Over thirty years ago, a priest friend, Jim Bacik, offered to be my spiritual director for a week-long retreat on prayer. I agreed to spend an hour or so daily in prayer, or at least something that seemed like prayer, and to meet with him every day to discuss what I was experiencing. He loaned me a book on prayer that he thought would give me some new ideas on the topic. I remember recounting to him in one of our daily meetings that I had done some reading from the book and had found it exciting, but when I returned to the book to use it during my designated prayer time, the inspiration I’d felt earlier seemed to have vanished like smoke. Jim laughed and said, “Kevin, the prayer happened the first time you read it when you felt your spirit moved by the material. Think of prayer not just as something you can do, but something you can notice when it happens in you.”
I thought of Jim’s wise counsel recently as I read Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. It’s so easy for me to get confused about what prayer is, to forget that it is simply, as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” Prayer is not in essence something removed from our ordinary existence that we need to remember to do in order to please a distant God or to allow ourselves to feel we’re being diligent about including spiritual activities in our lives. Prayer is most raw and real when it happens to us or flows spontaneously in us or from us. When we or people we know are overwhelmed or suffering, genuine prayer is as simple as “Help!” When we experience moments of grace or blessing, prayer is just “Thanks!” When something breaks through our habituated perception of our lives or the world and we feel awe in the presence of everyday amazements, prayer is a childlike “Wow!”
Here are expressions of Lamott’s three essential prayers by spiritual luminaries you may recognize:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” Thomas Merton (see full prayer here: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/80913-my-lord-god-i-have-no-idea-where-i-am)
“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ that will suffice.” Meister Eckhart
“Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple, to feel in the rush of the passing, the stillness of the eternal.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
So here is my prayer for all of us spiritual beings trying to be human: May we stay alert to notice prayer when it happens, especially in those moments in which we are moved to spontaneous expressions of help, thanks, or wow.