For months, my friend Dave tried to say the daily office from The Book of Common Prayer every morning, as soon as he woke up. He’s a deeply spiritual man, and a priest, but he’s not a morning person, so he had a terrible time of it Then he stumbled on the idea of saying Noonday Prayer instead - and it stuck. He loved praying the daily office in the middle of the day.
Then, before long, Dave started saying Morning Prayer, too! This time, in his church and just before walking down the hall to start his day in the office. He even put a sign out on the sidewalk welcoming folks to join him (this was pre COVID-19). Not many people came, and some days he was the only person there, but now he was saying Morning Prayer and Noonday Prayer almost every day. And he loved it.
Dave found a way to pray that fit who he is, as a person, and because it fit, his practice grew.
I, on the other hand, even as a part-time hermit, find it impossible to pray the daily office by myself. Believe me, I’ve tried. However, this past year, I discovered a really great podcast version of the daily office. Press play and ta-da - a group of 2-4 men and women’s voices say the psalms, readings, canticles, and prayers. I can join in or just listen. I love it.
You don’t have to like the daily office, in any form. What I want to say here is that the best way to pray is a way that suits YOU - a way you enjoy. Something you’ll look forward to - not feel is an obligation. It may take some time to figure out what that is, and what time it should be. There is nothing more holy about the morning, or any hour than any other. (I am amazed how many people seem to think that praying at 5 a.m. is someone the ideal. Not true.)
What is it that you need to “center down,” as Howard Thurman has put it? To “let God love you,” as Ruth Burrows has put it?
I don’t listen to Morning Prayer every day - I’ve learned I need variety. Over the years, I’ve collected a bunch of ways to pray and I shuffle them like a deck of saintly cards. Maybe I’ll do the same thing for as long as a week, or even a season - like Advent or Lent. But it helps me to know I am going to change things up. (If you want to see my current list, it’s at the very bottom of this letter.)
As Lent approaches (and we continue to slog through this pandemic), you may be thinking about spiritual disciplines you want to try, or feel you should be doing. First: no shoulds. Prayer and mindfulness are supposed to feel good, not feel like drudgery. I invite you to feel some freedom. Find activities that bring you life: a deep feeling of God’s love and connection with you. Sure, some may be challenging, but they shouldn’t be onerous.
You might also need a shuffle list, of different approaches you can sample, depending on what you need that day. On the other hand, you may be the kind of person who finds life by praying in one way, forever and ever, amen. Maybe some of your favorite ways to pray are very traditional, and maybe others are not traditional at all.
Like my friend Dave, this all took me some time to figure out. And I’m still figuring it out. I invite you to the pleasure of figuring out a way to connect with God that will enrich your days, not burden them.
Blessed Lent to you, friends.
TWO BOOKS I RECOMMEND:
At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, by Fenton Johnson
Solitude and art! Hermits and monks! Johnson grew up next door to Gethsemane Monastery, and his family members were friends with many of the monks, including Thomas Merton. I’ve read a lot of his stuff and really enjoy his writing. Here, he profiles a long list of artists who, in some way, have found meaning and creativity in solitude and singleness, and even celibacy: Thoreau, Cezanne, Eudora Welty, Rabindranath Tagore, Emily Dickinson, Nina Simone, Zora Neale Hurston, Bill Cunningham… I enjoyed some chapters, and didn’t connect at all with others. Johnson also writes about his own life, as a gay man who lost the love of his life to AIDS in 1990 (see his other books for more of his life journey), and the life of his parents - unique individuals in Appalachian Kentucky, who each had their own ways of living in solitude, even with nine children and monks always coming over for dinner.
Quote: “I have come to delight, not only in my solitude but in my loneliness… how it changes from day to day, a relationship in its own right—a relationship with the self, with the imagination, with my work.” (p. 205)
Via Negativa, by Daniel Hornsby
A novel about a Roman Catholic priest in his seventies who retires from his Indiana parish and hits the road. He picks up a wounded coyote along the way that he tries to nurse back to health. The story is a mix of cowboy western, Flannery O’Connor story, tour of Weird America, and sideways theological treatise on incarnation, sin, healing, and pilgrimage. Hornsby has an M.Div. and knows something about churches and the rough knocks of trying to live a theological life. Father Dan isn’t a symbol of decay or hypocrisy (like most clergy in books and media) - he’s a person, and the things he says about church sound both wonderfully and awfully familiar to me.
Quote: “…I organized a service at the convention center with a rabbi and a Methodist. At one point, the Methodist asked me to do something… and I told him I wasn’t comfortable performing a ritual if I didn’t know its meaning.
“We don’t do it because we know what it means,” he said. “We do it to find out what it means.” (p. 54)
MY LENT BOOK
If you’re still looking for something to use for Lent this year, consider my book! There’s lots to choose from: reflections, spiritual practices -- from hikes to giving alms to fasting to drawing to praying for the prison closest to your home. There are tips for decorating for Lent, a recipe for a quick oaty bread, and lots of stories of hermits and solitaries.
MY PRAYER SHUFFLE LIST
· listen to the Morning Prayer podcast from Forward Movement
· read through a spiritual book, a little bit every day
· read through a book of the Bible, a little bit every day
· sit, breathe, and meditate for 15 minutes
· write in my journal
· write out the names of people, communities, and places I want to hold in prayer that day in my intercession notebook
· a series of gentle yoga poses
· prayer beads
· just sit and look out the window!