The Insanity of Prayer
Every morning my cat Minerva drives me nuts.
The moment I sit down at the kitchen table, she starts jumping up on it. And I start telling her–in no uncertain terms–to get down.
“No,” I shout, and if I’m lucky, she jumps to the floor. Then, in less than 30 seconds, she jumps up again.
“No, down,” I shout (she never responds to less than a shout), but it never works a second time. So I grab the nearby squirt bottle, shoot a little water towards her, and she will jump down, only to repeat the routine anywhere from 6 to 30 times, or until I get up from the table.
She’s insane, I tell my husband. You know what I mean?
Doing the same thing over and over again,
expecting a different result.
Or maybe I’m the insane one–expecting that she will learn from the experience.
Because Minerva doesn’t seem to learn, or even want to learn. She just keeps jumping up. Did I mention that she not only jumps up at breakfast, but whenever I sit at that table–when I’m writing, cutting out fabric for quilts, chopping vegetables for dinner, or making my “to do” list? She’s doing it right now as I work on this post. I just keep spraying bursts of water in her direction. And sometimes she gets pretty annoyed. We both do.
Imagine my surprise when, the other day, I realized that in so many ways, Minerva’s table ritual is a lot like my experience of prayer.
Prayer Has Changed Me, And Changed For Me
Prayer has meant a lot of different things over my lifetime. When I was in elementary school and junior high, it meant memorizing prayers like “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the Our Father and Hail Mary, and uttering them at church or bedtime, whenever I was asked to do it. I didn’t think deeply about what prayer was; it was just routine.
In high school, I joined an ecumenical singing group–The Power Company–with quite a few of my friends. Since the group included mostly Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists, and only two or three Catholics (including myself), prayer changed radically for me. I learned that my Protestant friends had more personal relationships with God and dared to talk to God directly, speaking from their hearts about whatever they needed or even thanking God–aloud!–for blessings they received.
At first, it was shocking, and awkward, but eventually it became as natural as breathing to me.
Then, in college, I joined the Catholic student group, met a wonderful bunch of charismatic Catholics, and joined a Catholic Charismatic community and experienced yet another type of prayer. In addition to extemporaneous vocal prayer, most members had the gift of tongues and prayed spontaneously in unknown and unknowable languages. I remember feeling that I would have to receive this gift if I were to be a true member of the community, and I prayed (quietly and extemporaneously, with a few Our Father’s thrown in) for that gift. But it was never to be.
So I just continued having conversations with God–sometimes spoken, sometimes not–with an occasional rosary or other memorized prayer when I felt at a loss for words. Sometimes I kept a prayer list, sometimes I wrote in a journal in addition to my prayers, sometimes I meditated on scripture (and I didn’t learn that I was doing lectio divina until I entered my graduate theological studies in my forties).
By the time I was working in parish ministry, prayer meant many things to me, and I had many resources to draw on, but most often I prayed extemporaneously in snatches throughout the day. And, truthfully, it was not very satisfying. Life was so crazy busy my prayer was often rushed or an afterthought, even though I knew that I needed a better, more disciplined approach.
It was only after I retired that I began to establish a regular routine of prayer. And it was only because by then I had found Give Us This Day, published by Liturgical Press. Almost every morning, I go sit in my red recliner–the reupholstered 27 year old chair that we had bought the day after my son was born, so that I had a good place to rock and feed him–and pray that day’s Morning Prayer. Then I read about the saint or “Blessed Among Us,” the scripture readings for daily mass, and the short reflection on the readings. I bring to my time of prayer all kinds of intentions; I spend time in reflection, time listening, time trying to “let go and let God.”
And, if I am honest, I become the insane one. Because I do this over and over again, and each day, I expect a new result.
a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.
I expect to grow closer to God.
I expect to have my prayers of intention answered.
I expect to learn more about my faith, about the scriptures I sit with, about what God wants of me and those I love.
I expect to hear the voice of God.
I expect to change, to become a better disciple, a wiser person, a more patient and loving person.
I expect a lot.
Am I Nuts?
Maybe. These expectations are not always met. Sometimes, like Minerva getting squirted in the face with water, I am shocked by the results–or apparent lack of results–of my prayer. Friends die, siblings fight, I lose my patience, revert to old bad habits, and feel like God isn’t even in the room with me, much less responding to my prayers.
“God,” I too often say, “Send me a postcard. Tell me what to do!” (One dear friend heard me say that so many times that he began to think he’d have to send me a postcard, signed God, just to shut me up!)
What was I thinking? Why bother praying every day, when nothing changes? Truly I am nuts!
But recently, I turned the story around. What if I am not the crazy one, but instead, I am driving God nuts?
What if God is the one sitting at the table each morning (and staying with me throughout the day), and I am the cat, repeatedly jumping up on the table? I can almost imagine what God would say to me (and, I’m sure it’s more than “No, down.”)
Why do you keep doing the same thing, over and over, when you know it is not good for you? There is so much I’ve given you, so many rooms to explore, even heights to climb, a multitude of windows to look out. All I ask is that you don’t climb on the table. Sit at my feet or in my lap. I will take care of you. Please listen.
So many times, I am no better than Minerva, running after things I don’t need when there are so many other possibilities. And God must get tired of redirecting my steps. But God is so much nicer to me than I am to poor Minerva. God uses a quiet voice and gentle hands to redirect me. I seldom–if ever–get doused.
Embracing the Insanity of Prayer
I don’t suffer from insanity.
I enjoy every minute of it.
No matter which one of us is the crazy one, I need this insanity of prayer. Maybe, sometimes, God’s answers are “No,” or “Not Yet,” or “Maybe,” and I need to learn to listen more intently and ponder more deeply the reason why. Maybe it doesn’t seem that anything changes, but sometimes change is such a gradual experience that it is only when we take the long view that we see the new creation that has come into being. I don’t know.
But I do know that without my morning ritual of prayer–and the snatches of prayer throughout the day, murmurings of “Thanks, God!” or “Help!”–my life gets to be out of kilter. I need prayer, just as much as I need to eat and sleep.
We’ve tried to figure out why Minerva keeps jumping up on the kitchen table whenever I sit down. At first, my husband thought that she kept jumping up because she just liked to get wet. I thought she might like the clearer view of the bird feeder or that she preferred to sit on the quilted table runner I moved off to the side of the table whenever it wasn’t meal time. But, I took the table runner away, and Minerva keeps jumping up.
So I’ve decided that she simply wants to be closer to me. She always greets me at my bedroom door when I first get up–even in the middle of the night–and she follows me down the stairs, sometimes nearly tripping me as she circles around me as I walk into the kitchen and get my breakfast. And when I sit down at the table, she jumps up, so I have to stop what I am doing and pay attention to her. I don’t want her to be up on the table, but I do love having her around. I even worried last week when she went days without jumping on the table or circling around me in the kitchen. As much as it drives me crazy, I like it that she wants to be close to me.
And that’s probably why God and I put up with the insanity of prayer as well.
P. S. I wrote this before I heard the news this morning about the mass shooting in Nevada. Of course, I am praying for all those suffering from this horrible event, but I am also praying that our political leaders take time to reflect on what they can do to make events like these less likely to happen. Please join me in praying that all may put politics aside and work for an end to (or, at the very least, a reduction in) gun violence in our country.
Questions for reflection:
What is prayer for you? Has it changed over your lifetime? What is easiest for you about prayer? Most challenging?