by Susan Martersteck
I have spent time over the past year reflecting on prayer, what it means to me and to those I meditate with, those I work with, those I pray with. I will honestly say I have not come to any conclusions, no profound secrets to share with you. Prayer can be a shared experience that moves from the outside to one’s interior. Other times prayer starts in that still dark space and makes itself known slowly and gently. I love the one-line prayers, often quotes from the Bible, that speak to me: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Some define prayer as the practice of the presence of God. If that is the primary intention of personal and public prayer, then whether you are driving your car, washing the dishes, watching the news, or on your knees in deep conversation, you are actively in the presence of God.
Most often I find myself in extemporaneous prayer—the big word for prayer in the moment. No plans, no expectations, no right or wrong way. To be open to the voice of the Divine Mother speaking, expressing the heart's desire, fear or request. Anne Lamott wrote a short and delightful book on prayer. In her mind all prayer can be divided into three categories. Help, Thanks, Wow is both the title of her book and a description of an honest look at prayer in everyday life. It begins with help. We ask for Divine intervention, help every day: help in adjusting our attitude, help in raising our children, help in our relationships.
Most often in my hospice work I find individuals, young and old, who are nearing the end of their lives asking for prayers of gratitude. They say “Thanks.” It is sometimes amazing to me that in those darkest hours it is gratitude that is central to a life. Gratitude is whispered during the walk in a garden on a sunny day, listening to the birds and feeling a breeze on your face. “Thank you” comes from an elderly man as his service to his country is acknowledged and his buried experiences are heard.
Recently there was a woman in her late 50's dying of cancer. She and her husband and adult children were very faith-filled people who had been active members of their church. They asked me to bring communion to her hospice room. I pulled a chair to the bedside, smoothing the crisp white sheets that would now be altar cloths. Her family circled the bed, holding hands, and we prayed a familiar prayer together. After sharing the bread and juice, I asked what she would like to pray for . . . her answer was world peace. A small request from a dying woman. The next day we repeated this scene, except this time she was too weak to answer what she would like to pray for. I said, “I guess the choice is mine.” We prayed for her peace, to see with the eyes of God and receive the peace and grace all around her. It was a reminder that we need to pray for ourselves and to accept the prayers of others. Are you on your own prayer list?
An article I read recently concerning end of life was a list of things not to say to someone who is sick or dying. One of them was, “I'll pray for you.” The article went on to explain that this has become almost reflexive. People say it as a comfort, yet they never really intend to follow through. The bottom line is: don't say it unless you absolutely plan to follow through, to hold that person in your heart and in your prayers. Take it seriously. There is power in our prayer.
I have never been very good at asking specifically for what I need or want from the Divine Mother. I have asked in general for consolation or support, but I fear that something more exact would be testing or challenging her to hear and respond to my small need. However, a request for a rose by a family member of a hospice patient showed me that asking and receiving can come in many forms. I guess the problem comes in being too attached to your specific expectations.
When one of our patients died, the daughter was very distraught. She asked God to send her a rose so that she would know her mother was at peace and not to worry. It is part of the practice in home hospice to send a team member to help with arrangements or to offer support at the time of death. It was late when the on-call nurse arrived at the home and rang the bell. When the daughter opened the door, she was met with, “Hello, I am the nurse tonight, my name is Rose.” You can imagine the consolation felt that night and in the days that followed. The whole team felt the power of that prayer and the unexpected response.
I know that prayer can be recited, learned and repeated throughout a lifetime. I have had individuals with dementia repeat The Lord's Prayer with me, but revert to their first language, the words deeply ingrained in memories, with the cadence of the words triggering those memories. I have heard a 102 year old pray in Italian the words she learned as a young child. Prayer remains part of us even when we have lost so many other parts.
Prayer can be a conversation, an intimate sharing, a call and response between the individual and the Divine.
I had a goal to write my perfect prayer: the prayer that would summarize my thoughts, my relationship with the Divine in a unique way. It is a goal I have not reached yet, but I have been working toward it. I have a favorite prayer that I use to focus on when my mind just can't stay still long.
I adore you, Divine Mother, and I offer you my thoughts, my affections and my actions. Make me a pure nothingness that your Divine Will be fulfilled now and always.1
And I am always rewarded with this simple prayer: “Empty me that I might be filled with you.”
Working toward writing this perfect personal prayer, I now think I will call it an imperfect prayer, a prayer always in process. I gathered quotes from famous or not so famous people from a daily email I receive from www.gratefulness.org. Some of those quotes are listed here. I read books on prayer and reflections from many faith traditions. One statement keeps coming back for me ... and maybe it is that perfect pure response. Three words:
Be the prayer.
If we believe, then our job in this world is to be the prayer. Whatever that means to you, for me it is a shifting horizon, often out of reach. But, if as I move through the world I can keep those three words in focus, other words will not be necessary. Words will be for sharing all that has been poured over and into me.
Be the prayer.
The prayer cited is a variant of the following Cafh prayer:
I adore Thee, Divine Mother, and I offer Thee my affections, my thoughts and my actions.
Let me be a pure nothingness that Thy adorable Will be fulfilled, now and always.
Ahehia ote Hes
Eret Hes ote Ahehia.