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A Thousand Ways to Pray

Long ago, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  In our training, we learned that we should be prepared to say “spontaneous prayers” with patients.  These were unscripted prayers, where we told God what we were thankful for and what we’d like God to bless us with (sound familiar?).  We were also told to memorize a few prayers to say with patients during our visits, like the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, and the Shemah. 

At first, I’ll admit that I got a little overconfident in my spontaneous prayers.  I put off memorizing those other prayers because I was sure that my heartfelt spontaneous prayer would alleviate worry and pain better than a pre-written prayer, unspecific for the occassion.  Besides, how often had I been warned about vain repetitions in my own church?

One day, I went to see a 90 year old woman with dementia in the Emergency Room.  She had fallen and broken a hip, but because of her frail health, she would most likely die by the end of the day.  I went into her room.  The room was dark, except for one “procedure” light that shone right over her bed like a piercing spotlight. 

Mrs. S’s hair looked like it hadn’t been combed in days, snow white and sticking up everywhere; her eyes darted about the room.  Her arms flailed, she moaned and cried, twisting–almost writhing on her bed.  She had been given pain medication for the broken hip, yet she was still clearly agitated. 

The ER was busy, no one had time to sit with this dying patient.  But, someone had packed Mrs. S’s rosary, so they called the chaplain.  I was a 23 year old without a clue as to how to make a non-verbal patient relax.  So, I started with my usual intro:

Emily:  Mrs. S?  My name is Emily; I’m one of the chaplains here.  How are you today?

Mrs. S doesn’t look at me or respond in anyway.  Her eyes dart around the room, and she starts to moan.  I doubt she heard me.

Emily:  I’m sorry you’ve gotten hurt.  And, that’s where I’m at a loss, so I sit with her for a bit before I come up with another plan…

Mrs. S., I see you have your rosary.  Could I say the Lord’s Prayer with you?  I pause, take a calming breath myself, and begin:

Our Father
Mrs. S. pauses mid-moan

Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name    
She lets out a long sigh.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
Her breathing slows, becoming more regular

On Earth as it is in heaven
Her hands that have been balled in fists on her chest, lay, more relaxed by her sides

Give us this day our daily bread
The muscles in her face relax.  Her forehead becomes smoother, her mouth less tight.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
She closes her eyes.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

At the end of that prayer, I saw a total transformation.  The flailing and agitated Mrs. S. looked peaceful and ready to fall asleep. 

I learned an important lesson that day; we all have different ways of connecting to the Divine.  I had always assumed that those who said prescribed prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer or Salah, could not be as spiritually fulfilled as I was in my unscripted blessings.  And, yet, here I saw the power of that prayer. 

Seeing the comfort that a prescribed prayer brought to my patients, I tried these prayers myself.  As I said the Lord’s Prayer, I realized that by saying the same words, my mind was quiet, and I could better concentrate on what I was feeling rather than worrying about what I would say next.  And, by saying the prayers more often, they became more familiar; in hard times, those words are like friends to me now.

My patients continued to expand my definition of prayer.  They showed me how singing a hymn, doing a guided meditation, reading a favorite scripture or book out loud would help them feel God’s presence in a way that my way of praying could not always ensure.

I soon saw that daily, mundane activities could be a form of prayer.  I saw nurses bathing patients with such care and love as a form of prayer.  I saw doctors sweating over procedures, concentrating, intent on making things as comfortable for the patient as possible, showing their devotion and desire to help as a form of prayer.  I saw members of the janitorial staff showing concern while engaging in heartfelt conversation with patients as they cleaned their rooms.  All of these people were manifesting the presence of God…and isn’t that what we are seeking in prayer?  To glimpse the Divine?

I still try to find more ways to pray, as I compose an email to a friend who is hurting, as I make dinner for my family, blessing the food I’m preparing, as I weed my garden, amazed at the beauty of nature. 

What forms of prayer help get you in touch with God?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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40 Responses

  1. KayG says:

    This is a powerful post to me, Emily. The common prayers known by all Christians can be both bonding and soothing. I like your comment that repeating words you know made it possible to enter into the spirit and the moment.

  2. Corktree says:

    This is beautifully told Emily. What a gift to that woman.

