I broke my Lenten discipline. I mean this literally—the Rosary I decided to wear during Lent snapped in my sleep. I have always flirted with Catholicism and Orthodox spirituality. Catholic and Orthodox mystics are more interesting than most Protestants I have run into. We are so concerned with written words that we forget that we have five senses to drive us into the presence of the divine. We are allowed to use images, icons, beads, and candles. Really, it’s ok. I've learned to try anything that might help me learn how to pray, even a Rosary. I rarely prayed through the Rosary in one sitting, but every time I noticed the cold beads pressing against my skin I was compelled to throw a prayer dart to heaven. It worked until it broke. I am not surprised that it has been around for a few hundred years.
I didn’t “Hail Mary;” at least, initially. I used the Jesus Prayer in lieu: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Sometimes, I prayed through virtues or fruits of the Spirit. Strangely, a few days later I found myself praying, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Maybe it was for the thrill. It felt perilous, or at least mischievous, for a Protestant to utter ‘hail Mary, full of grace.’ After a while it has become cathartic. It’s been nice to know that Mary is waiting to intercede on my behalf when I falter. I ask my friends to pray for me—so why not ask the theotokos, the mother of Jesus? She’s lived it all—lowliness, joyfulness, sorrow, loneliness and regret. I won’t discriminate; we are the body of Christ, the communion of saints. Any words will do when I have none.
We memorize liturgy and prayers so that we will have something to say when words disappear. What do you say when you sit at the bedside of a loved one or gather at the Jordan River? We say things like, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Written prayer is therapy. Unfortunately, Methodists are not taught to memorize prayer or Scripture. I haven’t memorized nearly enough Psalms. I am learning that I need to have resources locked away when my heart isn’t communicating with my mouth. Nor are Methodists encouraged to ask a saint for prayer. Where are we supposed to turn when we forget how to pray? We're out of luck.
Our individualized culture supposes that the best prayers must come from our own hearts. Or, if we can’t think of the words ourselves then something must be wrong. I am reminded of a story that Lauren Winner shares in her book Still. She writes,
“A four year olds notion is that a prayer is about God, rabbits, deer, Santa, and turkeys. At seven, prayer is when you ask for something you need, like water or rain or snow, then at twelve, the child begins to speak theologically: prayer is how you communicate with God and even ask God for forgiveness.
Older children understand that prayers come within themselves. The older child knows that the child is the author of his own prayer. I realize I am supposed to think that this is an advance from the younger child’s idea that prayers come from God or from heaven. But I do not think it is an advance. I think it is something those children will unlearn, later, if they keep praying. I think they will come to know that the youngest children are right. I think they will come to know that their prayers do not, in fact, come from within themselves. I can participate in prayer (or not) show up to pray (or not) but I am not the author of my prayers; when they come, they come from God (76-7).”
Lately, I haven’t been the ‘author’ of many prayers. I’ve used prayers from Scripture and prayers from saints. Most of the time Scripture and tradition have already said what I want to say with more eloquence, poignancy, and honesty. This Lent, I am relearning the notion that I must be the author of my own prayers. And that's ok because sometimes the well has run dry. Maybe you’ve never been vacant and empty, but one day you probably will. And then you’ll learn that prayers in a book and intercession from Mary are still prayers because all prayer comes from God.