Salvaging Prayer

Originally written for Salvage Garden

I lean my head back, close my eyes, and breathe, and then as the novelty of sitting still wears off, I try to turn my attention to God and I try to pray. But more often than not I find myself wondering: “What am I doing?! Do I really think someone is listening to the thoughts in my head?” Not to mention that it seems so often my deepest, most desperate prayers are met with disturbing silence.

I have never been very good at trying to have a conversation with God. I tried all kinds of things to feel closer to God. I would pray out loud, pray on my knees, pray daily, pray to myself, pray with others… I would imagine God sitting next to me, imagine sitting in God’s lap, imagine God beckoning me to take one step more as I grew weary… I tried a lot. I was desperate to feel connected to God, to not be alone. But my efforts to talk to God never seemed to amount to much and eventually I found the act of prayer as I knew it to be more discouraging than helpful – especially with people around me talking about “words they received from God.” Why was I sitting over here wordless? Why wasn’t God talking to me? Was I doing something wrong?1_500

It wasn’t until a particularly emotional day that I was able to salvage prayer. I had reached the end of my day and I simply didn’t know how to put my feelings into words anymore. But I was crying and angry and I needed to do something…anything! Anything but prayer – God did not seem like something I needed. So I went to the other thing I knew – which was art. I had taken art classes in undergrad and I knew the practice could calm me. So I grabbed three bottles of random paint that I happened to have and an old canvas. I didn’t have brushes but I didn’t care. With tears rolling down my face, I squirted paint on the the canvas and used my hands to spread the paint. The tears mixed with the paint as I continued to seek comfort through this form of self expression.

At first there was no intention to it, I just needed to express myself, but then I started seeing things in the paint, and as I calmed down I started to make the things that I saw more defined. It didn’t look like anything when I was done, but I didn’t care, I hung it on a spare nail in my room to dry. Normally I threw my painted canvases in the corner, not wanting anyone to see them, but this canvas was different – I wanted to see it. I found comfort in having the image near me. It not only held my emotions but honored them – my emotions were separated from me but they weren’t forgotten. I had handed them over to the canvas. They were given to something greater than me, something that could hold my pain – something divine.

When I paint I feel connected with something bigger than myself, something mysterious, undefinable, but real. Sometimes I imagine this force guiding my hand as I paint, knowing what it is I need to express. Sometimes I imagine the images as an embodiment of trust that I am handing over to the canvas to take care of – to the divine creator to hold for me.

There is something about painting  that opens wide that door to the divine, that makes me come alive. Isn’t this what prayer should do? Shouldn’t prayer hold our tears, give life, open us up to truth and vulnerability? And shouldn’t it be different for everyone? I can no more tell a person how to pray than I can tell you what your career should be. I can offer suggestions, recommendations, or point out things I have noticed – but ultimately how anyone chooses to  connect with the divine is a personal, intimate choice, one between that person and God.

When I hear people talk about their passions, or things that provide comfort, rest or life, I think to myself, “that is your prayer…that is your source of life and energy, that is where you commune with the divine – where you experience God’s touch. That is your prayer language.” I once heard someone talk about organizing as what gives her life – she described it as her “artwork” – which I translated for myself as her prayer – as her connection to life and to the divine.

The divine is not as far as we might think. Where is the life and energy? Where is the calm or peaceful silence? Perhaps wherever that is, is where God is resting – beckoning you to the things that will fill you with life, passion and divine connection. Prayer then, is the process of not only discovering more about the mysterious divine, but it is also a process of answering the divine beckoning of God and finding a source of life.

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