“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention…”
This declaration comes from Mary Oliver's poem entitled “The Summer Day.” Such a bold confession comes amidst her curiosity ignited by a grasshopper who is eating sugar from her hand as the poet sits idly in a field. I was introduced to Mary Oliver by my preaching professor and her words have implanted themselves in my mind ever since. I, like so many others, struggle with prayer. How does one go about the curious and unpredictable journey that is speaking with God? How do we continue the dialogue begun by the Great Conversationalist who spoke amidst the chaos and brought forth goodness and grace? Where to begin?
Sure, I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer a thousand times in worship with my fellow Sisters and Brothers in Christ. Of course, as I have begun sermons I have echoed the song of Psalm 19 that “the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts might be acceptable and pleasing in God’s sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.” But in my most intimate of moments outside of corporate worship, as I am sitting outside my dormitory with my pipe between my lips and my thoughts within my head, as I walk along the paths of the retreat center where I have spent so many summers, as I recline in a seat overlooking the shores of Lake Allatoona, so often my fervent desire to “pray” is met with an equal and sometimes seemingly overwhelming reality that I just don’t know where to begin.
Perhaps, as an introvert, my mind is full of the thoughts that I have had all day long but haven’t had a chance to process. Perhaps, as a sinner, I am faced with the amount of my transgressions and feel unworthy to approach the Almighty. Perhaps, as a seminary student, I am so indoctrinated by the scholarship of faith that I forget the intimate, spiritual, and mystical aspect of it. Perhaps, as one so disheartened and disappointed by the rampant individualism of modern Christianity, I have so emphasized the communal aspect of faith that I have ignored the personal intimacy of God-speech.
Whatever the reason might be, I struggle with prayer. And, what’s more, I have a feeling that I am not the only one.
Mary Oliver continues her observation by insisting that she knows “how to fall down/in the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,/which is what I have been doing all day long./ Tell me, what else should I have done?”
Perhaps, at the end of the day, you and I must accept the most sacred of tasks of which God has ordained us to do: pay attention. This task is both holy and unpredictable (it is curious, isn’t it, how those two attributes tend to align themselves). It is holy in the sense that God creates us to be separate, distinct, particular, and, perhaps most important of all, intentional. God calls us to live like Jacob, to recognize her presence, and find our own “Bethels” for, indeed, God is in this place and perhaps we didn’t even know it.
Paying attention is unpredictable because it, by its very definition, invites (or, in some cases, forces) us to acknowledge that which we had previously not seen. Paying attention draws me out of myself and into the moment.
For instance, at this very moment it calls me to wonder what in God’s name has sparked the curiosity of this obnoxious bumble bee that refuses to vacate the privacy of my space on this wooden porch. Paying attention requires me to address what this elegant and yet assertive hummingbird is trying to bring to my attention as she flies directly in front of my face and hovers before me. How does something so small harness the power to flap those wings with such speed? How does such energy and intensity manage to hover motionless as if cemented in place? What is she trying to tell me?
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. But I am trying to pay attention. What will come of it? I don’t know. If I have any assurance it is that Abram probably didn’t either. Moses certainly wasn’t planning on doing anything but shepherding Jethro’s flock until God called him to pay attention to the slight detail of a burning bush. So perhaps we are called to hang on for dear life and pay attention to this burning bush that God has given us and to be guided to places we never knew existed.
This life may indeed be a holy and unpredictable search to answer the question posed in the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
Grace and peace,