The wonderful twentieth century story-teller Isaac Bashevis Singer once admitted: “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time, and I pray all the time.” Even when we need to pray, because of the trouble we’re in, or when we want to pray, because of the thankfulness we feel, we sometimes lack the words. When I can’t find words for my prayers, I turn gratefully to the prayers of other people. They help me to say what I need and want to say to God.
Even though I have never been even an amateur sailor, and the last time I went fishing was with my uncle in a West Virginia trout stream when I was a boy, I resonate to this prayer offered by a Breton fisherman: “O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” While I have intimations and hints of God’s vastness, mystery and wonder, I also know that they are sounding from a greater immensity and splendor than I will ever begin to comprehend: “thy sea is so great; my boat is so small.”
Then, there’s this prayer of Thomas Merton’s which I have prayed so often that, if it were a quarter I kept in my pocket, it would be worn smooth and imageless by now:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
When I can’t see the road ahead, and when I am confused not just about what to do but about who I am, I cling to this assurance that God is so gracious and understanding that our desire to please God is enough to please God.
I miss the delightful comic strip Calvin and Hobbes,
Calvin once said to Hobbes: "Know what I pray for?"
Calvin: "The strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can't and the incapacity to tell the difference."
Hobbes: "You should lead an interesting life."
Calvin: "Oh, I already do." (8-28-92, Universal Press Syndicate)
Of course, Calvin had scrambled-up what we know as “The Serenity Prayer,” which is central to the daily practice of millions of people. The prayer originated in the mind and heart of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I have known this prayer for most of my adult life, but, these days, I pray it with deeper urgency. It helps me to ask the right questions, even when answers are slow to come:
What is serenity, anyway? I know what peace is like when I can wade in the French Broad River or a rushing creek on hot day, or when understanding finally overtakes confusion in a relationship which has known too much stress and strain, or when morning breaks with new possibility after a frightening night. But what does serenity, peace, look, feel, and sound like when there a storm brews up and you can’t find shelter or when every path open to you leads to the unknown?
What are the things I cannot change? There are some things about all of us that won’t change, and some of them are trivial and don’t matter. I won’t have more hair in any of the places I would like to have it. I won’t ever have the metabolism of a teenage boy again, so I have to think about what I eat. There are things we cannot change that are more serious: some people face limits on their abilities and opportunities which are unjust, unfair and inexplicable. Their lives are narrowed in ways I know God does not intend but also in ways that do not change. Tragedy and brokenness are real, and they result in things which cannot change, until all things are made new and whole and right.
How can I be sure that I am not surrendering too soon and yielding too early because I lack courage? What if it isn’t as late as I think? What if I have let other people tell me what’s possible, rather than God?
And what is courage? I am learning that it is nothing more, but also nothing less, than doing a next right thing, no matter how unsettling or intimidating, with the confidence that God’s love is more tender and more tenacious than any other reality.
And what about wisdom? It is ability to see past the glitter or the grime which rests on the surface of things and to perceive there the presence of God, to hear the tender voice of Jesus beneath the clamor and confusion of the loudest and most insistent voices, and to feel beyond the demands of the urgent and overwhelming, the stirrings of joy and blessing.
I mention these three prayers—the prayer of the fisherman on the vast sea in his small boat, Merton’s plea always to desire to please God, and Niebhur’s search for serenity, courage, and wisdom—not simply because they have helped me to pray when I lacked words of my own, but also because all three acknowledge, in their own ways, that there are depths and heights in God which are far beyond our capacity fully to comprehend and that we face questions and challenges which stretch us beyond our ability to manage. That kind of acknowledgment is, I think, where prayer begins and the spiritual life takes on reality.