Prayer has never come easy for me. As a child, I learned the rote prayer of Roman Catholicism. During this period, I had the belief that all you had to do was say these words–the same words that millions of others have uttered through the years–and God would hear you, be pleased by your devotion, and grant you your desires. That was what prayer was to me: rubbing the genie’s lamp. It didn’t matter that I personally attributed no meaning to the words–in fact, I never once thought about what I was saying–what mattered most was the act of saying them.
When I grew to adolescence, my parents granted permission for me to work as a barista at a Christian coffeehouse in my hometown. This was where I first witnessed people casually talking to God. I saw patrons thanking Jesus for everything from waking up to helping them unjam a stapler before they’d deign to have a sip of their latte. (I actually went on a date with one of these people–a nice young chap studying to become a Youth Pastor at the nearby university. He prayed for so long before our meal, I had to have the waiter re-heat my plate.)
I didn’t really know what to do with this sort of prayer. On the one hand, I envied them for appearing to have a close, personal relationship with God. On the other, most of them were acting foolishly. After a few months, I developed the impression that this sort of prayer acted more like a public performance. The pray-er would show off in front of their immediate peer group, gain an internal sense of adulation from their perception that their peers found this prayer sincere and skillful, and then somehow convince themselves that these pleasant feelings were God’s pleasure. By this time, I knew that my own prayers were really just an exercise in performance, but at least I kept that performance private.
I stopped trying to pray not long after that. At the time, I figured that since that the Gods are omniscient they know when I’m grateful and when I’m not. They know what I want and whether or not those desires are good for me. Why bother stating them, especially when spontaneous prayer makes me feel like I’m putting on a show…like Pennsatucky in Orange is the New Black.
But lately, I’ve been feeling, well, a calling to learn how to pray and to figure out how prayer is different from energy work, spells, and celebrating our rituals. At this point, I know myself well enough to know that the best way for me to learn something like this is to just try it, experience it, and tweak those experiences until I learn something. So I’ve been praying. Out loud. Spontaneously.
Over the past few months, I’ve developed a habit of driving to work, parking, and then–in the only place where I have complete privacy–spending a few minutes stating some of the things I’m grateful for. Sometimes it’s so mundane I surprise myself; for example, last week I mentioned I was grateful for the opportunity to eat a real breakfast that morning. Generally, though, I find myself expressing gratitude for things I would generally take for granted. It’s a little like how when you’re recovering from a cold, you’re so damn grateful for the ability to breathe again you could sing it from the rooftops, but a week later that ease is normal. You don’t think about your breath anymore until the next cold takes it away again. Taking this moment of prayer is a bit like reminding yourself how glad you are to breathe normally without having to stock up on tissues.
It’s been hard for me to launch into gratitude, though, so I’ve taken to starting my prayers with a piece of rote material: the Dryghtyn Prayer. Patricia Crowther first published it in her 1974 book, Blood Witch (pages 39-40), and Sabina Magliocco more recently included it in her 2004 scholarly study Witching Culture (page 28). I like it because it reflects how I myself feel about divinity: underneath it all, there is force beyond all our knowing that has subsequently divided itself into our deities and other energies. My own adaptation of the prayer is as follows:
There’s something about the pacing of this prayer that works for me. Somewhere around the five qualities of the Dryghtyn, I find my mind growing calm, peaceful, and linked into a prayerful place. By the time I get there, the more spontaneous stuff flows a lot more readily, and with a lot more sincerity and truth than I would be capable of otherwise. Lately, I find that after I’ve expressed some gratitude, I do ask the Gods for their assistance in smaller things: the strength to make it through another shift, help remembering to call my mother, etc. A valued former Christian co-worker of mine would have called this “touching base.”
Through these continued moments of touching base, I think I’ve come to see the difference between prayer, meditation, and spellwork a little better. In meditation, we still our minds to feel our energies mingling with those around us, and we can gain focus, clear our chakras, ground and center and otherwise adjust those energies to make our daily experience a little better. In spellwork, we manipulate those energies with a bit more purpose–we stack the deck in our favor, as it were, by priming the flow of energy to stay a course we carefully direct. Prayer? So far, I think it’s just about noting how we are loved and how we love in turn.
And you know what? It’s hard to turn away from the power of love.