Through twenty years and three kitchens my refrigerator door has been graced by a copy of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” On most days, I consider the pivotal lines “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know what it is to pay attention . . .” as a variation on Paul’s instruction to pray without ceasing, an acknowledgment that prayer happens in many other forms besides the spoken word, a hint that thanking God for this good creation requires us first to notice it. But on other days, the “I don’t know” seems a cry from the scared turtle self within: Am I doing this right?
The first prayers I memorized were learned in the community of family, and there were two: a simple, reassuring one for day and a more complex, troubling one for night. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food” was straightforward—know God, put faith and trust in God, return that knowledge with thanks. From the mouth of my younger brother or me, it was sufficient to bring a blessing on the family’s supper, our four heads bowed toward the good smells before us.
For the bedtime prayer, though, I was on my own. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” raised questions that sometimes kept me wondering in the dark, delaying my laying me down to sleep. Why did I need protection for my soul at night? Where might it go if God didn’t keep it? And why on earth might I die before I wake? So my first extemporaneous prayers were tacked on to that quatrain, backtracking from and bargaining against the last line, enacting the struggle between God’s will and my own: “But please don’t let me die yet.”
Writing about praying reminds me uncomfortably of the joke about what happens when Unitarians die. Arriving at the pearly gates, finding two signs, they will pass up “This way to heaven” for “This way to a discussion about heaven.” In other words, rather than writing about prayer, shouldn’t I be doing it instead? But this table of words has issued the invitation, so I come, fingering a half-strung rosary of memory, clutching the loose-leaf scraps of words from my lifetime’s ragtag community, as if I were back in the craft cabin at church camp, trimming and stitching my own book of common prayers.
There is the Lord’s Prayer, of course, and the worship services and weddings and gatherings of two or three where I have been but one small voice in rhythm with others.
There is the Twenty-Third Psalm, of course, and the regular reminders that the valley goes through, not around, and the images of my shepherd’s rod and staff, one to scare away predators, one to hook me by the neck when I start to stray.
There is the friend who suggested saying a prayer one drowning night, her hand in mine a life raft.
There’s another friend who ordered me, not long after that night, to keep a gratitude journal. “Five things. Every day,” she insisted, and the little notebook by the bedside became another life raft, a written compline of thanks, an Easter egg hunt for five good things hidden in the brittle grass of those days. There were the days when the list reached six, or seven, or ten, or fifteen. And there are seven little books now, holding five years’ worth of paying attention.
There are Garrison Keillor’s words, a prayer disguised as an aphorism: “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”
There is “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” and “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” and the tunes that help me remember them and repeat them as a chant.
There is my laminated picture of Christ Pantocrator, his asymmetrical face and the Jesus prayer on the reverse: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There is the song that often closes the service for the tribe I assemble with on Sunday mornings and that I also sing in my apartment, in the shower, in my car: “Father God, just for today, help me walk the narrow way. Help me stand where I might fall; give me the strength to hear your call. May my steps be worship, may my thoughts be praise, may my words bring honor to your name.”
There are the days I sing “heed your call” instead.
There is the friend whose epic phone conversations sometimes end with us praying the Lord’s Prayer together, ear to ear through our iPhones.
There’s Anne Lamott, with her two prayers, “Help me help me help me” and “Thank you thank you thank you.”
There’s Ann Voskamp, with her list of a thousand gifts, and the friend who dared her into gratitude.
There’s Annie Dillard, with her comment that “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.”
There’s the red-bound copy of the Book of Common Prayer given to me by an Episcopal priest when I was a religion reporter and he learned I didn’t have one. Inside it, among all those little prayers called collects, there’s one that covers some of the same ground as “Now I lay me down to sleep”: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.”
There’s the intimacy of prayer in a car with a man at the end of a date.
There’s the redemption of prayer in a car with a long-lost friend after twenty-five years of silence.
There is the friend who begins her prayers with “God, you are my hiding place” and the friend who ends his with “We can’t wait to see you.”
And always, alone or with others, there is the palimpsest of the church camp circles where I first learned to pray, summer nights on the softball field under the stars, hint of campfire in our clothes, passing the current with a squeeze of the hand, summoning the surrender to speak to God in front of others for the first time, then heading through the woods to our cabins with the director’s benediction: “Good night, and God go with you.”