NOTE: This post is a combination (with minor edits) of two posts that I wrote on my own blog this month, as I contemplated Matthew 6:5-13. If anyone is interested in the foundation post on those verses, it is titled, “Resolved to Pray: KISS“.
I always have struggled to pray formally and daily on a personal level. For as long as I can remember, I have had a hard time kneeling alone and praying vocally. For most of my life I didn’t understand why, and, although I tried to recommit numerous times, I never could “conquer” that particular habit. My struggle continued through various church callings, including stints in a Stake Mission Presidency, as a Ward Mission Leader, in a Bishopric and to this day as a High Councilor. I still have a hard time, but now, at least, I understand why a little better.
I have struggled with “formal prayer” all my life, largely because I have not struggled with “informal prayer” at any point in my life. All my life, I have prayed regularly; it simply has not been on my knees and vocally, on a set schedule. I naturally commune with God; I just do it silently, in my own head. I understand the following passage from Amulek in Alma 34:18-27, since it resonates with my own experience:
18 Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.19 Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.21 Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening.22 Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies.23 Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.24 Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.25 Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.26 But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.27 Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.
I truly do naturally have a prayer in my heart always, and I truly do pray by actually forming words in my mind often throughout each day. I struggle, however, to vocalize those prayers and to offer them in a formal manner. I have reached a degree of peace with that conflict, since I believe it is more important THAT I pray than HOW I pray, but I still am not comfortable completely with my inability to remember and schedule formal prayers. I see it as a weakness that I still have to overcome, even as I see my tendency to pray “continually” as a great strength.
Recently, as I was contemplating this irony, it struck me that it has been easy to excuse my difficulty with formal prayer by thinking what I do (pray continually) is obeying a higher law – that if I have to choose one or the other, it is better to pray as I do than as I don’t. I actually believe that, but I have come to realize that I still don’t pray “completely, wholly and in a fully developed manner”. In other words, I don’t pray perfectly yet. That is the goal for which I am striving – not necessarily to pray “perfectly” right away, but rather to be able to learn to pray more completely by finally praying more consistently in a formal manner – at the very least in a manner than can be considered “regularly”.
I have no driving desire right now to do more than that, and, honestly, I’m not sure I ever will – since I truly am satisfied overall with the way and regularity with which I pray. All I know is that I need to learn to pray formally (and, perhaps, vocally) more easily than I currently do.
As I considered all of that this past week, I was left to ask:
Why then do I struggle so much with formal prayer? Other than what I articulated above (the fact that I really do carry a constant prayer in my mind and heart), is there some other personal characteristic that “gets in the way” of kneeling and vocalizing prayer?
First, some of the paradox behind the struggle:
I have no inhibitions whatsoever with public speaking or one-on-one conversation. I have performed in public since the days of my earliest memories. I sang a public solo for the first time when I was six years old (I think; it might have been eight, but I believe it was pre-baptism.) – “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” in Sacrament Meeting for a cousin’s missionary farewell. I gave my first public speech in First Grade, when I received an award for reading a ridiculous number of books during a contest. I sang in solo competitions and vocal groups from 4th – 12th Grade; I’ve played piano solos and accompanied others hundreds of times; I played the saxophone for eight years in school; I was the Drum Major of our High School Marching Band. I was a school teacher. More recently, I’ve been in Sales and Marketing for nearly twelve years. I don’t remember EVER being nervous or shy about speaking or performing in front of people. A shrinking violet I am not.
I also am not shy about expressing my thoughts and feelings – as anyone who knows me in the Bloggernacle can attest. When it comes to group participation, I am more likely to be highly visible and audible than quiet and invisible. Communication skills and inclination are not a problem for me.
It hit me just a couple of days ago that I simply am not a very “formal” person. I am totally comfortable interacting in formal situations, but, for me, doing so is an artificial way to concede to the need to “play the formal game”. In a past job, I walked the corridors of the Ohio Statehouse and talked about million dollar funding projects with executive directors of major philanthropies, but my actions in those discussions were “artificially” formal for me. I would have been much more “at home” and “natural” in jeans and a t-shirt, sitting outside on the grass and just having a heart-to-heart chat. I’ve conducted formal interviews for years, but I’d rather sit and rap with someone than grill them in a formal manner.
Also, I am a natural tease, and I tend to take lots of things less seriously than many others. For example, I’m not sure the member of the Stake Presidency who heard my talk last Sunday expected the quote from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (on charity: “Be excellent to each other.”) or the description of listening to someone learn to play the bagpipes as similar to hearing someone kill a cat – in context of being charitable as people learn to play their souls (although I did mention in the talk that I probably shouldn’t say “kill a cat” in Sacrament Meeting). I’m a country boy at heart, and the sociality that exists in a small town tends to be a bit less formal than at a country club or in a middle-upper class suburb.
I’ve known all of that about myself for a long time, but it never really registered in the context of formal prayer. Simply opening up my mind and heart and talking with God works for me. It’s who I am. I’ve had some incredible spiritual experiences in my life, but I’m having a hard time thinking of one that occurred during a formal, vocal, personal prayer. (Priesthood blessings are a different story, but I’m distinguishing them as “ritual prayer” from “personal prayer”.)
What struck me is that the most powerful experiences I have had in my life that are associated with prayer have come when I was being most “true” to myself – when I wasn’t engaged in an activity that was “foreign” or “unnatural” to me, but rather when I was doing what I do best. Those experiences all have come either when I simply was chatting with God (talking with him informally in my head and/or heart) or when I was involved in a ritual of some kind – like a Priesthood blessing or an ordinance.
This insight has been a revelation to me, and I am contemplating the implications. At the very least, it has reinforced the need to be careful of requiring all God’s children to speak with him in the exact same way – of over-simplifying and communalizing something that might be better left complex and personal. Sometimes, unity of purpose and result might be better than total unity of form and function. At the very least, it’s given me more to ponder – and it’s made me even less inclined to judge others with regard to how they pray and how/if they feel they get their own answers.