    I’ve thought about this somewhat lately as I’ve searched for new ways to connect to God. I just can’t make a traditional LDS prayer style work for me and I don’t feel anything when I force it. So I’ve been experimenting with meditation style prayers and mantras; with a combination of words that I choose for myself but a repetitive and soothing style of delivery. At my first official yoga session, I found it interesting the many ways that the instructor used prayer language and invited us to do things that felt like we were communing with deity, but never actually talked about God, or even directly TO God. Something about using my body without words and substituting images of nature for the divine really opened up my view. Suddenly, God was everywhere in a way that I hadn’t understood before. It was wonderful.

    I’ve also tried using yoga prayer beads to connect myself to what I’m thinking or even just to clear my head. I’ve always liked the idea of a rosary, but felt like I was invading something personal to others and didn’t know how to appropriate it for myself. The yoga beads seemed more generic and open to interpretation, and something that I could explain to my children and involve them in if they choose. And I think they’ve actually helped. In my meditation during yoga practice, I’ve started to connect myself with what I want to put behind me and the type of person that I want to become, and in many concrete ways, I have made significant changes where I couldn’t with prayer alone. Not raising my voice in anger or frustration with my children being a good example.

    So I’m working to expand my exploration of divinity, both within and outside myself. I’m hoping to find the ultimate connection to God that I’m seeking, even if I’m not quite there yet. Maybe a re-definition is needed, but it finally feels like a possibility as I’ve allowed myself to move out of the small box that my prayers used to be in.

  3. motion de smiths says:

    I loved this. It was beautiful.

  4. Braids says:

    I loved this so much I decided to de-lurk for a minute. I had an experience in a former ward in inner city Chicago. There were many new converts, and one day in Relief Society the lesson was on prayer. A very new convert (an African-American lady) asked why we didn’t use the Lord’s Prayer. The teacher talked a little about “vain repetitions” and moved on. For the closing prayer, another fairly recent convert (also an African-American lady) stood up and gave the Lord’s prayer in a strong, clear voice. When she finished she nodded at the first lady and sat down. I felt the spirit very strongly that day.

    I don’t think “vain repetitions” means any repetitive prayer. Other translations of that verse in Matthew translate that phrase as “meaningless repetition” or “empty phrases”. Heartfelt, memorized verses can be very meaningful and are quite meditative.

    • Caroline says:

      Braids, I love that story. Good for those women for standing up for a prayer tradition that nurtured them.

      Emily, what an amazing post. I love, love it. It reminds me that I want to experiment more with prayers like this, since like Corktree, the traditional Mormon unscripted ones often don’t make me feel connected to the divine.

    • EmilyCC says:

      This is beautiful, Braids–I’m so glad you delurked 🙂

      You make an excellent point about vain repetitions–empty phrases like “blessthisfoodtonourishandstrengthenourbody” comes to mind that I often say when I’m not focused on my meal prayer, I just want to eat.

  5. Deborah says:

    I love hearing about your work as a chaplain, Emily!

    Most days, I offer the Lord’s Prayer on my way to work and again as I try to fall asleep. Like a spiritual mantra, I find that it helps me center (in the morning) and calm my mind to prepare for sleep. I also engage in a bit of a running dialogue of “spontaneous prayer,” but sometimes these personal articulations of thoughts/worries raise rather than lower anxiety! Borrowing the Savior’s prayer removes the pressure of “saying the right thing” and allows me to simply be in the moment. It’s all part of a balanced prayer diet!

  6. Moniker Challenged says:

    Beautiful post, thanks.

  7. suzann says:

    Emily,

    Thank you for sharing your real life inspirational story. I wept as I read how your patient relaxed with each line. What a wonderful blessing for her and for you.
    I memorized the the Lord’s Prayer while attending the Presbyterian church in Burbank, Calif. I think I was about 8 years old when that church presented me with a red letter edition of the Bible as a reward for memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, and Psalms 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing…………………” Beauty to quiet my soul.

    If a dear someone were to visit my sick bed with familiar verses, I would “lay me down to sleep.”

    Suzann

  8. Becky says:

    In recent years I’ve fallen into the habit of reciting poetry and Scripture passages as a mantra-like preparation for prayer. I find that the repetition soothes my mind like nothing else. I feel more open to two-way communication afterward. Though I will admit I never thought of those recitations themselves as prayer. I love the idea of a balanced prayer diet.

