Why I Don’t Pray
Trying to express why I don’t pray presses hard on my soul.
I’ll never say never—the quick and crafty can catch me at prayer. My heart groans and my lips will move slightly, silently, as if rehearsing a script I want to remember. The most tenacious words fight their way up from my gut and sound out loud.
The communal can find me praying among them. I pray best and most in groups: eloquent prayers full of gospel truth, prayers that see a way forward, prayers uttered in a voice that cracks, desperate to kill sin and walk in newness of life. And not from a need to impress. To turn a phrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christ in my brothers’ and sisters’ prayers is often louder than the Christ in my own. Their appeals light my fuse.
But when I’m left alone with Jesus, prayer is more phenomenon than practice, an exception, not a rule. A sweet hour of prayer seems unthinkable—I stumble and fumble and feel lucky to enjoy a couple minutes of awkward-free conversation.
I have excuses, of course, but they no longer satisfy. I just pray without ceasing, I told myself, greatly inflating the volume of thoughts I turn toward God.
Assuming a sort of nobility, I labeled life one never-ending liturgy. Paintings were prayers; poems were prayers; songs were prayers; my writing was a prayer. Truth harbors somewhere in that line of thinking—art breathes out our most inward groans. But if everything counts as prayer, nothing does. Stopping there meant stopping before I had to say a word, stopping short of dealing with the deeply-rooted anxieties wrapped around my heart.
Searching for clues that may explain my hang up, I circle back to the phrase we use to let people down easy. Only I’m not trying to get off the hook or beat my feet in escape. I don’t think it’s him—I really think it’s me.
Chances are, if we’ve ever met, I remember more about you than you remember about me.
Growing up, I treated any prospect of friendship as a pledge. People promised to call and I sat by the phone. They floated the idea of hanging out and I heard gospel commitment. Somehow, the rest of the world knew the difference between casual and whatever I was, between possible and whatever I heard.
The adult version of that kid converted to journalism and heard a different verse of the same song. I file sources and subjects in my memory bank, yet pass them unrecognized on the street. Our conversations were reciprocal to me, transactional to them.
I carry these memories into my daily prayers, or lack thereof. I think about bringing my requests before God and flash to times across the table from friends. More than once, I’ve readied my soul to lay itself bare and, just as confessions found the tip of my tongue, my would-be confidant moved on to something else.
In other scenes, I push the words out, then watch them hang in the air like the pen-and-ink dialogue of a comic-book character. Sweating those few seconds that seem like minutes, I preempt any chance they have at a response by sweeping my words away with a self-deprecating line or tying them up with neat conversational bows.
Christians with defective fathers often struggle with the implications of an Abba God. Christians who worry that friends will disappoint them struggle with the implications of a companion God. In my own struggle to say simple prayers, I feel reality’s sting. The replica reflects poorly on the real thing. Shadows keep us from seeing the sun. People ruin us for God, even if temporarily.
I crawl over to God with the same hang-ups the flesh-and-blood crowd provoke: That my words might just hang for a moment in the air, then fall back to earth. That I could pour my heart out to him and it wouldn’t matter. What if God hears me—he just doesn’t like me all that much.
I lack faith in him, yes, but my lack of faith in everybody else cripples me. Distill all my anxieties, and you have the oldest trick in the book: the lie that says we can’t be known and loved at the same time. Sometimes, the obvious fiction is the one we fall for again and again.
In the presence of such disconnect, I know the right answers. We must give God his rightful place as standard-bearer, not outsource the job to someone who won’t show up. Correct, but not comforting.
Paradox that I am, I enjoy reading others’ prayers. I bear witness to the beauty in books like John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer or The Prayer Wheel by Patton Dodd, Jana Riess, and David Van Biema.
Texts like these set me on their shoulders so I can look over walls built with my bare hands and see what prayer can be. Intellectually stimulating, curious and creative, expressed in words yet not bound by them, hopeful yet secure.
“Keep trying” remains a better friend than “give it up”; fidelity gets it right more often than feelings. So on I go. They don’t make brooms big enough to sweep my problems with prayer away, no bows shiny enough to dress them up. Until something works, or I stop reading my letdowns like lines across the face of God, I cling to a single, sweet consolation.
Everything I’m certain that I know about Jesus tells me he stands beside the Father, whispering in his ear. In all the prayers I manage to murmur, in all the prayers left unsaid, he makes sense of me to God. Knowing what he’s up to sparks a desire to say a few words to him, however brief the desire, however trembling.
The wonderful poet Marie Howe spoke of her own striving in a verse modestly titled “Prayer.” The poem’s first half, while exquisite, fails to surprise. Driven to distraction, unable to sit still, Howe can’t focus her prayers. Then, the dam breaks and so do I.
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?
My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.
My vision of Jesus, mercifully saying what I can’t or won’t, buckles my knees. Yet, even as I write these words, I plan to rise from my chair once I put the period on this sentence. And so my lips part again, mouthing a prayer ever so small and sharp:
“Keep me here. Move me until I remain unmoved. Let nothing more go unsaid between us.”