"Dear God, thank You for this food, and this day, and all that you made. Amen."
When I was younger, that prayer was my golden standard for dinner table spirituality. When either of my parents suggested that I bless the food, it was the first to be loaded in my arsenal, ready to go. Evening prayer featured a similar, without a reference to food, replication. Sometimes I forgot that it was evening prayer and ended up praying for food anyway. My parents were usually kind enough not to point that out.
The fundamentals of theology seemed there: recognizing God as being, in fact, God; I offered Him gratitude for all that He has done; I specified what exactly He had done, in my mind, as of late: provided food, continued the Earth's rotation and motion about the Sun, and for the entirety of the cosmos and its overflow. Pretty good theology for an eight year old, but still.
As I grew up, I dabbled in longer, cathartic prayers of deep magnitude and much adulation. Prayer requests for a lost puppy named Fefe brought up in a youth group Bible study were met with elaborate pronouncements of hope for the small pup's well being, the enabling of the GPS function of the Holy Spirit to find him quickly, and other phrases that usually began with, "Father we know," and "if You just would."
When I began to be drawn to the liturgy, part of what was so motivating for me was the beauty and response I had developed to reading the prayers of the saints, in particular the prayers of St. Francis and St. Clare, whom I will normally refer to affectionally as Lady Clare. I was overcome by the simpleness of what they prayed, as well as the compact beauty that was a part of it. I began to seriously and sternly consider my own prayers and exactly what I was doing when I either closed my eyes in reverence or was walking quietly in the cool of the day.
I have come to a place where I am trying to live in the space that overlaps two passages of Scripture, both found in St. Matthew's Gospel.
1. I am a child
In Matthew 18, the disciples come to Jesus to inquire about their rank in the kingdom of God. It's veiled in a general statement, but the implication is clear: they want to know who among themselves is closest to godliness. The response Jesus gives has been the subject of much thought over the years:
And He called a child to Himself and set him before them and said, "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like a children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." (v. 2-3)
The word converted is a startling one. It's been a long time, if ever, that I have imagined conversion as being into something that was a child. I saw the value in childlike faith, even the beauty, but thinking on and ruminating in the idea of being a child and what that truly means is sometimes far from me. The prayer of my childhood, I have come to realize, may indeed be a better prayer for me to pray. It's simple; it's honest; but between God and I it is quite sufficient. It's the barebones, true foundation of Faith: that He is, that He has done, that He shall do. So I pray.
2. "walk slowly, bow often"
Mary Oliver once wrote a beautiful poem in which she says that one of the things she has learned in this life is to "walk slowly, bow often." Once more in the Gospel of Matthew, there is a curious comment that Jesus makes when the disciples return to Him having been unable to cast out a demon. They ask why they could not have command over it as they had in the past and Jesus laments their lack of faith. What He closes with is jarring, however, a response that seems abruptly commanding:
"But [this demon] does not go out except by prayer and fasting." (17:21)
The emphasis on prayer here, in a context that seems to indicate that more of it was needed, is something weighing on my heart quite a lot right now. I think on other passages from other Gospels, such as in St. Luke, where Christ emphases the need for persistence in prayer, instead of mere firings-off unto Him as if we were shooting a starter's pistol announcing that He's allowed to start working. The task, the redemption, the thing prayed for seems to involve a cooperative effort on our part to pray often. To, as Mary Oliver suggests, walk through this world slowly and with much prayer. This seems beyond the conviction of the Scripture to pray without ceasing, it speaks to the need to pray for specific things repeatedly until the will of God for that thing is realized.
I am currently undergoing what I call remedial praying. I open every prayer in my soul or in the quiet of just He and I with my lips moving with, "Teach me first to pray," before I begin my many times too short and vapid, oftentimes too long and insipid, rambling, ranting, grumbling, utterings before the Lord.
It's like Hooked-On-Phonics for spirituality on most days, but it's a beautiful journey to be on. The greatest comfort is that I know how much He listens to all my many ways of rambling, finds the true, the good, and the beautiful in it, and counts it to me as a kind of righteousness.
So goes the beauty of the days.