I used to exert myself at prayer. It was exercise, like hoisting kettleballs or something, and the harder I worked, the more chance I had to make God give me what I wanted. Usually I wanted to be different or feel differently than I did, and I thought that through prayer I could demonstrate my sincerity in this (Lord, we both know I’m a mess. Fix me). Or I wanted other people to be healed or encouraged or blessed — in particular ways. That I was trying to influence God wasn’t conscious, exactly: I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do in order to stay in touch.
The prayers were sometimes really specific but more often amorphous:
Please God, let Susie pass her French final so she can get into the study abroad program.
God, I pray that you would end apartheid right now.
Lord, may Tina come to know you and live according to your will.
I pray that Jessica would forgive her mother and sister for leaving her in the parking lot of Safeway when she was six and receive your grace.
Please make me better (or kinder, thinner, of more service, nicer, never angry or resentful or mean).
God, I pray that you would remove this thorny issue/person/uncomfortable situation from my life.
It’s not that praying in this way was wrong. God knows there are many people who testify to the linear power of prayer — “I asked, God gave!” (although I have to say I often find it hard to trust this kind of testimony). It was stressful, though. Striving. My prayers were well-intentioned, but they were based on my understanding of what was a “good outcome.” It was as if life was a play, I was directing it, and prayer was one of the tools I could use to keep the production on track. Put Susie there, Lord, so that when Jessica walks on stage left they’ll both be able to see you in your glory.
Then something changed, and I couldn’t pray this way anymore. (Well, for a while I found I couldn’t pray at all, but that’s another story.) What happened was that I encountered enough situations where I felt baffled or disappointed or betrayed by actual outcomes that I lost faith in my ability to know what to pray. A few examples? The spiritual community I had been part of disintegrated. The cohousing group I helped establish found itself dealing with a dishonest contractor and unfinished buildings. I realized I had an eating disorder. I discovered that, after 15 years of marriage, my husband and I needed to renegotiate a few things. It’s not that these experiences are unusual, and I know many people undergo greater suffering. But they were my particular experiences, and they broke open the assumption that I could influence things just by praying hard.
After a while the only prayer that felt real was that I would be willing to see and accept what was actually true. I began to practice letting go of my expectations, letting go of the idea that I knew how God’s grace should manifest, and it was like a lens clicked into place. Instead of blurry attempts to figure out what needed to happen out there in the world or in other people’s lives, I could focus on trusting myself and others to God’s care — and wait for any instructions.
Nowadays, prayer doesn’t tend to feel like exercise. It feels like release, like a muscle unclenching. I’ll notice that I’m tight with expectation, and that’s my cue to relax and take it easy. To stop struggling. Like Denise Levertov writes, in her poem “The Avowal”:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
What a relief, to sink into the prayer that’s already going on, rather than trying to make it all up myself.