“Pray-er,” she said.
“You mean prayer. There’s only one syllable. The way you say it sounds like you’re talking about the person who is praying.”
“That’s what I said. Pray-er.”
This was the conversation my wife and I had as we left for church Sunday morning. I was scheduled to do the formal prayers—those relating to the “joys & concerns” of the community, as well as the dedication of the offering—and she was eager to see how things would go. Neither of us are “pray-ers,” in either the strictest or loosest of senses. She appreciates the idea of prayer more than I, citing the “Well, you never know what might help” logic that draws snorts of scorn from her sympathetic husband, but she doesn’t make much of a show about actually following through on it. A theistic secular Catholic Belgian, my wife, so she is content to live with contradiction. An atheistic post-secular Protestant American, I am apparently content only where I feel the most conflicted.
My most vivid memory of prayer occurred at a Christian summer camp when I was around 13 or 14 years old. We were seated in a circle, sweaty hands held dutifully, heads bowed, popcorning our praises & supplications, not to mention occasional, very vaguely worded confessions concerning lust & lies. I was very much in the moment, fully invested, earnest. The spirit, ever willing, however, was outdone by the flesh. An innocent peek revealed, just across the circle, in full view, the pure from sin white bra of some now nameless to me girl from another church. I’d of course seen bras before—my mother’s hanging embarrassingly, the department store’s folded innocently, the mail order catalog’s worn scandalously—but never before, so close, on one so close to my own age—never so starkly contrasted by sunburnt crimson— rarely with the rise and fall of breath, and never the returned wink of a nipple just under a not quite filled bra cup. The prayer continued, surely she knew I was leering, no, apparently not, because she occasionally whispered a “Yes, Father” in agreement with whatever was being said. Eyes never so much as fluttered.
Years passed, somewhere along the way God passed away and penitential prayer went with him. As I prepared for my first formal prayers in nearly fifteen years, I thought again of that prayer circle: were all the praises & supplications in league with all the lust & the lies I confessed. Could I do the one without the other?
The answer: well, I’m still unsure. I mean, I did it and nobody complained. Heads bowed, eyes closed. No bras or boobs. In times past, when lacking anything specifically reverential to say I could, as a good evangelical, appeal to the “Father God” repetitive placeholder—“And Father God we prayer . . .. oh, Father God, yes, Father God, we, just praise you, Father God, we, just, Father, just, God, oh . . .”—such orgasmic Joycean language the evangelicals appeal to unknowingly. Leading prayer in a good Open & Affirming United Church of Christ congregation, I found, requires one replace the placeholder with the merest of dramatic pause. Economy and reverence unite for a powerful pair.
I turn into a different person, of sorts, when I’m addressing a group of people. If I improvise, as I did here, all bets are seriously off as to what will be said. In the event of mangling the name of a new foster child or forgetting the name of the oldest member of the church, I have to rely on the power of a personality I don’t typically have. I become weirdly enthusiastic, ebullient—yes, clearly still a little dark, and in the final instance rather sad, but nevertheless very happy to be with you today . . . maybe he just needs a hug. What for my fugue state of improvisation on Sunday, I don’t recall if I said as a prologue or in the very act that prayer itself has no power, no matter who is doing the praying, me or the regular pastor, or even you at home on your knees or yoga pose; and is in fact powerful at all only—did I really confess only?—in the telling of the concern or joy to one another; that we offer our praise, such as it is, by listening; and that the prayer is answered, if it is, in myriad, untold ways, by our responses.
I sat down with my integrity basically intact, I thought. It is about the pray-ers. Yes, as nearly always, the wife is right. Time will perhaps eventually tell, but I’ve no clue now how much consolation this offered the lady who asked that we pray for her dying dad, for a healing hand, I think her words were. But, really, there’s only such much responsibility I’m willing to accept.