“Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.” Flannery O’Connor
I breathed a fresh, new breath the day I started praying the same thing as the people around me, the day I started praying the St. Mary’s school prayer.
I grew up Baptist, a fine denomination. Baptists do many things well, but one thing Baptists are not accustomed to, is praying prayers from a book. In fact, I have actually heard this practice slightly scorned (sometimes not so slightly) by some preachers over the years ~ “You don’t need a prayer book to tell you how to pray,” and “Just speak to God with your own voice and words, not someone else’s.”
I do pray and praise in my own voice and with my own words almost constantly as I go from here to there, even singing out loud in restaurants and elevators, unashamed, sometimes even unaware. But my prayer life shifted a bit when I came upon my school’s daily prayer.
For the better.
For one thing, I kneel. St. Mary’s has Chapel every day, and every day the students and faculty alike have the opportunity to kneel and say the St. Mary’s school prayer at the close of the service. My faith tradition doesn’t include this practice, so for me, kneeling was new, a fresh experience in humility each day, a reminder that I am small, one of many in the universe, not the center of it. There is Someone bigger, grand and glorious and righteous.
In unison and reverence, we kneel and say our prayer together, to Him.
How He must love this!
And yet my Baptist roots betray me a bit as I ponder a nagging question: What keeps a prayer (or a song or scripture) from growing stale, from becoming just rote practice that has little or no meaning? Mere prattle with no substance?
An important question with a surprisingly simple answer.
It’s not the prayer that grows stale ~ it’s the person. The prayer itself lives. The words live. It can become an act of spiritual discipline to consider a prayer with fresh and eager eyes and to say the words each day with anticipation and gratitude. It’s an act of worship to ponder the phrases as I say them, to slow down and quiet down, to picture the people I am lifting to God in prayer. This spiritual exercise brings to the prayer the unique concerns of each particular day.
In this way I never say the same prayer twice.
Jesus’ disciples understood the power of a learned prayer because that’s the very model that Christ Himself gave them.
“Pray like this,” He said.
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
Forever and ever.
If oral, memorized prayers were good for the disciples, then I suppose I should consider the spiritual discipline for myself. Many believers have been praying this way for millennia ~ I simply wasn’t one of them.
Until I encountered the St. Mary’s school prayer, which I have knelt and prayed every school day for the past sixteen years.
Almighty God, Fountain of all wisdom, Be with us, we pray Thee, in our work today,
I kneel and begin to pray with a stalwart declaration that God is Almighty and the source of all the wisdom there is. I ask Him to be with me, with all of us, as we work and move in the variety of our days and ways. None of us alike, all of us uniquely made by His loving hands for mighty purposes under Heaven, to do good work. Not alone, but together, corporate in our need of Him and our love of each other.
Endue all the teachers with a sense of their responsibility, And the grace and strength for its fulfillment.
That’s me. I am a teacher in this place, and in saying this prayer every day, I pray for myself and my colleagues that we will indeed be filled with the fullness of our responsibility to those in our care ~ our students. As children do with parents, our students study us all day every day, yearning, learning, watching to see how mature adults conduct themselves with integrity and honor.
From us they witness firsthand how important is it to make wise and slow decisions, to control our emotions, and to love deeply and fully. Why great Literature and Languages and Calculus and History really do matter.
We are the daily caretakers of pliable minds and young hearts.
The enormity of this task, this reality, can overwhelm. We need the grace and strength for its fulfillment.
It’s a good thing we pray for it every day.
Keep the students in health of mind and soul and body, Make them diligent in their study. Guard their inexperience and save them from all temptations.
What we pray for here is most, most important. Who needs this prayer today, God? Who most needs health this day? And a measure of more diligence in her studies? They are young and inexperienced, and the temptations of the day are great. Save them, guard them, God!
Today as I kneel, I look around me and pray for those nearest me ~ Martha, Isabelle, Maddie, Haley, Hallie, Miles, Katherine, Caroline ~ God, guard their inexperience and save them from all temptations.
Bless the patrons and alumnae of this school.
Certainly memory is one of the most lovely of God’s gifts. When I pray for the patrons and alumnae of my school, I stop, and I remember.
I remember how Mrs. Lacy mentored me and taught me how to teach Dostoevsky. Her legacy lives each time I open the pages of The Brothers Karamazov and each time a student says, “That’s the most phenomenal book I have ever read. I cried when I finished reading it.”
God, bless Mrs. Lacy, a patron of this school, this day.
I remember Ashley’s magnificent alumna speech and how she reminded us that the most important thing is to be a blessing to others all the days of our lives. “L’chi lach.”
God, bless Ashley, an alumna of this school, this day.
I remember the time the girls voted and voted and voted all Spring Break long, alums and current students alike, just to win the regional contest for USA Today’s “Most Unique Mascot” – Go Turkeys! – and when we won, how the entire school broke into a spontaneous joy-parade down Perkins Road in glorious celebration, students Instagraming and alums Skyping in from around the world to join in the jubilation.
God bless the sense of unity of both the old and young of us, this day.
I remember decades of girls at graduation, a day of departure, my loved ones leaving. My own daughter and her friends, my students, sixty daughters walking down the aisle on graduation day, bedecked in a white gowns and bouquets of spring-pink roses, ready for the world.
God bless all the precious girls who have passed through these hallowed halls, this day.
Moses’ successor Joshua told the wandering Israelites to pick up stones to bring along with them on their journey to the Promised Land to remind them all of His great work in parting the sea so that they could escape Pharoah’s mighty killing-hands. So they did. They carried with them stones of remembrance, so that they would never forget.
So this is what I do when I pause and kneel and ask God to “Bless the patrons and alumnae of this school.” This simple, sweet line is my stone of remembrance. I pray, I look back, and I remember.
And enable us all, more and more each day, To advance in that knowledge which is eternal life, Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I pray, we pray, for the advancement of the knowledge of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. People grow in faith like they grow in body ~ little by little, day by day. So each day, I pray that I will grow a bit more in my faith, adding a bit to it rather than losing a bit. More movement toward hope than toward despair. Each day.
In her book A Prayer Journal, Flannery O’Connor prays that her “traditional prayers” will not grow stale. Growing up in the Catholic faith, she admits to saying prayers “but not meaning them.” Isn’t that true of us all, whether we pray learned prayers or not?
I so often say words toward God, but not to Him.
Miss O’Connor and I have had opposite experiences that brought us to the same end ~ she prayed traditional prayers that grew stale, and she was looking for new words and new life in her conversations with God. I never prayed traditional prayers, but now that I do sometimes, I’m finding divine sparks of life in the fresh words. We both wanted the same thing ~ to “get down under things and find where [He is].”
I have found a bit more of Him by praying the St. Mary’s school prayer with my community.
I miss it in the summers.
Here is a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, the red book that contains almost all of those learned prayers at my school.
Consider this an offering, a gift for a new year.
If you know this prayer, try praying it actively, slowly, with fresh eyes and thoughts. If it is new to you, as it is to me, then ponder these words as you say them.
I will try to pray this prayer this year with the anticipation and hope that it will actually be answered.
For the Human Family
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.