Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB — December 11th
I must admit that, at times, my prayer is extremely neurotic. If you sat next to me while I prayed and somehow gazed into my mind, you would likely see a word processor. You would see sentences forming and self-destructing just as quickly as they formed, as if I were struggling to write the first draft of an essay. This is because, as I sit in silence and offer intercessions, petitions, and thanksgiving to God, I constantly feel like I need to reword or rephrase my prayers. I’ll offer a prayer and then think, “Wait, God, disregard that sentence. Let me put it a better way. That was too sloppy.”
Sometimes this habit reaches a ridiculous level. It doesn’t just happen when I’m asking or praising God for anything specific. In fact, my favorite prayer practice, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer, consists of simply repeating the phrase, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner in a state of meditation. You’re meant to sink into the words themselves and transcend everything else. The prayer isn’t remotely about beautiful articulation. And yet, when I’m sitting in silence with my prayer beads, repeating the Jesus Prayer as I breathe in and out, I still find myself thinking, “Wait, hold on, that one wasn’t good enough. Don’t move on to the next bead. Do this one again.”
It’s like I don’t want God to know what’s on my heart until I clean up the mess inside me. It’s like I don’t want God to listen until I’m able to articulate something worth listening to. It’s like I don’t want to let God’s healing in until I’ve sufficiently organized all the brokenness and clutter that is my being.
How silly I am!
Obviously there’s nothing wrong with a “beautiful” or “eloquent” prayer. I’m from the Episcopal Church. We have beautifully written prayers out the wazoo. But if I spend all my time criticizing the “beauty” or “eloquence” of my own prayer or its performance, wishing it was “better” than it is, I’ll forget why prayer is actually important. Prayer is not a magical ritual or incantation. It doesn’t have power because we say it right or because we do it adequately. Prayer is not transactional like that. In fact, it isn’t even necessarily verbal or lingual.
I think that we often fall into the trap of thinking that prayer is “talking to God.” We, the people who produce these prayers, therefore hold the responsibility. We have to say prayers right. We have to say them beautifully. We have to say them with conviction. But at its heart, prayer is not talking to God so much as it is listening to God, taking time to be with God. The Episcopal Catechism calls prayer a response “to God, by thoughts and by deeds, with or without words.” Julian of Norwich, a preeminent mystic and teacher of the medieval English church, calls prayer “a just understanding of the fullness of joy that is to come.” My dad calls prayer showing up.
Ultimately, I am totally unable to fix myself. I am powerless to curate who I am. All I can do is lie before Jesus in all my vulnerability, in all my brokenness, in all my sinfulness, and in all my pain, just like the paralytic lowered through the roof in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke. In the end, all I can do is show up. And I can have hope, because I know that if I just show up like the paralytic did, Jesus will respond the same way He always does: with Love. He’ll forgive me, He’ll heal me, and He’ll transform my life.
How absurd it is that I don’t want God to know what’s on my heart until I clean up my mental mess; God already knows me better than I can ever know myself. How silly it is that I don’t want God to listen until I’m able to articulate something worth listening to; God’s infinite and abiding Love was there long before my futile language was. How heartbreaking it is that I don’t want to let God’s healing in until I’ve arranged my brokenness and clutter; Jesus met us in our brokenness and clutter and loved us, loves us, anyway.
This is what I want to do in prayer for the rest of this wondrous Advent season, and for the rest of my life: I want to stop doing all the talking. I want to stop all the incessant worrying about articulation and eloquence. I just want to listen. I want to open myself in surrender to the abundant healing and love and joy that Jesus has already provided for me. I want to show up.
Aidan Stoddart ’21 is a freshman in Weld Hall.