Monday, January 21, 2013

Saying my Prayers

For me, prayer is a rather dry and mechanical exercise. Most of the time, anyway. Sometimes I get a spiritual wind in my sails, but mostly it is something I force myself to do because I know I should. I find it hard to concentrate while I'm praying, and I can't help looking forward to the next pleasurable or interesting part of the day. When I have finished, I feel relieved.

I would feel worse about this if C.S. Lewis hadn't confessed to exactly the same feelings in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.

I never really prayed in my childhood or teens, so when I started practicing my faith a few years ago I was starting from scratch. I had no idea how to pray (maybe I still don't). But I came across some advice that the Catholic apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft gave to people in exactly this situation. His advice: "Just do it". So I did it.

John Waters (and again, for American readers I specify this is an Irish writer and not the American purveyor of high camp cinema) describes in his book Lapsed Agnostic how he began to pray while attending Alcoholics Anonymous. He found it so difficult to get to his knees that, on advice from somebody who had the same problem, he got into the position by imagining he was looking for a shoe underneath his bed.

Well, I had no such problem, nor did I understand that frame of mind. I leapt (so to speak) at the opportunity to kneel; there was a line that I loved from a W.B. Yeats poem that ran: "My medieval knees lack health until they bend." I had always thought that the sight of somebody praying was one of the most beautiful sights imaginable. As a child, I had a picture on my wall of a little boy in blue pyjamas kneeling in prayer, his teddy bear alongside him. I loved that picture.

However, admiring the picturesque prospect of other people praying was a different thing from praying myself.

I acquired a set of rosary beads and began to use them. It took me a while to learn the mysteries; I had to keep referring to a little crib-sheet, for a while. I had my favourite mysteries and my least favourite mysteries. I liked the Annunciation, since the words "I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to your word" appealed to me as perhaps the most gracious and beautiful words ever spoken. What could be further from all our modern philosophies of self-assertion, pride and anger?

Of course I liked the Third Joyful Mystery, the Nativity. When I prayed it, I always found myself picturing the clear stars shining in the cold night sky. That seemed to give the picture a sense of reality and freshness and vividness. It only occurs to me now that my little Nativity scene should probably have been set indoors, but in my mind there was always an open sky visible above the crib-like roof of the manger, as though I was standing outside looking in.

But my favourite mystery of the rosary was the Third Glorious Mystery, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. I liked the sense of togetherness. I liked imagining all the disciples together with Mary, the entire Church present in embryo form. I liked imagining the mighty wind that blew, shaking the timbers of the upper room (I have always loved strong winds). I liked the idea of the tongues of fire shooting out to everybody present. I liked the image of the dove beating its wings above the newborn Church, even though this is not mentioned in Scripture.

I have never seen a picture of the Descent of the Holy Spirit that satisfied me. Sometimes I have thought about taking up painting myself, just so I could try my own hand at rendering it with all the awe and otherworldliness I feel it deserves.

I struggled with other mysteries of the rosary. The Sorrowful Mysteries were, of course, never pleasant to meditate upon; especially because I thought they should upset me more than they did. When it came to the Glorious Mysteries, I found the Ascension of Christ very difficult to picture without feeling a sense of ridiculousness. And both the Assumption and Coronation of Our Lady baffled me. I simply can't picture Heaven, or even an allegory of Heaven.

But I got into the habit of praying the rosary daily (snapping several sets of rosary beads in the process). I prayed for my intentions at the end of the rosary-- I forget what they usually were now.

I was determined to say the rosary every day. Sometimes I found myself saying it in the café of Cineworld in Parnell Square, before a movie. I tried to be neither ostentatious nor abashed about it. Funnily enough, for someone so ridiculously self-conscious in social situations, praying in public doesn't embarrass me. (Of course I am conscious of our Lord's words about praying in public; but it seems to me that, today, public prayer is more a witness to society than an attempt to win its approval.)

My list of intentions grew longer and longer and eventually I came to dread my daily rosary. I didn't like this. I could see that a sacrifice of time and inclination might be pleasing to God, but surely I shouldn't be dragged down by my daily prayers to such an extent as I was. After much internal debate, I dropped my daily rosary and prayed my intentions on their own instead. Today, I rarely pray the rosary; when I do, it is usually with my fianceé.

I have a pretty standard routine of prayers and intentions. I begin with a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria, though I'm sure a Latinist would titter at my pronunciation (learned from Youtube). The daily Ave Maria is to my mother's memory. I pray for Michelle and for our future together. I pray for my beloved father, giving thanks for every day spent with him and asking God to give him many years to come, and for him to retain his mental and physical faculties to the (hopefully distant) end.

