Apple Pie in the Oven (Essay)
By Christine Houghton
Prayer. For many years, I cringed at the word. Sometimes, I still do. "Say your prayers" was a phrase I heard in lots of movies and television shows. My folks never encouraged us to pray before bed, but it was an obligation for some of my friends. And there was some intimidating prayer-talk at church. At some point in my middle school years, I convinced myself that if I didn't pray, things would go wrong. If I didn't give thanks to God and ask God for a few things, then I'd blow it. I was sure someone would die, and I'd be left forever wondering whether I was responsible because I hadn't prayed for them. Prayer became a "should."
As a first-year Master of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School, I am required to participate in a weekly Spiritual Formation group for two semesters. Every Wednesday morning, ten of us gather in a classroom and, under the guidance of a facilitator, work to deepen and articulate our spiritual experience. We eat together, pray together, and attempt to incorporate life-giving spiritual discipline into our academia-heavy schedules. Last week, one of my group members, Stephen, was reflecting upon his winter break. "I re-engaged with my prayer life, which was awesome," he said. "It was nice to be in touch with God again." I, too, felt I had some quality God-time over break, but shared with the group that for me, I connected with God not as much through reciting prayers as through practicing mindfulness. I maintained my morning meditation practice, worked to develop my writing discipline, and had ample time alone for some necessary introspection. My facilitator frowned, furrowed her brow, and asked, "How is that not prayer?! Any time spent with God is prayer." I tried to defend my position, to adequately explain that my definition of prayer was limited to two parts: a) thanking God, and b) asking for something from God. That mindfulness, for me, was more inclusive and accessible, offering space to be fully present in the moment. It had no rules. She wasn't convinced. "If someone asked you to pray before a meal," I began again, "and you started with, 'Gracious Lord, I smell the apple pie in the oven. I feel tightness beneath my right shoulder blade. My last inhale lasted 9 seconds,' people would be disappointed. They'd wonder why you weren't praying.'" The facilitator and I agreed to disagree, and moved on.
What I have begun to realize in the past few days, however, is that there is a connection between prayer and mindfulness- they're not mutually exclusive. When I pray- that is, when I lift up thanks to God, and recite people's names out loud so that God may hold them in the Light- I am brought more fully into the present. Prayer can illuminate a moment the way a camera lens can focus an object or scene, offering greater clarity and depth. And sometimes, the prayers that have been spoken millions of times before can bring an overwhelming sense of connection to the Divine.
This past weekend my husband Nate and I flew to New England to attend my grandmother's funeral. I sat down on a pew, clutching the program. I could feel my throat tighten in response to the words on the cover: Virginia Terhune Allen: March 15, 1926- January 9, 2012. And when I opened up the program and read the first line of the prayer on the inside cover, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want," I closed it immediately, suddenly overcome with emotion. The flood gates had opened, and the service hadn't even started. Nate must have noticed the messy combination of tears and sniffles dripping off my chin, and generously offered his handkerchief. I accepted his gift, then surrendered to God's presence, allowing my self to fully arrive.
It was the prayer that did it - Psalm 23. This was the prayer that was tacked to my grandmother's kitchen bulletin board forever. It was the prayer read in that very same church twelve years ago, at my grandfather's funeral, and the prayer that patients asked me to recite during my Chaplaincy internship at U. Penn hospital as they prepared for their own death. I was filled with sadness, gratitude, and a powerful sense of connection. I felt in relationship with everyone and everything: my self, the people that filled the pews, loved ones who have died, God. It all felt preciously and awesomely intertwined.
Perhaps prayer is not an obligation, but a gift: an opportunity to enter more fully into the now. Perhaps it does not have to have a beginning and an end, and is more than just thank you's and please's. Whether it is synonymous with mindfulness or not, prayer helps me to more fully experience God's presence in my life. For this, I am grateful.
Christine Houghton’s essay appeared in the Durham Friends Meeting NEWSLETTER, Second Month, 2012.