We took a (social-distanced) end-of-summer getaway the other week. After adventuring in the mountains, we hiked into a tourist-trap downtown and discovered a dilapidated penny arcade. Somewhere among the shoot-em-up games and hydraulic horsey rides stood one of those hand crank penny-smashers. Slot in two quarters and a penny, choose your image, and some clever gear work and rollers transform Abe Lincoln’s noble profile into an oblong sliver of copper with a fresh haut-relief impressed on its face. I could mark our trip: Pikes Peak! Visit Colorado! Or, surprisingly enough I could choose to smash my penny and have it impressed with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
What are the prayers that through pressure and repetition have been impressed onto your life, engraved on your heart like the highways to Zion (Psalm 84:5)? We might tend to think of prayer as going out, maybe even up, rising before God. But really whatever prayers loft from our lips or go skittering across our silent minds also drop down into our souls. We send them heavenward, but it’s spiritual Newtonian physics, an equal and opposite reaction. Our prayers push off our soul before they wobble toward the throne. They leave an impression.
Which is one of the reasons why what we pray matters. Prayer expresses our most intimate longings and fears. Are we always asking and never yielding? After a season of fervent prayer about something deeply important to me, I found myself asking the question: Am I willing to let this play out other than the way I have imagined? Am I willing to trust God to be all loving and all good in this situation?
So too, the language we use for God shapes how we think about God. When Jesus’ disciples requested that he teach them to pray, he had plenty of names for God to choose from (Luke 11:1). Jesus could have fished “The Almighty” or “The Rock” or “My Deliverer” from the Old Testament trove (Genesis 49:24-25; Psalm 144:2). Instead, he chose “Our Father.” Whatever other fitting titles we use to address God, before all else God is Father, a name laced with love and pointing to trust and relationship.
What are the prayers that have been impressed upon your soul? The Our Father is my constant companion. But I also find myself praying the ancient Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It fits the rhythm of my walking. Sometimes I just pray the name “Jesus.” Or “Mercy.” Or, lately: “Grace, grace, grace.”
“Perfect prayer,” said St. Antony long ago in the deserts of Egypt, “Is not to know that you are praying.” Through the spare and insistent pressure of repetition, the words of our lips become the engravings of our hearts. Maybe those are the perfect prayers, the ones Brailled on our soul from long use, the ones that will be worn and present when even speech fails.