Prayer can be a very humbling experience. Quite often it is for me, at any rate.
I have a sort of ritual I have developed over the last couple of years. When I take my dog Rosie out for a walk, I pray. Not extemporaneous prayers usually, but short, repetitive prayers with a contemplative bent. Some people call them “breath prayers,” because the idea is to pray one phrase on the in-breath and the next on the out-breath. The most famous of these kinds of prayers comes from the Orthodox tradition and is known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus, / have mercy on me, a sinner.” I learned a modified version of this prayer from Marcus Borg at a campus ministry conference a dozen years ago or so, and I still use it today. It goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, / you are the Light of the World. / Fill my mind with your peace / and my heart with your love.” I usually start my walks with Rosie with this prayer, and I usually begin it when I catch myself starting to count my steps. Yes, I have a touch of OCD. I’m a cornucopia of neuroses when you get right down to it.
But this is not the prayer that I find humbling. It’s another one that I started praying a year and a half ago. It’s very simple and is based on Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians. The prayer goes like this: “The fruit of the Spirit is love. / Grow love in me. ... The fruit of the Spirit is joy. / Grow joy in me. ... The fruit of the Spirit is peace. / Grow peace in me,” and so on through the whole list: patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. I repeat each couplet a number of times, and usually throw in another short prayer I came up with between the different manifestations of the fruit: “I can change. / The Spirit of God can change me.”
Ay, there’s the rub. And there’s the part I find most humbling. I do believe I can change, if I can cooperate with God’s Spirit as she works the change in me, but I can’t help but notice how far I still am from being an orchard of God’s fruit. My soul seems more often to be a barren wasteland than an orchard or garden. If the fruit of the Spirit were tumbleweeds, I would be in business. Patience, gentleness, and self-control? Not so much.
There is value, I believe, in the repetition of positive messages to oneself. B.F. Skinner’s behavioral conditioning was based on this truth, and the methods of positive reinforcement that derive largely from his work are further evidence of its value. The converse, of course, is that there is considerable danger in repeating negative messages to oneself, which is a hallmark of the depressive personality, but I’m ignoring negative reinforcement in this particular post. (If only I could do the same in real life. But that’s an entry for another day.)
Prayer is more than positive reinforcement, however. I am constantly befuddled by the mystery of prayer; I don’t know how it works, why it works, or even if it works half the time, but something in me draws me to prayer as groundwater draws a dowsing fork. I want to believe in prayer, even if I can’t muster that faith all the time. So I keep at it, even when my prayers are rote and dry and cold and taste like ashes in my mouth, because from time to time I catch a glimpse of ... what, exactly? Something elusive, something darting around a corner up ahead, or a figure far in the distance waving vigorously and seeming to smile in welcome. Something that keeps me moving in that direction, even when the horizon keeps rushing away from my approach.
And sometimes something happens. Rarely anything dramatic, and never anything that couldn’t be explained in some other way. A moment of clarity. A feeling of peace. A wave of joy and security, like a loved one’s embrace. A new determination to keep fighting my way upstream like a spawning salmon when it would be so much easier to give up and just drift with the current. I can’t explain any of it. I’m not entirely sure it’s not just my imagination running away with me.
But that’s what faith is about, right? It’s not believing something you know damn well ain’t so, as Mark Twain would have it, but rather choosing to interpret these mysterious touches and fleeting visions as the presence of God. They don’t come always, or even often. But they do come.
When I pray the fruit of the Spirit, I often get one of those nudges. Maybe it’s just my conscience, or else my negative self-talk telling me what a P.O.S. failure I am, but another interpretation is that it’s God telling me that I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m on the right path and I’m not traveling alone.
I can change. The Spirit of God can change me.