    • EmilyCC says:

      I never thought of using a recitation to begin prayer. What a great idea! What poems or scriptures are your favorite?

      • Becky says:

        I am in love with the lushness of Isaiah’s language, so 58:10-12 is one favorite. There is also a selection from Longfellow’s Christus: A Mystery Part III: The New England Tragedies that I turn to when I need to sooth any sort of anxiety:

        Let us labor for an inward stillness–
        An inward stillness and an inward healing.
        That perfect silence where the lips and heart
        Are still, and we no longer entertain
        Our own imperfect thoughts and vain opinions,
        But God alone speaks to us and we wait
        In singleness of heart that we may know
        His will, and in the silence of our spirits,
        That we may do His will and do that only

  9. Lorraine says:

    Thank you Emily, I love this post and the great responses from other women who have found solace in prayer outside the mormon tradition.

    When I was on crew, we used to do some stretching and relaxation yoga after to prevent soreness, and that is where I was introduced to yoga’s child pose. This position resonated with me on a spiritual level, and I began to practice it on my own, and eventually, came to pray in this position. Where folded arms and pews had failed me, this position seemed to truly allow me to prostrate myself before God and open my heart in a physical and spiritual way.

    I think that just accepting my communication with God could “look” different was one of the first steps of me accepting that my entire relationship with God could be different.

    • EmilyCC says:

      Lorraine, I’m so glad you shared your experience, and I think child’s pose makes a lot of sense for being one to bring about spiritual connectedness. I’m going to have try that when I next pray. 🙂

  10. Alisa says:

    I think there should be no difference between reciting the Lord’s Prayer and singing a hymn. Favorite scriptures, prayers, and poems can do exactly what our hymns do. Some are more comfortable with the spoken word.

    A few years ago, I realized that all the traditional spiritual things I’d been doing as a child weren’t feeding me as much as they used to. One of the first things I did is initiate a Family Home Evening where we memorized the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. Although I don’t often recite those prayers, learning them helps me feel like I am more part of a larger Christian community. It’s helped me feel like I have a much bigger sisterhood of faith that extends beyond those who are LDS, and yes, I have found comfort in those phrases.

  11. Jesse says:

    I love the 23rd Psalm, and the Our Father and Ave Maria. My mother grew up Catholic, but did not share these prayers with me. I’m not quite sure how they became part of me, but by age 14 I had absorbed them–and they return to me in times of stress.

    Ten years ago, I heard the men’s acapella group, Chanticleer, sing Franz Bibel’s rendition of the Ave Maria. This is now my favorite piece of sacred music. I play it over and over and over at Christmas time. It soars.

    Two years ago, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death with my son. One day, as I walked through the pediatric cardiac ICU to my son’s bed, those words from the 23rd Psalm came to me, and I finally recognized where I was. Although my son’s health was unstable and the outcome was uncertain, I feared no evil. The Lord was with me.

    I want my daughter to have that same bedrock of beauty and certainty buried deep inside of her–to be revealed and leaned on it times of stress. She just finished memorizing the 23rd Psalm (It took nearly three months–she’s only five). Now, we’ve moved on to the Our Father.

  12. Kelly Ann says:

    I learned the Lord’s Prayer as a hymn at Girls Camp. We sang it every night in closing around the campfire before a traditional LDS prayer was given. It has a lot of meaning to me from those years. I also have really appreciated knowing it when I have gone to other churches. It really does connect faiths. I don’t really say it much to myself but perhaps I should.

    I pray, a lot. Sometimes it is short and sometimes it is long. But seldom kneeling or sitted with arms folded as I learned at church. Most frequently I do it lying down when waking up or before going to sleep. I also try to meditate on occasion and have had good experiences in yoga in a variety of positions including childs pose and savasana. I also feel a calming when I sing hymns which I have done before some prayers.

    All this said, in my continual questioning, which has included the very existence of God, the format has varied. I haven’t given up the classic intro “Heavenly Father” but I have occasionally found it more fitting to start with a “Dear God” or “To the power that governs the universe” and even at times acknowledging a divine feminine or Mother Earth. Some might say that it is too eclectic but it has helped me process things in different prayers.

