Prayer Without Words
In Tolstoy’s short story Alyosha: the Pot, we learn of Alyosha a poor, uneducated young boy who takes the place of his older brother as servant to a large wealthy family. He does this on his father’s demand so that he can help raise money to support his family. Tolstoy describes Alyosha as someone who does whatever he is asked without ever questioning why, and does it to the best of his ability. He runs here, he runs there, answering everyone’s bidding and never thinks twice about himself (even to the extent that he losses the only true love he ever experienced). This story is very much about his deep desire to please others even to his own detriment.
And then in the middle of the story, as Alyosha is running back and forth at the cruel demands of the merchant he works for, Tolstoy says this - seemingly out of he writes this:
Alyosha did not know any prayer and had forgotten what his mother had taught him. But he prayed just the same every morning and every evening, he prayed with his hands crossing himself (Tolstoy).
Alyosha’s prayer is completely silent – there are no words – but it’s not without content. I don’t think that Tolstoy mentions this prayer to somehow ridicule his simple ignorance, but to hold up Alyosha’s faith, that even though he had no words, or could not get the words right, he went through the movements of prayer anyway.
Baseline Spiritual Practices
Recently, I’ve often felt I had no words to offer in prayer. I’ve struggled to know what to say or ask for. I’ve struggled even with the energy and focus to just string together something simple. This got me thinking about Alyosha again, and the importance of default movements and baseline practices that connect us spiritually, even in times when we cannot ourselves pray.
Do you have something like Alyosha’s prayer: a baseline spiritual practice? A default practice that you can do when everything else fails?
Prayer When All Else Fails
There is the impression that Quakers don’t like things that are rout or ritual, but honestly, I think we need some rituals in our lives that we can rely on even when we don’t feel like it. A ritual like this can make for a perfect baseline spiritual practices. When I am exhausted, worn out spiritually and emotionally, I need something that I can do without thinking. Something that can help me hold on. Something that reminds me that I am a beloved child of God and that when all else fails this remains true.
For me, that baseline practice is the Lord’s Prayer found right smack dab in the middle of the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 6:9-15:
9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
I have found solace in this prayer since I was a child. As someone who went to Catholic Mass and Parochial schools growing up, I learned it young. I remember holding the hands of classmates, friends, and family members reciting this together. As a young Christian in high school, I learned about the Lord’s prayer as something that could be seen thematically - adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, etc. Later as a seminary student, I studied it more critically and learned the subversive message and practice behind these words of Jesus. I learned that these words were not meant thematically but literally as a prayer of resistance: pray them, live them, and embody them - they will lead you into resistance to empire.
- You don’t say “hallowed be God’s name” while worshipping empire,
- You don’t pray for God’s kingdom while building your own
- You don’t pray for daily bread while you’re hoarding it from others
- You don’t ask that your debts are forgiven while you tax the poor and forgive the debts of the wealthy.
- If we were to walk this prayer and let it shape our ethics, we would know how prayer itself is a tool for resistance to empire.
As Daniel Berrigan, SJ said about prayer:
And then there is the question of prayer, which consists for the most part in insisting that God do for us what we are unwilling to do for one another. Resolve: Let’s do for one another what we would have God do for all. This is known as God-like activity.
Jesus not only meant for his followers to actually pray this prayer, but it is meant to be a kind of summary of the Sermon on the Mount. “If you forget the rest of what I said to you, remembering these words will get you there!” As a Quaker, I continue to ask God what these words have to say to me and how they can shape my life choices. When all else fails me, when I have no words, and my chest is tight from anxiety, when the floor gives out below me, my body -like Alyosha’s - knows the words to say that brings comfort and guides my footsteps even in the darkest of times.
Our father in heaven, may your name be sanctified
Your kingdom come, your will be done
On Earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day the bread we need
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
And lead us not into the time of trial but deliver us from evil
For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever. Amen. (My translation)
How about for you?