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The nature of prayer.
By Rod Mitchell in All Sorts
“Lord teach us to pray.” What might be the answer to that question today?They were driving along George Street urgently looking for a park. Under the driver’s breath a prayer was released: that a park would appear. “O God, please find me a park!” Then miraculously, a car pulls out right in front of the driver. Is this how prayer operates, asking God to take the role of a magician? Or is this a mockery of what prayer is about?
For most of my life, prayer has intrigued and puzzled me. It lives in the zone of paradox. On the one hand trusting that the world we live in does indeed have a source that is responsive and able to listen to our deep cries while on the other hand being aware that prayer often seems to be going into a vacuum, where there is only silence.
Mary Oliver echoes similar concerns about prayer with her poem entitled ‘I Happened to be standing’.
I don’t know where prayer goes, Or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep Half asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it Crosses the street?
The sunflower? The old black oak
Growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
Along the shore or under the trees,
With my mind filled with things
Of little importance, in full
Self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
Call being alive.
Is prayer a gift, or a petition,
Or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cat is sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
Just outside my door, with my notebook open,
Which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t know why, And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
Or whatever you don’t.
That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
If it isn’t prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.
Mary Oliver “Devotions”
So, while Mary Oliver may start with questions about prayer, her poem ends on a very positive note. In your own words, how would you describe her understanding of prayer? Does it resonate with your own understanding?
I remember the excitement when I first read the little book of prayers by that wonderfully playful Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig. He shattered the dreary theological seriousness around much of the conversation of prayer. Leunig sensitively broke the mold of the nature of prayer and gave it a depth and connection to everyday life that was satisfying and refreshing.
“God bless those who suffer from the common cold. Nature has entered into them;
Has led them aside and gently laid them low
To contemplate life from the wayside;
To consider human frailty;
To receive the deep and dreamy messages of fever.
We give thanks for the insights of
This humble perspective.
We give thanks for blessing in disguise.
The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord teach us to pray.” What might be the answer to that question today?
For me, at least the poetic prayers of Oliver and Leunig have a much more authentic ring, than the out of this world plea to a magician God.