Several years ago this somewhat disorganized, go-with-the-flow, inspiration-over-discipline kind of Quaker surprised herself, and probably God: she committed to a daily spiritual discipline. You have to understand, I’m just not the daily routine kind of person. I have never needed the scaffolding of routine to be productive or happy, and as far as work goes, who needs discipline if you love what you do?
But there was this opportunity called the Spiritual Nurture Program for Friends in our area, and I really wanted what it had to offer. What the program demanded in return was that participants commit to a daily discipline.
I decided that my spiritual practice would be a combination of journaling, which I had done for decades anyway, reading the Bible and other faith texts, and prayer and meditation. I will confess that I immediately started a new, separate journal for my spiritual practice. I soon and uncomfortably realized the implication of this: that my spiritual life was somehow separate from the rest of my life. I wanted my "spiritual" journal to be prayerful and reverent and Spiritually Correct—and I wanted to rant, complain, dither, blather, and do all the things I had always done in my "regular" journal.
Hmm . . . where did I get the idea that God would be looking over my shoulder in one journal but not the other? I found I was censoring my "spiritual journal" to keep the ugly things out, to the point that it was clearly dishonest. And I started to get embarrassed about some of what I wrote in my regular journal. The question, "Would I want God to read this?" started to pop up for me. This was a hugely important place for me to be: face to face with the honest-to-goodness me—with God watching.
I am happy to say that I soon dispensed with the special journal and made do with one. Wince. I found that it was, after all, "not my brother, not my sister, but me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer."
I started applying prayers like so many bandages to the scrapes, sores, and wounds of my life—those I authored, and those I suffered. I didn’t always know how to do this. Sometimes the best prayer I could manage was a prayer to want to pray—to want to invite inward transformation, to risk encounter with the Divine.
Then, sometime that first year, I had my first experience with being taken over by a prayer, overpowered by it. Women who’ve given birth will know what I mean. It’s like when you get the urge to push the baby out. At first there’s an element of volition in it. You can choose to push, or fight the urge and hold back. But once you start pushing, there’s no going back. The contraction takes over your entire body. You are nothing but a vehicle for a cosmic push; you go along with it because you no longer have any choice.
I have prayers like that. They hijack me, midstream to someplace else, and take me where they want me to go. I am so grateful for them; they feel like the true inbreakings of God, the moments when I am closest to the Spirit. I think those prayers are when God says, "Move over, kiddo, I’ve got plans for your prayer today. I’ve got plans for you today."
I don’t have prayers like that every day. But until I started praying regularly, I never did, and I thought I was the author of my prayers. Hah! Now I know better. At their best, the prayers author me.
Have you ever been troubled by the "Ask, and you shall receive" idea? For me it has always brought to mind the kind of asking in the song, "Mercedes Benz": "Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all have Porsches, I must make amends. . . ." I’ve never thought it would reflect well on God to indulge us like that. To be honest, I have not known God to indulge me in that way. That sort of prayer just hasn’t worked for me, whatever the Bible seems to say.
I’ve come to believe that learning what to ask for is the real spiritual challenge. I need to let my prayers evolve. When a prayer isn’t the right one, my heart knows it and is restless. Usually, if I keep trying, I eventually come to the right prayer. I always know when it is—I get what early Quakers called the "peace penny": a quiet, inner assurance, a sense of "turning, turning, till I’ve come ’round right." Very often, I get a new angle on a problem I’ve been struggling with, a clearer understanding of what I must do, a robust sense of purpose.
I still remember vividly the time some years ago when I first experienced a wrong prayer evolving into a right one. I was to play in a small community concert that afternoon, and I was worried about it. I started praying anxiously to play well. Something told me that this was not the right prayer. So I modified the prayer to "Help me to be satisfied with how I play." I added, for good measure, "And help everyone else to be satisfied, too!" A bit better, but still fundamentally, "God, support my pride!" I continued to flounder around, and got to, "Help me and everyone to enjoy the music." Finally, the right prayer crystallized in my mind: "God, please help everyone to hear You in the music, however I play it." Instantly, I had a most extraordinary experience: I heard, clear as a bell, the music I was to play that afternoon. It was absolutely perfect, absolutely beautiful, and breathtakingly real. I felt the presence of the Spirit as palpably at that moment as I ever have.
I don’t know how the audience experienced the music that afternoon, but I played with joy and an unfamiliar sort of confidence. Not confidence that I would play particularly well, but a deeper confidence that all who opened their hearts to the music could hear what I had heard and be moved and brought closer to God.
In the end, I have found that my true prayers always boil down to "Thy will be done." But that prayer itself is rarely satisfactory for me. My problem is often that I don’t know how to cooperate with the divine will—or I know perfectly well, but can’t get past my self-absorbed attitude to do it! "Ego static," petty resentments, failures to love, wounded pride, hurt feelings, and my unwillingness to forgive can all get in the way of my hearing or doing what I am pretty sure God wants me to do at any given time.
These days, I pray for clarity on how God wants to use me, how I can be an instrument of God’s love, how I can be God’s hands here on Earth. I pray for God to use the flawed vessel that is me, if possible, in the service of God’s will, and to mold and transform me in the process.
That is the prayer that always seems to be the right one, or that leads me to the right one. When I ask for this, I always receive. Not always a bouquet of roses— no! Sometimes I am handed a Really Hard Thing To Do. Sometimes I get a kick in the pants. But I also get the privilege of feeling the Spirit in the driver’s seat with me, guiding me to places I’d never have dared or known to go to on my own, places of incomparable beauty and love. Now I know to invite the Spirit aboard, because I know what it is to go soaring off on the wings of a prayer.
An earlier version of this article was published in the January 2004 issue of Sacred Journey: The Journal of Fellowship in Prayer.