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:
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?