To pray is to say our need and express ourselves across an abyss of silence into the void that is God’s listening place. Moreover, it seems there is a default setting of mind and heart that wants to put us in relationship with a prayer-hearing God. Denise Levertov’s small poem titled “Suspended” helps do that:

I had grasped God’s garment in the void

but my hand slipped

on the rich silk of it.

The “everlasting arms” my sister loved to remember

must have upheld my leaden weight

from falling, even so,

for though I claw at empty air and feel

nothing, no embrace,

I have not plummeted.

Such is the character of my praying, “I claw at empty air and feel nothing, no embrace.” I grasp “God’s garment in the void” and my hands slip “on the rich silk” of nothingness. Afterward, sometimes sooner, often later, I discover beneath me the “everlasting arms” of God keeping me from plummeting into the chaotic confusion of the God-forsaken. Believe me, I pray. Even so, my times of prayer often feel as if I were engaging in a one-sided activity. Still, whether I feel like praying or not, I go, as an old poem has it,

To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting

me –

A place where none appeared.

– St. John of the Cross, “Prologue,” Ascent of Mount Carmel

Morning and evening I sit expectantly in my study, a prayer book in my lap. I admit an unseemly ineptitude may characterize my prayer time; yet praying is my humble reply to this incredible surprise of being. I am aware that speaking to God is not exactly a public drama but rather a kind of “love-talking” and as in any loving relationship, it is something done away from the crowd. So my prayer life is not on display! Moreover, I prefer a certain reticence in speaking of God’s ways with me relative to my praying. I am persuaded that God cares for me even as his eye is upon the sparrow. Admittedly, my thoughts have an agnostic component whenever I speak of how God is or is not with us as a consequence of our praying. What matters is our ability to come to God with honest speech – that our talking to God be a speaking from the heart as it is. We may use words of our own choosing, or let a needy silence be our prayer. We may say our prayers in the staid tongue of the Book of Common Prayer, or the Catholic Breviary. I suspect we might even “dance” our prayers in Pentecostal abandon, or lift our prayers upon the wings of a Bach concerto. What matters only is that we speak to God from the heart.

Being fond of the Psalms, my prayers often begin with one or more of them. Here are words reflecting the topography of the whole of human experience. Like the needy beggars we are, it is all right to pilfer the psalmist’s speech for ourselves. We pray, wishing to bring ourselves to God’s attention. “Please, God, listen to us, for apart from you we do not know who we are or where we are.” We want and need union with God if we are to be at home to ourselves, else, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “… man without God is a seed upon the wind: driven this way and that, and finding no place of lodgment and germination.” It is always in my mind that spiritual life at its best is not about ecstatic experience. It is, as someone has written, “… about showing up for prayer … about faithfulness to the routines.”

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is Minister of Visitation Emeritus at First Parish Church in Saco, and may be reached at:

[email protected]