Prayer of a Chance
was a strange day. Over lunch with another, who, like me,
had left parish ministry years ago, we discussed the fearful
state of the church, why we’d left, interpersonal dynamics,
the rise of religious fundamentalism, the political maneuvering
of the religious right—and our own unorthodox spiritual lives.
Then it was home to a conference call with the people from
the Kripalu Yoga Center about a CBS Sunday Morning segment
on yoga and spirituality during which I, along with a rabbi,
would be briefly interviewed. The wise counsel we were given
by the media director was that we be concise and say what
was most important first (along with the caveat that we not
say anything at all that we didn’t want heard on national
television—this ensures, of course, that I will make some
Later on, while emptying the dishwasher, I heard former nun
and religious scholar Karen Armstrong interviewed on Fresh
Air. In her new book, The Case for God, she discusses
religion as a practical discipline that teaches us to discover
new capacities of the mind and heart.
But in her interview with Terry Gross she was, as I have heard
her be before, disarmingly candid.
After announcing that, “I can’t pray. I’m simply hopeless
at prayer,” she want on to say, “when I was in my convent,
we’d have to make a meditation every morning for a whole hour
and I could not keep my mind on this for one minute at a time.
My mind would instantly go skittering off down whole alleyways
of distraction. . . . I just seemed to encounter emptiness
and nothingness . . . those years of failure, every morning
going into that church and coming out not having meditated
at all, left me with a kind of fear of meditation, if you
A soul sister, I thought. I, too, have always felt hopeless
at prayer. For me, yoga had become my personal prayer—even
though I was expected to and did pray, audibly, as an integral
part of my professional life.
By now, the dishwasher emptied, my poverty as a pray-er assuaged,
I looked forward to an evening of trying to learn to blow-dry
my hair so limp locks would not accompany any possible CBS
blunders. But first I checked my email and found a New
York Times link a friend had sent: “The Right Way to Pray”
by Zev Chafets.
I knew what was coming: the usual easy ‘mindless Christians’
target. Well, I thought I knew what was coming. And
I was somewhat, but not at all completely, right.
Zev Chafets, who writes with great humor and brio, begins
his prayer odyssey at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a former vaudeville
venue now housing a mega-ministry in teaching people how to
pray. Chafets quotes the wife of the congregation’s lead pastor,
the Rev. Jim Cymbala.
She says God spoke to Cymbala and said: “Lead the people to
pray, and I’ll supply sermons and all the money you need.
There will never be a building large enough if you lead the
people to pray.”
Chafets then goes on to describe the Tabernacle’s lessons
in praying and his discomfort with it. And just as my skin
was starting to crawl in sympathy, he switched to another
lesson in praying he took, this one led by an Anglican spiritual
director named Joy Carol. Unlike the praise music and formulaic
phrases of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, Carol’s approach was gentle,
accompanied by candlelight and a Tibetan bell. It does not,
however, draw forth a prayerful instinct in him.
He then visits the rabbi, Marc Gellman, who I know chiefly
as the author of a brilliant kids’ book called, Does God
Have a Big Toe?
you come right down to it, there are only four basic prayers,”
Gellman tells Chafets, “Gimme! Thanks! Oops! and Wow! . .
. Wow! are prayers of praise and wonder at the creation. Oops!
is asking for forgiveness. Gimme! is a request or a petition.
Thanks! is expressing gratitude. That’s the entire Judeo-Christian
I kind of like this shorthand, though it doesn’t seem to fire
up Chafets that much and, when I think about it, it does seem
a little on the Twitter theology side.
Chafets closes his piece with a visit to an Assembly of God
church in Berkley Springs, W.Va., where, on an Easter morning,
he is greeted repeatedly by people wishing him “Happy Resurrection
Day.” When he explained that he was a writer from New York,
one woman blessed him and reminded him: “Be sure to tell the
people up there that this is still a Christian nation.”
Along with Chafets—or maybe more so since he seemed so open-minded
(though maybe he was being journalistically polite)—I share
the discomfort and disconnection I feel at hearing of the
fervor of others’ prayer lives. And when I think of going
on television to talk about yoga and spirituality, I know
I’ll say my standard line: that yoga is my prayer life. It
is. But I don’t practice often enough and I don’t practice
Unless, just maybe, prayer isn’t something that’s practiced
and mastered. Maybe, just maybe, prayer is practiced within
us, without our needing to comprehend or control it. Maybe
it masters us when we forget about it, forget about our techniques,
our progress, our failure. Maybe it is in each breath we take,
and our entire lives are continuous acts of prayer.
And in that case, nobody, not Karen Armstrong, not me, not
Zev Chafets, is hopeless at prayer. Let it be so. Amen.