I learned to pray by bowing my head and folding my hands together. As I’ve aged, however, I’ve learned everything is a prayer. Or, at least, everything can be prayer.
Everything. As in savoring the first sip of coffee in the morning, grounds and all. Digging through the crisper drawer, combining ingredients to prepare supper. Having a run-of-the-mill telephone conversation with my mother. Admiring my husband’s wild hair while making love.
Not the words going through my mind as I perform these acts, but the acts themselves.
These messy bits of my days are prayers just as much as The Lord’s Prayer, neat and formal. I am interacting with a supreme being who I believe is all around us by tasting sweetness, smelling muskiness, seeing beauty, feeling roughness, hearing whispers.
The prayers are not in the words but in the intention.
One is asked to set an intention during yoga practice. Usually during the first few minutes of settling one’s mind and focusing on one’s breath, a yogi sets an intention such as “I am strong” or “Be present” or “Let go.” A faithful person can do this during any activity.
During my morning walks, for example, I like to look around and appreciate the sky and the breeze and think, “God is all around me.” Of course, it’s easier to conjure up this intention when I’m surrounded by the beauty of creation, harder when I’m doing laundry.
I am reminded of what Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about washing dishes in Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water and each movement of my hands.”
This is how one washes dishes with intention: with awareness and in some sense, gratitude.
For me, this is easy in activities I enjoy. I enjoy the process of making dinner with whatever ingredients present themselves in my refrigerator search. I enjoy nourishing my husband with flavor and fiber. I enjoy eating.
But if everything is prayer, then so are the less enjoyable things. For Thich Nhat Hanh, maybe that’s doing dishes.
For me, that’s nursing.
I struggle to cultivate compassion for messy, awkward acts performed for frustrated, surly patients (and who among us is upbeat and pleasant when we’re bleeding or in pain?). Objectively, I can see how serving the sick can be prayerful and satisfying. But when I’m in the trenches, I’m just appalled and trying to escape the scene as quickly as possible. Usually with unsavory language.
Thus, my petition might be: may I be more compassionate (actually, it is one of my New Year’s resolutions). When I remind myself of this aspiration, it helps me to see the divine in the people to whom I’m listening, it helps me to be patient when someone repeats a story, it helps me try to be empathetic. That is how the very act of encountering someone, friend or stranger, can be a prayer.
A word of warning: I am careful when asking God for character improvements. He doesn’t answer by snapping his metaphorical fingers and making me more compassionate. He answers by giving me opportunities to cultivate compassion. I learned this lesson the hard way once when I asked for patience. God answered in the affirmative but it took me a while to be grateful for the opportunities he gave me to be patient.
Even so, I’m old enough now to appreciate better character than a bigger bank account or whatever I might have asked of God in the past.
So I shall begin by seeing the opportunities for prayer in every joy and every chore:
- Scrolling Facebook? It’s easy to pause and send healing or love or encouragement into the ether.
- Balancing the checkbook? Gratitude, baby, no matter the bottom line.
- Dusting? Think about the objects and the origin of the dust. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. I am the dust.
- Writing a blog post? I’m channeling divine creativity.
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