When I wrote Lenten Chocolate about a month ago, I said that my Lenten practice this year would be to spend time re-reading books that have nurtured my spirit in the past and others that might inspire me, and help me to find God in the material of my own life. I chose a couple of novels, but they didn’t make the grade, so they went back to the library. A couple more went into my op shop box for the same reason. That leaves me slowly getting through The Good People by Hannah Kent – beautifully written but challenging in more ways than one.
My re-read is the Thomas Merton book, New Seeds of Contemplation. I wanted his words to drift into my prayer. Reading Thomas Merton is like eating chocolate mud cake – best in small pieces. He makes me think-and sometimes squirm-as I recognise the places and times when I haven’t measured up to be the person God has dreamed for me. This time, for some reason, Thomas annoyed me. I’m aware of his being a man of his times (he died in 1968), and he uses language that is religiously structured and sprinkled with he and men – never she. Definitely not woman-friendly, but I wondered why it hadn’t bothered me in the past.
I like to image women’s approach to spirituality and prayer as being like supermarket shopping., While men proceed at speed up and down the aisle armed with a list, women saunter, up and down and back and around with a list in hand and the rest in their head, with space left for impulse buys and specials.
Women approach their God relationship much the same way. Men’s prayer and the way they talk about God-things tends to be direct and focused, quite formal, I’m tempted to say ‘man-to-man’. Women instinctively integrate the restrictions and complexities, the ups and down and roundabouts of their lives, into their prayer.
I learnt to pray in primary school, mostly in words that I was required to learn ‘by heart’ – only they didn’t touch my heart. My years in religious life were supported by a formal prayer structure and nurtured by books about prayer – mainly written by males. I learnt that personal prayer was like a ladder, and as I got older and more experienced spiritually, as I climbed it rung by rung, I would reach God right up there at the top. Praying was hard work.
Then I left religious life and with it the structured prayer that had bookended my days. As the years have rolled on with their experiences, memories and turning points, the way I pray seems to change, just as my hair colour and styling does. But the stuff of my life was, and still is, the stuff of my prayer. Sometimes it is exciting and God feels very close, but mostly it’s as ordinary as the ever-changing clutter on my kitchen bench.
I see prayer as relationship with God. It can be wordy, and it’s also something like my two year old grandson, home after a long day at child care, patting the sofa he was sitting on and telling Tim, his dad, “Sit here” – just wanting the closeness with his father for a little while.
There’s no right or wrong way to pray, there’s just lots of ways. Occasionally I need to remind myself that God is not timing my prayer. I might spend an hour sitting in the sun or strolling through a park, just being, letting God look after the concerns of life for me, and other days it’s a minute or two before sleep intervenes. Prayer is like the everyday love that backs the relationship we have with those we love- 24/7, even when it’s not conscious.
So I’m back to wrestling with Thomas Merton’s choice of words as part of my prayer. If this is my Lenten chocolate, then it’s the 70 percent variety – a little bitter.