Why Pray? | Sojourners

Why Pray?

This morning, as I made my way through the routine of the Lord’s Prayer, I came to “Give us this day our daily bread,” and I pulled up short. I lost my breath. The rest of the prayer could wait.

I live in San Antonio, Texas, and last night on Facebook I saw a video by a local pastor named John Garland about the families who are attempting, dangerously and unsuccessfully, to make asylum claims at the United States-Mexico border just over three hours south of here. Garland’s short, rough-hewn video calls for sympathy and understanding for these refugee families; he calls for an end to the family separation policy enacted by the hands of the Trump Administration; and, of course, he calls for prayer.

So as I prayed the same words I’ve prayed a million times, Garland’s video came to mind. I thought of the families crossing the border by bridge or braving the river. I thought of parents seeking safety for their kids only to find more danger.

I prayed for these refugee families. I prayed for their strength and for justice. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. I don’t know if I finished saying the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, and I don’t think it matters if I did.

I do think it matters that I prayed, though. I could have spent the morning brooding or, worse, reading tweets and articles and searching for more podcasts on the issue. That’s the road more traveled. Instead, I was able to marshall enough attention and inward focus to pray. I hope I do it again tomorrow.

I can’t be sure I will. Like an addict building a life of sobriety, my life of prayer—especially prayer about the convulsing crises of our nation—is something I am taking one day at a time. But the effort feels worth it.

If prayer changes anything—even if that thing is just the hearts of the praying—then you’d think that spiritually inclined progressives would be praying more than ever these days. Lord knows we have a lot to pray about. Our Twitter streams are lists of prayer requests, if only we could see them as such. But if you’re anything like me, mostly you just keep looking at the requests, aghast and aggrieved.

The battlefronts of our era are legion, but surely this one is paramount: the battle for our attention. Simone Weil said that to study anything is to practice the discipline required for prayer, because to pray is to pay close attention. “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” she writes. “It presupposes faith and love.” Also: “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”

For much of the first year of the Trump Administration, and okay, for the year-plus of the election that preceded it, I might as well have been praying to him. In Weil’s terms, I probably was. He was my first thought upon rising:“What has the president tweeted this morning?” He had the first hour—which is always the best hour, the best chance I’ll get something important done—as I pored over the news, or tweets about the news, and too often the madness of that first hour found purchase in my head throughout the day.

I’ve since taken steps to reset my mornings. Twitter is off my phone and blocked from my laptop browser. I begin more of my days in silence and reflection. More of my days—not nearly all of them. Recovery is a journey.

When I do choose silence, what happens is something like what happened this morning. Eventually, I begin to pray in some way. For the last year or so, I’ve mostly been praying with a diagram called the Prayer Wheel, which contains a storehouse of words and phrases I’ve internalized: the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, a list of spiritual gifts, and words that signal key stages of the Christ story.

That’s not a random list of texts. It’s actually a list that dates back to St. Augustine, who suggested that the Lord’s Prayer could usefully be intermingled with the Beatitudes and gifts of the spirit (which are listed in Isaiah 11). Later, someone else added the Jesus scenes.

What I’ve found is that internalizing these core texts means they find their way to my reflections and my prayers. They overlay whatever concerns me. Today, that was the families being pulled apart on our southern border. Those concerns seemed relevant to the Lord’s Prayer, and to the Beatitude about those who are hungry, and to a need for the Gift of strength to come to refugee parents and children seeking safety. For a few moments, they held my attention and they called forth my hope.

I do not know how to measure the efficacy of prayer. And I know that prayer is not all that’s needed to respond to the concerns of the day. But I also know that my response to the moment we’re living in will be more substantial, more focused and certain, if I tune out the distracting din and choose to attend to the world in prayer instead.