(Caveat: In this post, I make reference to political events/ figures, but my purpose in doing so is not to speak to issues of politics but to give voice to a spiritual struggle that is common to us all, regardless of what side of the partisan lines we are on. It’s been a difficult election for all. Lord have mercy.)
There are times I can scarcely stand how repetitive and rigid certain prayers in the Orthodox Church are.
Actually, it’s not any prayer in particular, but the way we pray. The way we come back to the same prayers over and over. And over. Day in, day out. Century in, century out.
There’s this whole structure and form in our prayers that is entirely not of my making. As a person who draws a great deal of her identity from being creative, this can feel a little… Confining, at times. Another litany? The same one as before? I’ll wonder to myself in the middle of liturgy every so often. Another evening prayer? The same one as always? There are days I long to spice things up with something new, even though I’m not so sure what that new thing would be.
But then there are other times. Times when I need the form of prayer to be a given, a backbone that teaches me the right way to go. Times when life itself brings enough novelty of its own.
Times when time hurts—its refusal to go backwards, its tendency to bring chaos rather than simplicity, its incapacity to heal all wounds instantaneously.
And it is in those times I see prayer prayer—especially the kind that does not rest on my own prosaic potential—for what it is: an anchor, a line that keeps the raw elements of ourselves connected to God. Even when we’d rather abandon the battered ship of hope.
Like probably a lot of us, I did not want to pray this morning. To be fair, I did not want to do just about anything this morning. Even in “good” election years, I find the Day After a national election to be bit bleak. I suck at change or transition, and the whole idea of someone new taking office just seems so unknown and overwhelming and full of potential for stranger danger. But this year, because of the tumult of this entire election season, it was even worse. All last night, I had that frantic feeling of wanting time to slow down—each red state clicking by like seconds on a clock that wouldn’t stop ticking.
This morning, I was afraid to wake up to that new world—not only the world of Trump, but also the world of negativity I feared would mount in the wake up this election, regardless of who had won. My blanket felt heavy and cold around me, like it was stuffed with stones.
How I eventually made it to the prayer corner is a mystery, because I certainly didn’t intend to end up there. Force of habit, I guess.
Glory to You, Oh Lord, Glory to You! Oh heavenly king, the comforter, the spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things… (1)
As soon as the first few half-hearted words were out of my lips, something small inside me filled with a silent, burning gratitude for them. Despite myself, I was grateful for the way they stretched my soul to give voice to light and truth, and how they turned my face from the heaviness of my spirit to a God who is everywhere, even here. Even now.
And I was surprisingly grateful for the same-ness of these words, the same same-ness that is sometimes a source of boredom. I know myself—I would not have been able to find my own words this morning; I had nothing within to move me beyond the dark cloud pressing up against me from all sides.
But You, oh Lord, are my protector,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the Lord and He heard me from His holy hill.
I lay down and slept,
I awoke for the Lord will help me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousand people
who set themselves against me all around.
This is why we pray, I thought, as the words of this morning’s Psalm found their way into my bones. When we return home from a long journey, we don’t want to have to rebuild our own house. We want it to be there waiting, with a fire burning on the hearth, the same as we left it before. Another Lord have mercy, another litany, another same, old Lord’s prayer—we are keeping house, tending the hearth of faith for the times we will especially need it to be there.
It was a comforting reminder, and if that’s where things stopped, perhaps I could have ended this post on a happily-ever-after note.
But it wasn’t. The creed, the lectionary reading–they flew by me in a twinkling of newly encouraged faith. As did the beginning of the daily litany found in the prayer book I use, the one that supplicates God to “Save and have mercy” on all manner of people, from metropolitans and deacons and the old, the young, the poor, the widowed…
Save, oh Lord, and have mercy on all world rulers, on our President (Name), and on (Name) and on all civil authorities.
And I realized, my blood curdling, that in a scant month and a half I will be praying for the next president of the United States (2).
Briefly, it seemed realistic to simply cross that line out of my prayers for the next four+ years. But Christians have been praying for their rulers since before the inception of the United States or modern democracy. We have been praying for kings and queens and emperors and despots and czars. In some parts of the world, people are praying for rulers who actively persecute them. Did I really think I was worthy of stepping outside of a prayerful practice as old as Christianity itself?
Until now, I just assumed that when we pray to God for our civil authorities—so “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)–that the objective of our prayers was to get civil authorities to listen to God and thus not persecute people, etc. Now I’m wondering if maybe it’s the praying itself that brings about the peaceful life and quietness and dignity—maybe praying for our authorities does something peaceful and needful in our soul, regardless of how our authorities behave.
I stared at that line for entire minutes. As I stood there, Lord have mercy, I could not think of a single person on earth I would less rather pray for than the next president. And I wept–not because of any political ties or lack thereof. I wept because I do not like to realize I have actual enemies. But I do. Somewhere along the way in this election, I learned how to hate someone–and I learned how to hate them well, with an easy and self-righteous alacrity. I wept because I suddenly didn’t like how that felt, but also because I also didn’t want to let go of my hatred. I wept because maybe all of this wasn’t fully okay for my soul or the souls of others, whom I inevitably and silently affect with my own inner darkness.
And I realized it was actually this reason why we pray. The hearth, the flame, the journey home—that’s all very wonderful and Thomas Kinkade. But it’s not why we (try to) show up, day after day, and join ourselves to the same, old, threadbare prayers day after day. We do this so there may be peace: in our world, in our Church, in our country, and in our hearts. It’s a peace that by default costs us our pride and hatred. And it’s a peace that only comes after we have gone to war–not with our enemies, but with ourselves.
I have a month and a half to learn to pray for the next president and loosen the grip of my disdain for him.
Quite possibly, it would even be good if it didn’t take quite so long, since we could all use prayer, least of all the future executive of the most powerful country in the world.
But right now, it’s one day at a time.
There are times I balk at the repetitiveness and rigidity of prayer in the Orthodox Church; now is not one of those times.
Oh, Lord, grant me to greet the coming of the day in peace…
- The prayer excerpts come from the Morning Prayer Rule as outlined in the back of the Orthodox Study Bible.
- Some readers may wonder why I would pray for a US president even though we live in Canada. As a US citizen, though, I still remember the US president in my prayers, along with the civil authority of whatever country I happen to live in.