“No, I won’t look at it. You are not praying to those people who are in the room, you are praying to God; trust your own prayerfulness.”
While I do consider public prayer a responsibility, Mitch’s words caused me pause. Was I concerned about praying before my colleagues for the wrong reasons? Was I more concerned with sounding holy or intelligent or somehow both? His words also reminded me of whose presence I was calling upon in that prayer, even in a faculty meeting.
Reading like a writer is a pedagogical practice I not only teach but do. Since I was praying for a large meeting, my first response was to take out my copy of Praymates, compiled by Candida Lund. I began leafing through the ancient and more contemporary prayers this book contains. I read the prayers with the express intent of finding one I could pray or remix for my own purpose.
From my perspective, the contemporary idea of remixing and my understanding of the responsibility of corporate prayer are reflected in these words from literary theorist Bakhtin’s, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.
All words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions (Bakhtin, 1981,p. 293).
The words I chose to pray did rest, as Bakhtin states, “on the borderline between oneself and the other.” I wasn’t praying only for myself, nor was I praying only with an audience. My prayer was ripe with my own intentions and, while it would also become other’s intentions, spoken in that moment.
While this doesn’t seem deeply spiritual as I write this now, my intention for reading the prayers in Praymates was to make someone else’s words our own. As I paged through the prayers in this book, I found eloquent lines that would allow me to put on airs of holiness but kept returning to a prayer by Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland (1542-1587) that almost seemed too personal for my gig.
Keep us, O God, from all pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.
Let us be done with fault finding and leave off all self seeking.
May we put away all pretense and meet each other face to face without self-pity and without prejudice.
May we never be hasty in judgment and always generous.
Let us take time for all things, and make us to grow calm, serene, and gentle.
Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straight forward and unafraid.
Grant that we may realize that it is the little things of life that create differences, that in the big things of life, we are as one.
And, O Lord God, let us not forget to be kind!
The line, teach us to put into action our better impulses, straight forward and unafraid, is one that I needed to act upon.
Praying before a faculty meeting, praying publicly “on the job” meant that I am “owning up” to the whole person I am. Mitch’s words, that began this post, reminded me that I had to give up the idea that I wanted to come across a certain way—a perfect prayer. Parker Palmer in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, speaks of our yearning to be whole; but living a divided life seems easier. For me, that division is between my thinking self and my surrendering self that seems at odds rather than intertwined. Palmer says that “wholeness is not about perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream…
So I remixed the Queen’s words:
We come in gratitude, God, for your creating and loving spirit that brings new freedoms, joy, and provision for hope in this day.
Keep us from all pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed.
May we meet each other face-to-face without pretense; never hasty in decisions or judgments, always generous.
Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straightforward and unafraid.
Grant that we may realize that we are one in your spirit.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
And this prayer became and continues to be a kind of talking to myself. I found that when I said the words out loud they reminded me what I needed to do, so I keep on saying them.
Buechner says in Wishful Thinking:
Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea.
Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love too. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don’t, you may forget what matters most to you.
Even if you don’t believe anybody’s listening, at least you’ll be listening.