Ever since becoming a Christian, I've worried about praying. Should I pray to God the Father or to Jesus or, although I'd never heard anyone do so, to the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would advocate for and comfort us in his absence? Should I favor obviously holy topics—gratitude, praise, others' salvation—over my daily worries and complaints? Most importantly, how, precisely, does one go about conversing with someone not physically present?
Expert advice on prayer abounds. At the Christian university where I teach, chapel speakers promote everything from praying directly from Scripture to "just being quiet and listening." Orthodox speakers recommend the "Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, a sinner." Other speakers remark that prayer is simply a conversation with God, and I think, Simply?! Just a regular old conversation with someone I can't see, hear, or touch and whose voice is so tricky to sort from others', especially my own hopes and fears? If only I could feel as secure about my chats with the Deity!
My measly prayers typically amount to little more than internal gasps of "Help!" in a crisis or middle-of-the-night anxieties I call "pray-worrying." Occasionally, I add a perfunctory—and usually long overdue—remembrance of someone else's problems. Or let out a "Wow!" in recognition of some dazzling evidence of God's creativity. But I may go whole days without conversing with God at all.
I'm especially ungifted in the area of public prayer. I covet others' ability not only to remember long lists of others' needs but to reformulate them into communiqu?s that don't sound, as mine do, wacky or false. Most public petitions sound as premeditated as sermons, probably because, unlike me, my fellow believers don't have to be reminded to pray those petitions in the first place. They've been praying them for weeks.
Whether praying publicly or privately, I seem incapable of praying for very long. If I keep it up past a minute or two, I get distracted. In bed, I fall asleep. At church, I find myself spying at the bowed heads around me, trying to remember if I turned off my daughters' hair straightener, making judgments on the choir's new robes, dreaming. Although I'd like to follow the apostle Paul's advice to pray continually, I can't do it.
Once, on a plane trip, I sat next to an elderly woman wearing a funny little diaphanous bonnet over the back of her head. When I asked about it, she called it a "prayer hat" and said that the Bible says to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and for women to cover their heads while praying. So, she told me, Bible-believing women should always wear hats. She was a sweet, earnest woman, and I wondered if, somewhere beneath our conversation, she was praying for me even then. I hoped so. Later I found out she was. We'd exchanged addresses, and she sent me a few letters over the next years saying she was still praying for me. I wish I could pray as she did: for a stranger, years after a chance meeting, continually, and with childlike confidence and trust in even the oddest scraps of Scripture.