Praying (by Mary Oliver)

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with prayer. Always have, and I’m afraid, always will. Or maybe the struggle is to come to grips with what we’ve decided counts, qualifies, and what is effective in the end. I’ve always taken comfort in those disciples who begged Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” (Luke 11:1). In their imploring is both a confession of struggle and a longing for new strength and understanding.

Me too! Me too! Both the struggle and the longing. How about you?

Like so many of Mary Oliver’s poems, this one about praying invites me into a more hopeful space. Maybe she’s right – that the secret of a praying life is accepting the grace of what “it doesn’t have to be.” If you’re like me – and you don’t usually find the exquisite and profound words (that would be the blue iris!), and the truth is you often have no words at all; if your secret prayer closet habits, would they become public, cause you to shutter with fear; if doubt and questions haunt you into feeling that your faith is, after all, inadequate; then I say, welcome, welcome. Your struggles are mine.

But what if Mary is right? What if prayer’s invitation is an open door into a whole new world, or put bluntly – what if prayer is God’s primary way to speak, and for me to be quiet – simply to open the door of my life, and receive what God has to say, to give. What if the contest is about who can be quiet, and still, who can listen and wonder…these are hopeful and inviting words.

Read the poem again. Better yet, a few times. It’s short enough to memorize, and then you and I can pretend the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, again and again, reminding us that it’s not a contest, but an invitation, should we desire a shared life with the God of the Universe. Now that sounds hopeful!

Peter Hawkinson

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