Today I attended a Planned Parenthood training session for clergy. It was more helpful than I expected in several ways, but one of the most interesting thing about it was having a room full of liberal clergy talking about issues of pastoral care for women who are considering or have had an abortion. The subject of prayer came up. Keep in mind that this is a room full of ministers and rabbis, people who one might assume would be quite at ease with prayer. Not so! One by one, we began to divulge our discomfort with offering to pray for and with people.
The reasons differed somewhat; some worried about imposing their own beliefs upon others, some felt conflicted about the ways that people might expect us to pray, others simply thought it was awkward. But few of us were totally at ease with offering to pray with people.
My own awkwardness about prayer is connected to how I learned to pray - in an evangelical fellowship in college. First of all, prayer was often used there as a way of demonstrating piety. "Good pray-ers" were seen as more mature Christians and more righteous and spiritual people. As I came to resent the parading of devotion, public prayer also began to feel less comfortable for me.
There was also a very specific common jargon used for prayer. As I grew and took a different path, those words and phrases no longer fit my beliefs or spirituality, and some of them I now find deeply offensive. But when I pray aloud, those are the words that pop into my head, and since I am an extrovert with very little verbal filter, they are also the words that pop out of my mouth. I then have to hear myself say them, which I do not particularly enjoy, since they are the same things that would make me cringe if anyone else said them.
So, if I am praying in public, I generally write out my prayers in advance, or at least make detailed notes. People tell me my prayers are too short - an effect of both my general economy of words in public speaking and my discomfort with "practicing your piety in public." I don't know; I can't remember ever wishing that someone would keep praying longer. I do know it may be time for me to develop a new prayer vocabulary to replace the unsuitable one that lingers from my past.
Dann bete du, wie es dich dieser lehrt by Rainer Maria Rilke
as I who came back from the same confusion
learned to pray.
I returned to paint upon the altars
those old holy forms,
but they shone differently,
fierce in their beauty.
So now my prayer is this:
You, my own deep soul,
trust me. I will not betray you.
My blood is alive with many voices
telling me I am made of longing.
What mystery breaks over me now?
In its shadow I come into life.
For the first time I am alone with you -
you, my power to feel.