hadn't heard it nearly every day for my entire life, it would have been difficult to pick out the individual words.

I think it's probably fair to say that the closest thing to a liturgical prayer I heard growing up was at our dinner table. Other than the occassional (redundant and more or less nonsensical), "guide, guard and direct us," Dad was the only one I ever heard praying something out of habit. Among my peers at church (and I suspect among people of all ages), praying by rote or reading a prepared prayer was considered less "spiritual."

This attitude took me a while to outgrow - even after I'd grown to appreciate a more structured form of prayer, kicking my perceived need for spontaneity was hard. But the pressure of being continually new and creative becomes pretty overwhelming, even paralyzing at times (and I don't think it's actually Christian to always need something new and fresh to be spiritually alive). Lately I've been paying attention to the ways ritual prayer affect the daily lives of people around me. Here are some of my findings:

Last fall, I ate lunch at Aunt Yvonne and Uncle Roger's. As Roger ages, he stutters more and more. Yvonne can usually clear up what he's trying to say, but sometimes it's even hard for her to understand. As we sat down for lunch, we joined hands to pray, and I expected that my cousin Scott would give thanks for the food. It quickly became apparent, however, that this is Uncle Roger's house, and he was going to say the prayer. As we bowed our heads, I wondered how long this would take and how hard it might be for him to get the words out. To my surprise, the words rolled off his tongue with ease, loud and clear - the words of a prayer that he's been saying over his family's dinner table for 50+ years. Not a single stutter. I was amazed, but I shouldn't have been. It shouldn't be surprising that a prayer prayed over and over during the course of an entire lifetime has actually formed the person who prays it. After all, none of the fruits of the Spirit are virtues that just spontaneously surface; they're habits formed by a lifetime of discipline.

Here's another, different example: My friend Jared, who was confirmed in the Episcopal church last spring, includes a prayer in nearly every post on his blog, Scribere Orare Est (Latin for "to write is to pray"). More often than not, the prayers are from the Book of Common Prayer. It strikes me nearly every time I read something by Jared that the written, ritual prayers of his communal and personal worship often provide orientation for his daily experiences, even (or perhaps especially) those that are not easily explained or resolved. I think there's something to that.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

What a beautiful post, Kelli. "Habits formed by a lifetime of discipline." so true.
I used to get so annoyed at my little brother saying the same ol' same-o.

But... oh, how I miss those everyday rituals of mealtime prayers. I never thought we'd grow away from those, but, like so many others in our day, busyness has stolen some of those precious moments from our daily lives.