    • EmilyCC says:

      Lovely, Kelly Ann…thank you for sharing! I also rarely pray kneeling, arms folded, eyes closed. For me, sometimes, it feels like it inhibits my ability to feel the presence of the Divine rather than inviting it in.

  13. jks says:

    There are many ways to “feel the spirt” (in LDS speak). Singing a hymn, repeating a scripture, etc. We are told in the scriptures to pray always–to cry unto God, let all our doings be unto the Lord, let all our thoughts be directed unto the Lord (Alma 37).
    We have our official prayer times which are valuable, but prayer is also the expanded definition. When we sing that beautiful hymn or when we read a scripture or say something like the Lord’s Prayer. No Mormon should feel like it is wrong to say the Lord’s prayer. We simply don’t use it as a meeting opening or closing prayer, or use it as our default prayer. We have our “method” for those kinds of prayers but anything extra is always good!
    I am no scriptorian so I’m going to have to look up where to find the Lord’s Prayer. It sounds like a great FHE lesson to tell my kids about these famous scriptures and what is beautiful about them.

  14. Emily U says:

    This was a lovely post. It reminded me of this poem by Steven Wright, titled “Borrowed Words”

    It is a justifiable theft

    This praying of borrowed words.

    My own words gave out years ago

    Like the wind when a ship hits the doldrums.
    
I drifted
    
Prayerless
    
Until I learned to borrow words.

    Now the pleas of Heman and Solomon,

    The plaints of Asaph and David
    
Propel me on

    As they leap from my lips
    
Heavenward.

    Carried by Christ.

    They were his words first,
    
Borrowed by psalmists

    And borrowed back when

    Hanging on the cross he cried,
    
My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
    
Surely, my God,

    Thou wilt not forsake me

    If I borrow Thy words

    And offer them back to Thee.

  15. CatherineWO says:

    This post and all the comments really resonate with me. I have had a struggle with faith the past two or three years. Through it I have not stopped praying but my prayers have changed, evolved really. Like Becky, I have found that remembering and repeating words of scripture or poetry, or just words I have written myself, before starting to pray helps me commune better with the divine. The way I address God has evolved as well, changing with my perception of diety.
    Braids, I love the story of the women in your RS in Chicago. Classic.

  16. EmilyCC says:

    CatherineWO, I’m so glad you chimed in–I feel like sometimes our lessons in Church approach our prayers as being static. (Keep thinking of new things to say though the formula stays the same.) I think your idea of evolving in prayers is an important one. Thank you!

  17. Olive says:

    I love this.

  18. Nichelle says:

    Thank you for this Emily. I feel so much better, and I think I’ve found what I was looking for.

  19. Latter-day Guy says:

    Lovely, lovely post. Personally, I find the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office) a tremendous support and comfort. It is particularly focused on the psalms as prayer texts, but there are other canticles mixed in. (I especially love using St Paul’s text on charity from Corinthians.) Also, Merton-esque “contemplative prayer” is extraordinary, but (personally) quite challenging — in a good way, I think.

    • EmilyCC says:

      I’m not that familiar with the Liturgy of the Hours. I’ll have to look into it.

      And, I agree–contemplative prayer is amazing, but it is hard for me to truly focus and not let my mind wander.

  20. Two of Three says:

    I’m getting in on this late, but I find myself typing anyway. My head was nodding as I was reading Corktree’s thoughts. I do tai chi with a neighborhood group. The goal is a clear, unattached mind. Letting go of thoughts that enter your brain. I really stink at it. Instead, I try to focus my mind, my mood on gratitude. As I flow through the form, I feel gratitude to God and all the powers that be. It lifts me up. That, for me, is also prayer.

  21. Rebecca says:

    Beautiful story Emily. I’m so glad you shared this experience from your chaplain years. I love this and it’s an area I can develop in myself. I’m a very unscripted person most of the time! When I am in trouble, I do often repeat the words of my favorite hymn. I want to expand on that. Some beautiful examples from the comments here.

  22. Heather says:

    Em-
    As someone who has twice had you minister to me at the BWH, I confess I have a giant girl-crush on Chaplain Emily. You are gifted in knowing when to use the words of others as prayers and when to choose your own. I love how well you’ve captured this. As minister, temple worker, mom or friend, you bring peace to those around you.

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