I like to think I’m a praying kind of individual. Before I go to bed each night, I say a set. I’ve been known to take a few moments and say prayer in the middle of the day. When I need to calm down, I repeat the Lord’s Prayer over and over. When I hear of a friend struggling or suffering, I’ll shoot off a prayer. Now that I’m a seminarian, when I enter a room, I’ve become a designated prayer. At first, it was difficult but it’s been getting easier. I’ve even made a learning goal this summer to become more comfortable with extemporaneous prayer. I’m going to start reading prayer books regularly. Before you know it, I’m going be the quickest prayer drawer in the West.
But one thing I’ve struggled with during the last three weeks of CPE has been praying with patients. I don’t offer prayers often and I usually wait for a patient to request them. I’ve prayed with Jewish folks, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals, and Seventh Day Adventists. If I was playing prayer bingo, I’d be nearing a complete blackout. For non-Christians, I leave out the Jesus and tend to borrow their words. For “liturgical” traditions, repeating the Our Father or taking something from a Lutheran Prayer Book works fine. But for other traditions, I’ve struggled. I’ve had my prayers critiqued. I’ve had folks point out how my theology is “wrong” in my prayer. When it comes to traditions where the individual is an active participant in grace, my prayers seem to run into problems. My cries for God to do godly things runs into a dead end. They fail to bring comfort in the way that these patients ask for. Or, worse, these patients just assume I’m “catholic” and am a lost soul anyways so there’s no need to even ask me to pray with them. It’s frustrating.
When I run into this prayer confrontation, I tend to shut down. I’m not looking for pats on the back nor am I asking for a high five. I don’t want to be thanked (though that happens a lot). But I am a stickler when it comes to prayer. The theology might be off, the request might seem strange, and the whole thing might feel different and unfamiliar, but it’s a prayer. It’s a cry in the midst of human suffering. It’s a request for release, for mercy, for love, and for hope. It’s a hope for comfort, for release, for things to work out in the end. It doesn’t mean that it will work out that way – God’s will be done and all that – but, from my point of view, a prayer is the most human response possible to the presence of suffering. Before reaction, before restraint, before gasps, before retaliation, before resistance, there is a cry. And that cry is a human cry, even if it’s done poorly, feels silly, or isn’t in an understandable language. It’s a place where people not in the midst of your suffering can reach out to you and hold on. It’s what people just do.
I never expected to spend this summer working on my theology of prayer but it looks like that I’ll be struggling with that (and a million other things) during the next eight weeks. But thats okay – it’s why I’m here. And it helps that, on this Sunday, while packing up my apartment, my wife stumbled onto an old bottle of bad tequila. I’ve never met a bad tequila I didn’t like.