Saturday, February 21, 2009

A New Insight into My Struggle with Formal Prayers

Last Saturday, I wrote about My Struggle with Formal Prayers. I have been thinking about that topic ever since, and I have come to another realization as to why kneeling and vocalizing an individual, personal prayer is so hard for me.

First, some of the paradox behind the struggle:

I have no inhibitions whatsoever with public speaking or one-on-one conversation. I have performed in public since the days of my earliest memories. I sang a public solo for the first time when I was six years old (I think; it might have been eight, but I believe it was pre-baptism.) - "I Hope They Call Me on a Mission" in Sacrament Meeting for a cousin's missionary farewell. I gave my first public speech in First Grade, when I received an award for reading a ridiculous number of books during a contest. I sang in solo competitions and vocal groups from 4th - 12th Grade; I've played piano solos and accompanied others hundreds of times; I played the saxophone for eight years in school; I was the Drum Major of our High School Marching Band. I was a school teacher. More recently, I've been in Sales and Marketing for nearly twelve years. I don't remember EVER being nervous or shy about speaking or performing in front of people. A shrinking violet I am not.

I also am not shy about expressing my thoughts and feelings - as anyone who knows me in the Bloggernacle can attest. When it comes to group participation, I am more likely to be highly visible and audible than quiet and invisible. Communication skills and inclination are not a problem for me.

As I considered all of that this week, I was left to ask:

Why then do I struggle so much with formal prayer? Other than what I articulated last Saturday (the fact that I really do carry a constant prayer in my mind and heart), is there some other personal characteristic that "gets in the way" of kneeling and vocalizing prayer?

It hit me just a couple of days ago that I simply am not a very "formal" person. I am totally comfortable interacting in formal situations, but, for me, doing so is an artificial way to concede to the need to "play the formal game". In a past job, I walked the corridors of the Ohio Statehouse and talked about million dollar funding projects with executive directors of major philanthropies, but my actions in those discussions were "artificially" formal for me. I would have been much more "at home" and "natural" in jeans and a t-shirt, sitting outside on the grass and just having a heart-to-heart chat. I've conducted formal interviews for years, but I'd rather sit and rap with someone than grill them in a formal manner.

Also, I am a natural tease, and I tend to take lots of things less seriously than many others. For example, I'm not sure the member of the Stake Presidency who heard my talk on charity last Sunday expected the quote from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" ("Be excellent to each other." - at least I didn't include what followed: "Party on, dudes!") or the description of listening to someone learn to play the bagpipes as similar to hearing someone kill a cat - in context of being charitable as people learn to play their souls (although I did mention in the talk that I probably shouldn't say "kill a cat" in Sacrament Meeting). I'm a country boy at heart, and the sociality that exists in a small town tends to be a bit less formal than at a country club or in a middle-upper class suburb.

I've known all of that about myself for a long time, but it never really registered in the context of formal prayer. Simply opening up my mind and heart and talking with God works for me. I've had some incredible spiritual experiences in my life, but I'm having a hard time thinking of one that occurred during a formal, vocal, personal prayer. (Priesthood blessings are a different story, but I'm distinguishing them as "ritual prayer" from "personal prayer".)

What struck me is that the most powerful experiences I have had in my life that are associated with prayer have come when I was being most "true" to myself - when I wasn't engaged in an activity that was "foreign" or "unnatural" to me, but rather when I was doing what I do best. Those experiences all have come either when I simply was chatting with God (talking with him informally in my head and/or heart) or when I was involved in a ritual of some kind - like a Priesthood blessing or an ordinance.

This insight has been a revelation to me, and I am contemplating the implications. At the very least, it has reinforced the need to be careful of requiring all God's children to speak with him in the exact same way - of over-simplifying and communalizing something that might be better left complex and personal. Sometimes, unity of purpose and result might be better than total unity of form and function. At the very least, it's given me more to ponder - and it's strengthened my gratitude for the inspiration that led to my New Year's Resolution for this month.


Anonymous said...

