30 March 2014
Last summer, I gave a tour to a nun, Sister Joseph. We had a great time on tour and talked a little bit afterwards. Somehow, prayer came up in our conversation, and Sister Joseph said she would pray for me, because she would think about me, and every time you think about someone, you pray for them. That profound statement has stayed with me ever since.
My understanding of prayer growing up was that prayer was a conscious action. We folded our hands, bowed our heads and prayed. And when we said Amen, the prayer was over; we were no longer praying. Prayer had a distinct beginning and ending, it functioned to give thanks or express concerns, and it had definable limits. But Sister Joseph was hinting at something far deeper, and more powerful.
It may not be clear from this context, but Sister Joseph made it was telling me that that prayer is more than a conscious action; prayer also includes a subconscious, automatic, and natural aspect. This brings to mind some of the things we discussed in my introductory religion class in my undergrad. For a short time, we focused on the Lord's prayer, and during the theology unit of the class we actually chanted the prayer at the beginning of every class. Part of our discussion was concerned with the value of the prayer. How can something so generic, so formulaic, so familiar, something that seems so impersonal be a valuable exercise. Part of its value comes from its generic familiarity. The prayer becomes an exercise which makes the individual comfortable with the idea of communing with the divine. More than that, it makes prayer habitual. It makes prayer a part of everyday life. So when we read Paul's instruction to "pray ceaselessly," we can imagine a very real, surprisingly literal interpretation. If prayer is both conscious and unconscious, then we are constantly in prayer, constantly communing with the divine, and that relationship then permeates every part of our lives. We can firmly erase the notion that the sacred and the secular are separable, and we find our entire lives belong to the realm of the sacred.
To be clear, I am not by any means suggesting that we abolish the conscious prayer. The folded hands, bowed head, "Dear LORD…Amen" prayer has its place, to be sure. However, it would benefit us greatly to expand our definition of prayer so that it becomes something which permeates our entire existence. Prayer does not need to have limits.