A ViewPoint by Chandra Snell, Ph. D.
I recall, at about age four or five, kneeling next to my mother on the side of my bed in my room with the pink Raggedy Ann and Andy wallpaper, hands folded and head bowed. She was teaching me to pray the Lord’s Prayer. I would be an adult before I learned this prayer had a name, much less what the words from the King James Bible really meant. I was totally oblivious to “debts,” “debtors,” “hallowed,” “will,” “temptation,” and “glory,” yet was quite unbothered by that. I was just proud I had memorized this thing that seemed so important to Momma. Throughout the rest of my childhood, I faithfully, albeit mechanically, said my prayers on hands and knees each night before going to bed (often trying to not trip on my nightgown as I arose).
By my preteens, I had moved on to also praying about specific situations—basically along the lines of, “God, please get me out of trouble.” For instance, in seventh grade, I fervently prayed that my bully/personal tormentor (I’ll call her Carolina) wouldn’t beat my (three-letter expletive beginning with the letter “a”) after school, as she had loudly promised in front of several gaping witnesses during gym class. In what was perhaps my first conscious “miracle,” Carolina did not mercilessly pulverize me after all and, in fact, seemed to swiftly lose interest in me as her favorite victim shortly thereafter. I had no doubt this was because of my prayers.
I eventually dropped the Lord’s Prayer altogether at some point during my teens, but the basic pattern (a type of prayer I would much later learn is called a petition) continued into early adulthood, developing to include requests that God would, in addition to getting me out of assorted intermittent messes, also grant me certain desires (that I be awarded a certain scholarship, that a move to another city be successful, etc.). I did not then consider that God might mean little more to me than a type celestial genie—God was my heavenly father (as I then perceived of God in the gendered terms I had been taught), and Jesus had promised, after all, in Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (KJV). But, most important to me then, my prayers seemed to work—usually, I would get the scholarship; the move would be successful. Indeed, I was all for prayer.
By then, prayer had become for me a kind of running commentary, a stream of consciousness half petition and half requests for forgiveness for my many infractions. In fact, a “wise woman” told me, some time in my mid-20s, “You pray a lot” (somewhat accusingly, I thought). But she was right. Constant prayer was, indeed, normal for me, and I could not conceive of life without it.
Over the years, maybe due to life inevitably getting more complex, my prayers gradually became more baroque (that is, “OK, God, so you know I really cannot stand my boss, but I know this is wrong, so please help me with her, and with my coworkers, who also get on my nerves, and please give me favor with so-and so”). Adding this to my general verbosity (as reflected in my love of writing and speaking), I found my prayers would often twist, back up, meander, race, and mosey, but always, somehow, I felt assured, lead me directly into the arms of God.
Beginning in my 40s, though, I began to experience times when I could not pray. The ability to articulate what was in my heart would completely elude me. I would be overwhelmed with the depth of my feelings, impotent to do anything other than wait for these times to pass. Although relatively rare, they scared me. I felt separated from God. I would think: What will become of my eternal soul if I should die before being able to ask God to forgive me of my sins? Never mind the ability to request anything extra. Romans 8:26 (KJV) somehow provided little comfort: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” I was unaware at that time of Saint John’s “dark night of the soul,” which also might have provided a degree of succor. Mercifully, albeit inexplicably, I would eventually emerge from these times of prayerlessness not only intact (although somewhat battered), but, I felt, with greater spiritual maturity, or, at the very least, compassion and humility.
I am now experiencing such a time of relative prayerlessness. For weeks now, the most I have been able to manage is a desperate, “God, please fix whatever’s wrong with me. And please let me know when this has happened.” I know something is amiss, though I am not sure what. How I miss my formerly effortless, intricate, erudite, talks—even ramblings—with God!
I envy people who experience various activities, like folding laundry or baking bread, as forms of prayer. I now believe that, for me, above and beyond prayers of petition, intercession, etc., as crucial as they are, prayer is essential for my connection to God. When I cannot pray in the more traditional way, I experience this connection as severed, rightly or wrongly. Though I find some activities to be spiritually nurturing, for me, they do not substitute.
I hope my desire to connect with God is enough; at least for now. I want to believe, as Paul says in Rom 8:26, that I do not need to always verbalize (no mean feat for a communications professor), that God can and does still see straight through to my flailing heart. Is this enough for God? I want this to be so; after all, despite David’s massive shortcomings, he remained a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). The Psalms reveal the essence of David’s humanity—his praises to God, his struggles, his prayers. Could it be that the persistent theme running under all the surface drama of David’s life was his insistence on having connection with God, no matter what?
As I resolutely sip not-so-sweet tea in McDonald’s while trying to make the deadline for this essay, Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven” comes on the sound system. Maybe God is letting me know that God understands; that God sees me. I wonder: Maybe, feelings aside, I’m not actually so far away from God after all, despite my lame prayers. (Or, perhaps because of them?) I can only hope.
What honest, insightful reflections, Chandra! We would all do well to sit back and trace our prayer life from childhood through now.
You do a great job of capturing that “running commentary… stream of consciousness” conversation with God–as well as that state of “relative prayerlessness” feeling unable to pray, that many are experiencing now.
For me, it’s both the Covid-19 crisis and the political situation that leave me flummoxed. Losses of young people: medical workers like Brittany Bruner-Ringo, Native Americans like Valentina Blackhorse, and also Ahmaud Arbery.
Thanks, Anne! And you’re right–many people may be finding prayer difficult right now…And then there’s the issue of how we respond when our prayers aren’t answered in the way we want!