Learning to Pray

Learning to Pray June 29, 2015

Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. —Abba Moses

The way up and the way down are one and the same. —Heraclitus


Trinity IconIt is six o’clock in the morning. I am on an overnight business trip to New York, alone in my hotel room. Weak streams of dawn light leak around the edges of the blackout shades on the window of my room in the Club Quarters Midtown. For the moment, I have silenced the frenetic squawking of local traffic and crime updates on New York One, because I am about to pray, and I am trying to figure out which way is East.

Part of me feels completely ridiculous, but I have committed to this, and though I have brought nary an icon with me, I stand in the middle of the hotel room floor and pray in the direction that seems to be towards Jerusalem: I cross myself and touch my fingertips to the floor, then pray the Trisagion prayers—the most rock-bottom-basic prayer in the Eastern Orthodox prayer book, called such, as the Internet notes, for its “triple invocation of God as holy”:

Glory to Thee, our God, Glory to Thee.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us. (3 times)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.
Lord, have mercy. (3 times)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Even in prayer, the lay critic in me bubbles up: All those thrice-repeated phrases, how can they not be a subtle Trinitarian dig at the overwhelmingly singular focus of the Shema, the foundational Jewish prayer from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…” But of course, I remember, we still believe that one too.

I intone the words out loud—out loud, so I can be sure that I have actually said them—rather than having only intended to do so, or just thinking of myself as being “a good person, the kind of person who prays every day.”

I do not want to be a good person. I want to be a holy person. Or rather, I want to be an individual who reflects God. To become this feels like it ought to be the spiritual equivalent of Pete Townshend destroying a guitar onstage—which my brother actually saw happen, in a concert at the Mississippi Coliseum in 1969. But it’s actually the opposite: The conscious commitment it takes to burst into flame is hard but exhilarating, like marriage. Far easier instead—and more fun, for this worldly woman—is to fight about theology with others.

Yet I am holding the faith and, just as husbands and wives begin to look more and more like one another day by day, I am being transformed.

It sure doesn’t feel like that now: Instead, I am conscious of the space of the little room surrounding me as I stand there in my nightgown: “I placed a jar in Tennessee / And round it was, upon a hill,” wrote that religious secularist, Wallace Stevens.

But even as I teeter back and forth into distraction, it’s hard for my emotions not to rise to a crescendo at the culmination of the Trisagion Prayers, into the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

For a second, the prayer and I are one and the same.

And then into Rejoice, O Virgin, the Orthodox version of the Hail Mary, said thrice again, and at last, the Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret:

O Lord, grant that I may meet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely upon Your Holy Will.
In every hour of the day, reveal Your will to me.
Bless my dealings with all who surround me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all.
In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.
In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.
Direct my will.
Teach me to pray.
Pray Yourself in me.

I fail at everything this prayer talks about so, so badly that it is actually kind of funny. And I worry that to even bring up the idea of a prayer rule smacks of the Internet phenomenon of “humblebragging”—a subtle way to call out notice for my own spiritual labors.

But, iron sharpens iron. How are we supposed to learn to pray if talking about prayer seems more embarrassing and intimate than talking about sex?

And certainly, prayer can be so: One time at work, I accidentally walked into what I thought was an open, dark conference room to see a Muslim colleague performing her Salat at the appointed time, kneeling on the floor, her forehead touching the industrial carpet.

It is a gesture of prayer that Eastern Christians also embrace.

I later apologized to her profusely. But I said something else: Seeing you pray has freed me to pray more.

And so I do.


A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

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