by Karissa Knox Sorrell
I walked down to the church kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee, piling in sugar and chalky powdered cream. I looked at the clock above the microwave: 2:38 AM. When I got back up to the Sunday School room, the voices had become louder – whether an increase in zeal or an attempt to stay awake, I wasn’t sure. My youth group’s All Night Prayer event was starting to get boring. The Thai words of prayer, peppered with the melodic rising and falling tones of the language, sounded beautiful, but by that hour my brain had ceased to comprehend them. I sat down cross-legged against the wall, still holding my coffee mug between my hands, closed my eyes, and began to pray in English.
* * *
The pianist had started playing I Surrender All. The preacher was shouting again, but I wasn’t listening to what he was saying. I was listening to words of the hymn: All to Jesus I surrender/ humbly at his feet I bow / worldly pleasures all forsaken / take me Jesus, take me now. I watched as people, many in tears, made their way down the blue carpet to the altar, and I felt compelled to go forward to kneel in prayer, too.
* * *
Prayer used to be something that could be done better and harder. You could use more eloquent words. You could pray more fervently, with more emotion. You could pray for fifteen minutes instead of five. You could follow a prescription, like ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication – always make sure your requests come last, of course. If your prayers weren’t answered, maybe you didn’t pray hard enough. I remember wondering what magic words I had failed to utter whenever my prayers seemed to get lost.
I recently went away to a cabin for a writing weekend. Next to my cabin was a labyrinth made of small wooden posts and woodchips. I walked the labyrinth twice a day. Each time I’d first place a candle in the center to have something to walk to. In the mornings, I wound my way around the circling path, fingering my prayer rope and praying the Jesus prayer or interceding for my family members. When I reached the center, I picked up my candle, turned, and wove my way back through the labyrinth until I reached the entrance. In the evenings, I read aloud prayers from a book as I walked: O Lord our God/ you parted the heavens / and came down to earth.
The act of walking and praying felt synonymous, synergetic even, as if the walking and the praying were working together to calm and center my scattered spirit. The written prayers were a gift, freeing me from the burden of saying the perfect words or having enough zeal. At the end of my labyrinth walks, I sometimes stood at the edge of the swirling path just to listen. I’d say I heard the voice of God, but it didn’t sound like what you might think. It sounded like silence. It sounded like birdcall. It sounded like wind shuffling between leaves.
I have found that beginning and ending my day with prayer is a routine that I long for whenever I don’t do it. My body aches for it sometimes more than my mind does. Those repetitive movements of crossing myself, touching prayer beads, and walking a labyrinth, sew my spiritual life to my physical one.
I am coming to believe that the work of my body is as much prayer as impassioned, whispered words are. As I push a grocery cart, laden with food for the week, I say: Thank you. When I brush my daughter’s long, tangled red hair, I say: I love you. When I cry in a moment of frustration, my body heaving and my face muddled with tears, I say: Help me.
This body/soul faith has taught me that prayer is freedom, although I used to see it as the opposite: something that required deep effort, mental focus, and desperate aching to hear a special word from God. Prayer was something brittle, hard, needing to be handled with care, and easily broken if you didn’t try hard enough. Now, I see prayer as my quiet act of offering and openness to the presence of God. It is my routine physical work toward a place of peace and grace. Prayer is something soft and winged, gathering me up and carrying me into the winds of the world.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer and educator from Nashville, Tennessee. She has an MFA from Murray State University, and her poetry and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Catapult Magazine, Parable Press, and Flycatcher. Karissa works with ESOL teachers and students in Nashville’s public school system. Read more of her writing on her blog, or follow her on Twitter @kksorrel