I could relate to everything you wrote but then I realized what made a very important difference between you and me.
See I felt and feel the same way but the problem is that I don't know if it is truly me or if it is in one way I was taught all my prime childhood to loath formality.
This made me a very "different person" but I never know when it is really me and when it is the way my mother raised me (without really understanding what she was doing). this is why to me, to be able to pray formally is a victory because I feel this is really me now. I keep connected emotionally with God. I think about Him during the day because I love Him but I think about Him now as I would about my father (if I had a descent father to think about). Then I come back home and we discuss what my day has been.
When before I used to hold His hand all day long like a token of my difference. Not that your way is bad. It is good but it is good because it is you and my problem was that it was me too but a "twisted" me.
I like to be able to do formal anything now because now I can know better when I am different because it is really me.
Like when I was a child, in primary I was taught I could say anything to God. Like really anything. I applied this teaching and since I loved jokes so much I would tell Him my favorite jokes so my prayers would start by:
Dear HF. I know you already know my jokes but please can I tell it to you still?" And then I would tell it.
If you can picture this without laughing you're not fun.
And this was some kind of different prayer DANG IT!!! I dare you to do better (worse?).

Papa D said...

That's a wonderful comment, backandthen. It really puts everything in perspective - the idea of finding your own, private self and being true to it.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Mmm.I have a problem with authority.I would never have known this if i had not had to engage with the concept of personal vocal prayer.I can chat to God all day,and that's good for me.I can chat to God at the end of the day,or even at the beginning.The challenge for me is getting on my knees and slowing my thought processes down sufficiently to vocalise,and mustering the obedience to do so.There's a lot of stuff for me like this in the church,I'm not good at obedience or allowing others to lead me,the act of formal prayer takes an active submission of my will,in private,to the Creator of the universe.I'm beginning to understand ,through that process, that were i to proostrate myself as one does in Islam,I would not even then be offering Him sufficient acknowledgement.

Papa D said...

That's a fascinating comment, anonymous. I'm going to have to chew on it for a while.

Tasha said...

Party on dude!
you are so good for me right now! thanks!
how can i sign up for a subscrition to your talks?

Anonymous said...

Also,Papa D,and I'm sure you have also given this a lot of thought,vocalised family prayer and prayer as a couple has been a revelation to me.That whole business of letting down our defenses with each other(when really we would naturally keep them way up high)and appearing vulnerable and needy,that's just not in our culture,and we would never otherwise have had to grapple with these concepts quite so explicitly.Still have way to go on all this,clearly,currently grappling with how this can work with the natural defensiveness of a 12 year old boy.Prayer presses these issues like no other.

Patty said...

For me personally, I do sometimes do the informal "chats" with God, but I'm always aware of His greatness and the fact that He is God and so I'm very careful not to get too casual with Him. I was never taught to respect my father (or hardly anyone else) but I've come to learn over the years that God deserves the highest respect and it's hard to give that to Him if I'm talking to Him like He's just a good buddy. I know it's different for everyone but that's how I've come to feel about it.

Stephen said...

That is interesting. You come across on line as a bit more formal than that.

Papa D said...

Stephen, I honestly hadn't thought about that. As I think about it now, it's probably because I see discussions in groups like most of those I frequent as somewhat "formal" discussions - where I try very hard to pick and choose and edit what I write very carefully.

The more I think about it as I respond, the more I see the similarity to prayer for me. When I know I'm talking with someone one-on-one, my humor comes out more (both for good and bad) and I speak more fluidly and less formally. However, when I write for a group, (generally) I speak take more time, contemplate my word choice more purposefully, edit more carefully, etc. I'm trying to make sure lots and lots of people not only understand me but also don't misunderstand me - and that takes effort and focus and a bit of formality.

Such an approach is not necessary when it's one-on-one - especially with someone with whom I'm familiar and who is familiar with me. The closer I am to someone, the less formal my communication with them tends to be. For example, when I was on my mission and required to write a journal, I wrote the stereotypical "here's what I did today" record. It was concise, straightforward, highly unsophisticated - and BORING. In my mind, I thought it was supposed to be for the edification of my future descendants - but, in reality, I knew it would be for myself only. I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn't value such a record - but it never struck me to "write the things of my soul".

Now, my blog posts are much more formal than that my earlier journals - explicitly because I WANT others to read them. I really am writing them for my descendants and others, so they are more formal and structred and organized.

I've been free-flowing there as the thoughts hit me. Thanks, Stephen, for that epiphany.

Papa D said...

Everyone else, I want to thank you, as well. I have thought a lot about what you have said in response to this post - and I already have the outline of my wrap-up post for the month that I will write next Saturday. Nearly all of that has been a direct result of the responses you have written, and I really appreciate it.