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A Prayer of a Chance

Monday 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 awful blunder).

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 like.”

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?

“When 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 doxology.”

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 reverentially.

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.

—Jo Page

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