For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it. —Amanda Gorman, "The Hill We Climb"
What is a prayer?
Palms together. Fingers at heart. Eyes closed. Calling out or whispering into the universe for: Help. Love. Guidance. Clarity. Safety. Gratitude. Peace. Desires. Someone must be listening, right? We keep praying, or we stop, but we know that surely this is prayer: Palms together. Hands at heart. Eyes closed. Calling.
But what if a prayer is simply waking up in the morning and inhaling the winter sun that floods your bed? What if a prayer is that moment when you yawn and stretch and smile and rise?
What if a prayer is the song that you sing so loud and so long that by the end you are weeping and dancing, maybe out of tune, maybe off beat, but still rejoicing?
Or what if it is the quiet time with your watercolors, or your garden, or your yoga mat, when your mind finally slows because your hands and your legs are moving enough for the rest of you?
What if it is the poem you return to, dark day after dark day, reciting lines to yourself like a mantra?
And what if it is the kiss you plant on your child’s head while they sleep? What if the prayer is in that longing gaze for the baby that was and the child that is, imprinting to your memory their nose and lips and messy hair, their sleepy musk, their splayed legs, even their snores? What if a prayer is that moment you crawl into bed next to them, quiet now after a day spent laughing about video games you don’t understand or yelling about undone chores and math problems unsolved? What if a prayer is that moment when you let go of whatever hangs on you from your imperfect daytime parenting and instead give yourself over to the quiet closeness of sleep and snuggles and presence?
Maybe a prayer is a kneeled incantation of faith. Or maybe it is just the faith to keep going through and to today.
In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle talks about re-finding meditation. About sitting in the dark, locked in the back of her closet, quietly panicked to find some self-guiding compass. In those quiet moments, she finds the voice of divinity within her. She calls that voice god, but others call it intuition, gut feelings, inner knowing. Faith. The sinking within to know at our deepest selves.
But we've been taught to silence that voice inside in order to hear the voices outside: approval and guidance and affirmation from everyone but ourselves. We stop listening to that deep down knowing because the world tells us over and over again that it’s wrong, that someone else knows better and we should follow them. I recoil at this. I always have. And I’ve also always ascribed this teaching to organized religion, whose purpose has long seemed to me to be the silencing of our inner voices in the service of compliance. I never liked words like faith or spirituality or grace; they reeked too much of religious dogma for me. So I always thought that I don’t pray. Maybe when I was a kid and that dogma was our way of life, maybe in moments of desperation or fear when I might offer a tentative plea for help, but otherwise, I don’t pray.
What I do is wake up, and care for my children, and try to care for the world through my work. What I do is drink a lot of coffee and maybe have a dance party in my kitchen while I’m making the second pot. What I do is let my ping-pong brain pull me out of email drudgery and into a wormhole of poetry. What I do is listen to the same song on repeat, for days, to release emotions that are boiling up. What I do is put dinner on the table every night, and stock the fridge every week, and let my world know that I love them, if not through words then through these daily moments of sustenance. What I do is seek out a film or a podcast or a book that maybe helps me know why I screamed about something dumb today, or why everything feels gray right now, or that just makes me laugh from my belly. What I do is brush my teeth and nourish my skin, every day, and sleep and talk and move and snuggle, every day, and then wake up tomorrow and keep doing the same towards that next today. I don’t pray, but I keep going.
What if, though, that continuance is itself an expression of faith? What if that waking up, that ritual of daily life, that emotional range—what if that’s prayer? What if a prayer is just the listening for that deep inner knowing, and then building your todays around it?
That feels partly right. But then I remember this:
My grandfather’s funeral. The priest who seemed to preside over every funeral in our extended family stood at the front of the banquet hall, rosary in hand, and led us through the “Our Father.” And even though it’s only an ancestral incantation for me, I still can recite every word:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
And as I say those words from memory, maybe even mechanically, with my extended family and my grandfather’s spirit, something happens: I feel peace. That ritual and recitation, it’s an intergenerational embrace that reminds me that, although my grief is mine alone, I am not alone in my grief. It reminds me that this is how all life ends and how all life goes on. Those words I know in my bones that I don't recall ever actually learning, those words that I say with a bowed head and in unison with cousins and strangers, those words are a balm for the ache left by my grandfather’s absence.
I am reminded of how ritual comforts, too, every time I settle myself into a Sun Salutation, which in yoga we say is a kind of moving meditation. The same sequence, over and over, until we settle into ourselves, until we find that deep center that holds us up and propels us forward: Hands at heart, then up to the sky and heart open. Then a deep bow, a small lift, and a deeper bow. We are then down and humbled, prostrate on the floor to strengthen and open our hearts, until we are up and paused in Adho Mukha Shvanasana—downward facing dog—where we breathe. Breathe and stretch and notice and strengthen and center and breathe. From there, the cycle continues: we stand, we bow deep, we gather up and then bow deeper before we rise fully, hearts open, strong as a mountain, hands in prayer at the heart. Surya Namaskar: a bow, a salutation, a prayer, to the day. But also a prayer for ourselves, for our bodies and souls and hearts, for our strength and our growth and our stillness and our knowing. It is a moving prayer, as in I am moving while praying but I am also moved. When I practice this prayer regularly, my smile is looser, my sleep is deeper, my spine is longer, my anxious inner voice is quieter, my patience is more accessible, and I can keep going with less angst, less worry, less sadness, less doubt. The ritual of this prayer that I say with my body is a fuel for living. I am prayerful, full of prayer, and living in a fullness that feels like the sun is beaming from inside me and I am beaming on towards the world.
