The Vocabulary of Prayer
“Check this out.”
Anytime his name pops up on my phone I have to smile. He is something akin to my baby brother in recovery. A human I have never encountered in “real life” but who I am bound to by our shared experience of surrender.
Scrolling down, I find a screen shot of another text conversation. He is being called a bad Christian because he cusses at times on social media. I have to pause for a moment, because despite the fact that I stay pretty abreast of his posts, I can’t recall a time I have heard him cuss. I push this aside to address the more pertinent issue – what our language says about our faith.
I tell him that I have come to believe that God cares a whole lot more about our actions than our vocabulary.
As I say this to him, I realize it is not something I have ever given much real thought to. While I try to keep to somewhat clean language, I can swear like a sailor under certain circumstances. And when I'm really honest, sometimes those circumstances find God in the direct line of fire for my more caustic verbage.
And, frankly, I think He likes it.
* * *
A few days later, I am sitting in a living room engaged in a discussion of God, our names for Him, and our relationships with Him. There is much discussion of the reverence required in prayer. Of our word choice. Of our body position. In times like these I always wonder if I would be better off keeping my mouth shut, and then just as quickly find myself blurting out the thing I know to be true. And in this case, the thing I know to be true is that God is not interested in any of that business.
“I think God wants us to be honest, and raw, and true in our prayers. And sometimes that isn’t pretty." I go on to confess that not only have I been known to cuss, but I’ve been known to cuss at God. In my prayers. Particularly in the last year.
I’m pretty sure even God understood that “what the fuck are you doing to my life,” was a fair prayer and an honest question in the thick of my 2016.
My confession as met with the expected shocked stares. The uncomfortable jitters. The awkward quiet. It’s not a popular opinion, I understand, but in my heart I know God much preferred the raw honestly of my painful crass questioning to another rote recitation of my childhood prayers.
* * *
I didn’t always feel this way. As a typical Yankee, I was raised within the walls of the Catholic church. On the first Friday of the month I would sit outside the confessional, knee socks falling around my loafers, and frantically count how many times I had said the “f-word” and the “s-word” before it was my turn to mumble the count to the priest through the iron partition. I worried constantly that my count would be off, and I would be on a direct path to hell as a result. Kneeling before the altar whispering my 10 Hail Marys and 15 Glory Bes, a pit in my stomach would reveal that I my numbers may have been off. I usually threw in a few extra rounds of prayers just in case.
A hot topic of conversation in my childhood home was what actually constituted a cuss word. The words in question were often “crap”, “shoot”, “damn”, and “hell”. My brother and I believed these were not cuss words and we should be permitted to use them. My mother did not agree. There is still a great debate over who underlined the word “ass” in the household dictionary.
So language has always been kind of a thing for me.
* * *
As I wove my way from Catholicism to Judaism through Catholicism again before landing in nondenominational Christianity, I developed something like two prayer lives. There was the one I felt I was required to have – that God demanded. On my knees, twice a day, book-ended with signs of the cross and the Lord’s Prayer. It was uncomfortable, awkward, forced, but necessary.
Then there was the other. The prayer life that consisted of conversations between God and I. My chatting out loud in the car or the kitchen. His responding through other humans or Instagram or Scripture. It was informal, unstructured, personal. It was mine.
After my surgery last year, the former fell away. Partially out of necessity – kneeling was no longer an option. Partially out of grief.
The second got even more personal as things continued to unravel. My prayers took the shape of screaming fits in the shower. Pounding walls. Begging. Cussing. Venom.
There was no reverence there.
Not an ounce.
* * *
“I am afraid I have forgotten how to pray,” I texted him one afternoon. I was legitimately afraid that I could no longer communicate with God in any kind of meaningful way. He reminded me that God already knows what is on our hearts. And that if I needed to say something, “Have mercy on me,” would suffice.
For someone who defined herself as spiritual, the apparent loss of my prayer life felt like a kick while I was down. But as with so many things, this removal of the familiar - the tossing out of my spiritual binky - was necessary, not only for my prayer practice to evolve, but for my relationship with God to expand. As I came to understand how well He already knew the longings of my heart, as I began to discover that no number of books against the wall, fists on the floor, or cuss words flung to the heavens would cause Him to abandon me, as I came to realize that He wants us to share not only our love for Him but the gravity of our pain with Him, we grew closer. My surrender sank deeper.
When I lost what I believed prayer was, I found who God really is.
* * *
There is something to be said for ritual. I love tradition and history. So much rich beauty lives there. But I know I can easily lose real connection in the depth of all the came before.
We need to keep these things alive - the liturgy and the prayers. The wisdom texts and the traditions. But we also need to remember that more important than all of these things - for all the beauty they contain - is our personal connection to the Divine. What He asks of us is not distanced reverence, but the fiery, passionate relationship that can only come from true intimacy. While He already knows the depths of our hearts and the longings of our souls, He asks us to share those things with Him - and through that process admit the full depth of those feelings to ourselves - through prayer that may look very different that what we are used to. Those prayers may happen outside the cathedral walls and under budding tree limbs. They may be invoked with delighted laughter rather than the sign of the cross. They may be long and drawn out and detail filled, rather than following the patterns we learned in our youths.
And they may even at times be peppered with cuss words. And that is okay.
In fact, God probably quite loves it.