by Lyle Enright
In the opening pages of her Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor explains her project to God:
“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always very fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love heating me when I think & write this to You.”
I felt a delightful irony as I read this, because I had come to O’Connor’s journal with the inverse attitude: she longed to “write a beautiful prayer,” though she had “nothing to do it from.” I had nothing from which to pray, and so I wanted to pray her beautiful prayers—hers among others—to try and find it.
I grew up in a praying household, one which included me in the dinnertime rotation and set aside time to ask protection over our doors and windows at night. All of these were good things, but they never moved in me the ways they did my mother and father. I often parsed those prayers for the right economy. My mom, at least, still remembers one time when I systematically thanked the Lord for every item on the table, down to the napkins and the ketchup. My father did the most pious thing he could have done and laughed, prodigiously, though I was sure I’d provoked some sort of blasphemy.
So when I learned the Lord’s Prayer, it was one of the most liberating moments of my early religious development. The roteness and authority of it were exactly what I needed to get through meal- and bed-time rituals. However, my father (in an exceedingly strange move for a pastor, I felt) rarely let me get away with simply praying to God the way God prayed to himself. “I want to hear your words,” he would tell me, yawning as he tucked me in. “I want to hear what you say, what you think.”
The idea that this had ever been the point of prayer was news to me, though I didn’t tell him that. I obliged, but somehow never really felt right about it. This is still true, over twenty years later, and all the more acute. Years of literary theory have ruined me in the search for “my own words”—though perhaps Christian college prayers, with their variously recombinant vocabulary of “just,” “good,” “father,” “move,” and the occasional “Whattap Jesus” did that for me a long time ago.
There is an undeniable pragmatism, under such circumstances, in defaulting to “groans too deep for words” but that doesn’t nourish forever either, and I realized that what those groans lacked was grammar. The language of everyone around me was sincere, but it often prayed God down from Heaven into “this place” (wherever that was). I wanted to pray God up, through my body and into the world, and had no vocabulary for doing so. Not until I looked, of course.
Slowly, I found that what I wanted was in those “rote” prayers which so many people had told me were empty and made you complacent. I found it first in the poetry of John Donne and Czeslaw Milosz, then in the Prayer Journal of Flannery O’Connor, but most of all I found it in the Prayer Book of the Orthodox Church, in the trisagion and hesychasm, in the Third Prayer of St. Antioch. Again I felt liberated; I wasn’t stumbling over myself, looking for words to say, but was mulling over the words in front of me, wondering what logic or wonder knit them together this way, how I might be changed by their mere presence. Strangely, I didn’t feel so much that I was using these prayers as being used by them.
So when my cousin went into labor toward the end of December, I did something I’d never done before: I went alone into my office and said vigil. I got on my knees, barely recognizing myself: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us,” I said three times, crossing myself, bowing. “I entreat You who loves all people to bless Your servant who is with child.” I was amazed that someone in the past had penned this prayer for this purpose. “Ease her labor, bring her to safe delivery. Open the treasury of Your mercies and Your compassion to her.” I did this ritual three times, each time becoming more convinced that I was in the proper place, the proper posture for something like true intercession—facilitating willing Spirit into rigid, anxious matter.
I bowed one last time and left my place. My mother called me the next morning to tell me that a healthy baby girl had been born, an easy delivery.
“I know,” I said, cutting my words short so as not to carelessly say: “I was there.”
Lyle Enright is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where he studies religion and literature. He blogs inconsistently at allmyfootnotes.wordpress.com , and you can also follow him on Twitter @YnysDyn.