The Slothful Pray-er

I am a slothful pray-er. At Mass I pray standing up, kneeling or sitting along with the flock. But at home I seem to pray more earnestly—in a prone position. Sheer laziness, probably, but I rationalize the act by assuring myself that God doesn’t mind. The posture isn’t important, nor the place nor hour. What matters is that I do pray, even if at my convenience and in my preferred way—which follows the course of least resistance.

Snug on my own pillow I drift off, the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Creed soothing. Repetitiously I mumble them into dreamland. My mind is liable to go woolgathering, one loyal corner of it occupied with the routine. For it’s not an easy thing to concentrate on pure devotions. Saints have grappled with distractions from day one to now. God alone knows how great were the temptations they faced. When I was a child in parochial school, my fourth grade Sister told a story that presented an unforgettable example of that difficulty.

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It seems that a certain traveler stopped to rest before the cave of a renowned hermit. As they discussed the holy man’s chosen lifestyle the visitor challenged: “I’ll wager even you can’t concentrate exclusively on the words of Jesus’ own prayer during the length of a single Pater Noster.”

The host bristled: “Certainly I can. Try me.”

The guest responded after a moment’s consideration: “If you can honestly say that entire prayer without a foreign thought entering your head, I’ll give you my mount. That’s a promise.”

“Just give me a signal to begin,” the hermit demanded, his eyes gleaming with anticipation.

“Now,” said the man astride his steed.

The holy man fell to his knees, stretched out his arms and squeezed his eyes shut. His lips moved decisively; his head was bowed in pious intensity. “Our Father,” he began, “who art in heaven....” So remote did the hermit appear from all mundane considerations as he proceeded, that the challenger was convinced of his own rashness in having made such a dare. He slid off his horse, prepared to hand him over to a worthier master. The prayer moved sonorously to its conclusion: “and lead us not into temptation....”

Suddenly his voice changed. Strange words tumbled out of the hermit’s mouth: “Does that include the bridle and saddle, too?”

With me, prayer is likely to be a hundred times more shallow—regular prayer, that is. So I hunt about for something different to say to the Lord that will keep me vigilant long enough to merit his attention. If I invariably wind up the same way—asking—I realize that his creatures are all forever asking. Seldom are we giving. Then I begin over, in chagrin, to count up my many blessings. It follows that I’m heard, because he continues to shower me with favors I do not presume to ask for.

What do I give thanks for, finally? What have I not to be grateful for? Where was I when he laid the foundations of the world? What do I possess that did not come from the Father, that is exclusively my own? What have I done to merit one iota of loving solicitude? For the gift of life, for the repeated recoveries from repeated failures. For health and shelter. For the faces of loved ones nearby, and for the warmth of a grandson’s arm across my shoulders. For the patience of earth and sky: No matter how we mistreat nature, we are constantly forgiven for our mistreatment.

For the comfort of wool sweaters and flat walking shoes and all the marvels of today’s industry. For banana muffins and risotto alla Milanese and sparkling Burgundy wine...for the vision of a ruby-throated hummingbird spearing into the heart of scarlet monarda...and a mourning cloak butterfly drying new wings on my rail fence, a nuthatch at my kitchen window-feeder (move over, St. Francis).

For eyes to witness mares’ tails clouds swept before a western wind...ears to hear the angry scolding of a pair of brown wrens defending their nest-site...for this very nose on my face, sensitive to the delicate scent of petunias on a summer night, and tongue to lick the salt spray off lips open to the harbor breeze, exclaiming “Holy, holy, holy” on a loved one’s feast day. Thanks, Father, for all this and so much more. So much abundance, always.

For seasons hot and cold, of growth and rest, of pledges and perseverance...for the small, precious joys that mark each day, as well as the heartaches that point them up. I thank him for giving us mortals Godhead to trust in, which draws all creation back to its source, and for saints, who have gone ahead and show us the way to salvation. (Surely it is a good thing to acknowledge his special friends, safely crowned and delivered from earthly temptation?)

On which bypath I am drifting off. I recognize it pleasurably, pausing an instant longer to thank God for the refreshing boon of sleep. And I fancy he smiles, blessing this lazy pray-er...who will never grow calluses from kneeling on a hard floor...who will never welcome a hair-shirt. His peace is a benediction, closing another day into the book of eternity.

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