Have you ever occasionally wondered if prayer wasn’t just a big frigging waste of time? Donna Schaper hears you and she is no religious skeptic. She is, in fact, the senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.
Schaper tends to a diverse flock in Greenwich Village that includes undocumented migrants and members of the LGBT community, as well as what she calls “doubters.” She has written several books on religion and spirituality and one that recently caught my eye is titled Prayers for People Who Say They Can’t Pray.
While we all may sometimes question the value of prayer, Schaper says that for most of us, prayer satisfies a deep yearning that comes from within our souls. She believes prayer can provide us with “a pause that refreshes, a clarity that battles confusion, a peace that passes immediate understanding.”
In her words, “prayer is awareness that there is more to life than itself,” and serves as a conduit to the great unknown force of life that, like me, you may call God. Shaper tell us that prayer takes us out of our thinking minds. She instructs us that:
When prayer is genuine, we pray from our guts and not just from our heads. Our heads don’t go away. Instead, our hearts and heads join them. Sometimes our heart has a wisdom that our head does not.
Schaper believes we are way too busy with our jobs and to-do lists and need to devote more time to addressing our “inner space.” Prayer is a way to do that. She advises us that “we might instead pray our way awake or pray our way to sleep.”
She is aware that many of us “are tentative about God,” hence prayers for people who “maybe” believe. She views these prayers as “momentary stays against confusion, as poems, as pictures of what we might say if we were to speak our heart’s deepest longings, and if we were to find a way to trust the universe and its partnership with you and me.”
The prayers that Schaper has written are simple, disarming and unorthodox. They are unlike prayers that I, and probably you, have ever said. They beseech and question God, they bring to light our own personal imperfections, they make small asks, requesting tiny mercies in ourselves and the way we view the world.
Below are some of my favorites, a few have been edited for length. I think you’ll find that they change the way you view the meaning of prayer.
11 Prayers for People Who Maybe Believe
- When I go to sleep at night, let me name those I love and say thank you to them again for being alive. Let my goings out and comings in have a bit of pizzazz, O God. Let my stopping and starting aim somewhere. And keep chaos at bay. Amen.
- Thoreau wanted to live deliberately that way that I want to be fully awake. Deliberately awake. That is my goal. Is it all right if I meet that goal slightly, every few days? Or is something more complete demanded of me? Amen.
- Let me remember those I love, by name, even if they are far away or no longer close in spirit. Let me not just act but also reflect my way to action. Let me ritualize my rising and begin my days my own way. And when I am slowly ready and slowly awake and genuinely ritualized, let me rise. Amen.
- Tranquility, what the heck is that? I have a feeling someone somewhere knows what it is. I’d love to find out. Can you teach me, O God, or must I be my own teacher? Amen.
- William Butler Yeats argued that we can “live with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” Grant me ferocity, clarity, and quiet. Amen.
- Help me to pray for all the towns and cities in which I have lived. Let me start with the first one, where I was born, and enjoy it street by street. Let this be a long project and a long prayer. Don’t rush my prayer. Amen.
- When I ask for transformation from monkey mind, one that jumps from tree to tree and subject to subject, I am asking for a discipline, not from the outside, but from the inside. Let me be a person who can focus on one thing at a time and is in charge of myself. Amen.
- Send me a wake-up call about my mortality. Let it ring every day at 6 or 7 or 8 so that when I go to sleep at 10 or 11 or 12 I am aware that I too will pass. Amen.
- When I am afraid that I can’t “get it all done,” remind me that I never will. Let me rejoice in the great unfinishedness and remember that there is nothing to be frightened of. Amen.
- From haste and its waste, rescue me, O God. Slow me down long enough to enjoy my time, here, now. Make me ask the question of where it is I think I am going in such a big hurry. Amen.
- Let little things mean a lot today, O God. Coffee breaks, convenient parking spaces, exact change: let each permit me an ounce of joy and gratitude. Keep me so happy about the things I enjoy that I don’t have time to worry about what is missing. Amen.