In quarantine, though, I have not done many sun salutations. You’d think being safer at home all.the.damn.time, I’d have nothing to do but yoga. But instead I am filled with dread for the consequences of our collective selfishness, laid so bare by this pandemic. Instead I am distracted, my brain bouncing relentlessly between news and cat videos and songs and work and student emails and second-grade fractions and outrage and Hulu and midlife crisis and mortality. Instead, I am in my pajamas barely remembering to brush my teeth but remembering to apply all ten serums to that single wrinkle that mocks me. Instead, I am opening every well-targeted Facebook ad, convincing myself I need the t-shirt or the art supplies or the Peloton or the Fijian basket supporting coral reef preservation. Instead, I am plotting on an old-school atlas how to chase the sun in Texas or Florida, forgetting that the sun is inside me.
In quarantine, I am also teaching. Always, it seems, teaching. And with a computer between me and my students, it is so much easier to be patient, to center students’ humanity and health, to extend to them the grace that I keep forgetting to extend to myself. In Jesuit pedagogy, we talk about love and justice and dignity and honor, about embodying these things in our relationships with students as well as in our relationships with communities that have been oppressed and marginalized. We talk about prophetic justice and knowing through reflection. We talk about liberation. And I try to live all this at my computer, with a screen and unknown miles and so many masks between me and my students. And I think they feel it, I think they feel my love and grace but also my guidance through exploration of difficult truths in education, our shared field. I teach from a deeply centered sense of self and invite my students, through intellectual and critical exploration, to find that deep center in their own teaching self. To teach through dignity and love and outrage toward some new world that maybe doesn’t exist yet. To be the light, as Amanda Gorman calls on us to be: “For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.” It can be hard, though, to remember that we are also the light for ourselves.
So this, now, is what I wonder: Each time that I show up for others and wrap them in love, honoring the dignity of the person across from me, isn’t that a kind of prayer? Each time I pause to laugh at a story my child tells about a YouTuber who I have no interest in, isn’t that a kind of prayer? Each time I craft words to make paragraphs or essays or jumbled reflections, isn’t that a kind of prayer? Am I not the light in those moments? Am I not beaming forth to shine and nourish what I touch? Am I not renewed and strengthened and centered? Am I not honoring my own knowing deep within? Am I not acting in faith that each of these tiny gestures of connection adds up to transform our world towards love? Am I not acting in faith that today becomes tomorrow becomes a life? Am I not offering my open heart to the universe, asking only that it be allowed to be in its openness? That it be aloud in its openness? Isn’t each day of this life, when lived through love and grace and gratitude and dignity—but also lived through mistakes and anger and pettiness, after which we gather ourselves, dust off the shame, and move back towards love—is this also not a prayer?
The Bengsons are a married musical duo who recorded “The Keep Going Song,” as a kind of pandemic blessing, and I've listened to it almost every day since they released it. I was awed when, in a recent interview, the Bengsons admitted sheepishly that they think of their songs as prayers:
“Everything we do comes from a place of prayerfulness, a place of prayer. And that means what it means to us, us weird Jewesque, paganista, Lutheranangicals. We are what we are. But we are trying to be open and raw about wherever we actually are, but in the name of transformation. So going into the place of despair, of joy, of whatever it might be that day, and trying to sort of metabolize it in such a way that it can be offered without conclusion, without message, without tidiness. Having gone through the machine of our shared love so that it can be an offering to each other, to whoever may listen, to ourselves. And so that process of trying to connect honestly to where we are in the moment, in the day, in the mundane, and reinterpret it together, into some kind of messy gift.”
For me, "The Keep Going Song" has been my quarantine prayer, a daily kind of "Our Father" that I cry out to the universe to move me through this pandemic, whole and alive and healing. If you’ve listened to it, you've probably also felt the gift of Abigail asking if you were alright, if you were okay, the gift of her prayer:
I hope your body is whole tonight
Prayer is a rough beginning, an offering, a gift. It is a connection and a deep knowing, an intention. It is a practice, a ritual, a way of being. It is the light inside us that warms us and those around us. It is that stretch in the morning sun, it is that shared laughter over dinner. It is a Daddy Yankee dance party on a busted knee and a box of Kleenex used up during “Soul.” It’s telling your spouse or your children that you love them, even when you've had enough togetherness that it's suffocating, because this is how we plant the world anew, in ourselves and our families and beyond. Each moment is just a rough beginning towards our hope, our love, our connection.
So what is a prayer? It is a life. It is a messy, hopeful, loving, seeking, raw life.
Palms together, fingers at heart, eyes up: calling out to the universe while keeping on. Just a little less alone.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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