I pray for my brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces, trying to think of a specific intention for each person rather than simply going through a list of names. I pray for the dead; there are maybe ten or twelve names on the list that never change, along with other names that do change from day to day.

I pray for vocations to the priesthood in Ireland, every day. I pray for the Catholic Church all over the world, every day; each day I pick particular national churches to pray for, almost like spinning a globe and stopping on random spots. I pray for Christian unity and the souls in Purgatory and give thanks to my guardian angel.

Then there are the intentions that I happen to think of on the day; prayers for the victims of the latest disaster or war zone, prayers for someone who has been having troubles lately, a prayer for someone in my past who might pop into my head out of the blue. I pray for the people who will be born that day, and the people who will die that day. (I sometimes even pray for you and gives thanks for you, oh Gentle Reader.)

There is one practice I've taken up quite recently, which does actually give me pleasure. I pray (not by name but generically) for everyone who I knew in my primary school, for everyone I knew in my secondary school, for everyone I knew in college, and for everyone I knew in the FÁS training course I did after college. I enjoy this daily recapitulation of my life. I think it is all-too-easy to lose touch with the strata of our experience; now, for a few seconds each day, I find myself taking a mini-oddyssey through all the sights and sounds and atmospheres that were my daily reality for years or months of my life.

All in all, my daily prayers rarely take more that fifteen minutes to say.

I do think it is important to choose a particular time and place to pray, if at all possible, and not simply to pray as you are walking around the supermarket or lying in bed. (Although I sometimes pray in bed when I'm tired, sick or cold.) I try to pray before the Blessed Sacrament if I possibly can. On weekdays, this usually means praying in the UCD Church. I can't pretend that I ever really go to prayers eagerly, but kneeling in the pleasant and peaceful surrounding of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, and listening to the sounds of the campus around me, does give me a certain amount of pleasure.

Other times, I pray in the oratory in the Ilac Shopping Centre in Dublin City Centre, or sometimes (when in Ballymun) I even walk to Our Lady of Dolours Church in Glasnevin, which is open all day. If I pray at home, I pray before a little mounted statuette of Christ crucified and a statuette of Our Lady. I light a candle if I can find the lighter.

When I was making my way to accepting Christianity, I spent a lot of time fretting about petitionary prayer, and whether it had anything going for it. Surely Christians were simply ignoring their own failed petitions, and also ignoring Christ's words when he told them they would receive whatever they prayed for if they believed? (Of course, I simply assumed that prayers weren't really answered. If they were, surely some experiment or study would have proved that they were by now?)

I never worry about this anymore. I don't make a running count of my answered prayers and my unanswered prayers-- partly because I don't think it's really possible to categorize them so easily.

Rationalists would say that, having opted to believe in Christianity, I have let my God off the hook.

Of course, I don't think that's the case. In fact, the more I pray, the more I feel I have actually been praying-- or sort of praying-- all my life. Doesn't everybody, every day, find themselves addressing some vague Providence with their wishes and fears? I am sure that there is no sceptic so sceptical but that he finds himself muttering "Please turn green" at the traffic lights when he is a desperate hurry. This is simply a quirk of illogic, the sceptic might insist. But I prefer to think of it as an ineradicable element of the human condition-- because it is based on an underlying cosmic reality.

Even a rationalist like Carl Sagan was enthusiastic for sending radio signals and time capsules into space, in the hope that there might be an intelligence out there sufficiently advanced to intercept and decipher them. Doesn't it make sense that there might be an Intelligence out there so vast that it doesn't need to bother with encryptions and signals?

I don't actually remember any time when I didn't feel that a benevolent force was watching over me, and over all of us. Of course, I have felt misused, and uniquely unhappy, and left out, and that I was the most miserable person in the world, and that nothing would come right for me-- like every other human being in existence. But all the time, underneath all the angst, it seemed to me that good things happened far more often than bad things, that life was always springing up happy surprises, and that the things we fretted about rarely came to pass. Even the worst human life seemed to contain a lot of happiness, and even when terrible things did happen to people, I couldn't help but feel that these awful occurrences were a drama full of tragedy and mysterious meaning, rather than a pointless and empty incident.

So I don't need some kind of empirical proof that petitionary prayer works; I think my prayers are mostly answered before I even make them. And I don't expect prayer to be a kind of bubblegum machine where I put in a "Hail Mary", pull the handle, and out comes a favour from Heaven. Even watching Bruce Almighty should make anybody realize how well that would work-- and a God that is no more than a performing monkey isn't a very inspiring God, anyway.

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