How a Prayer Ritual Is Bringing Me Closer to My Father

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston
Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston

My father is 84. Though he is in good health, he knows what being 84 means. As he ruefully puts it: “The runway’s getting shorter.” I am 48. I am his only daughter and first born. In these 48 years, we have not had a particularly close relationship. (If my mother were here, she would want me to immediately add that my father’s parents were alcoholics, that they were barely even parents, that intimacy was always going to be a stretch for him. To which I might rejoin, “Some people go to therapy for that.”)

I have always known that my father loves me. I have seen him many times, for example, check and double check (and adjust) the bungee cords that hold my kids’ bikes to my minivan. I also saw him, twice, sob silently and open-mouthed at funerals for other people’s children, a display of emotion that surely springs from hidden depths.

I know I love him because for the past few years I have been thinking about his relationships—with me, with my brothers, with my mom. For, while I would never say that my father is lonely, there is something alone about him, something untouched and unheld. My hope is that by the time there is no runway left (I think the plane is taking off in his metaphor, not landing), this will have changed. I hope that by the end of his life, my father will not be alone, that he—depths and all—will feel recognized and known, loved and safe. This has been my (perhaps grandiose) goal of late.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston
Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston

Our relationship seemed a good place to begin.

With both ambition and naivete, I started big. I talked to a filmmaker friend and, with my father’s permission, hired him to do a few hours of filming: of my dad reflecting on his life, of my dad talking with me about his childhood, of him tinkering around the property where he and my mother live—chopping wood, burning brush, heading in for lunch and a nap. He was game for the meta nature of this project: “Runway’s getting shorter,” he said, thrusting his arms and shoulders upward in his characteristic jerky shrug. “Might as well get to know my kids!” The filming, however, petered out.

Also never realized were subsequent plans to go on a trip together, to meet for lunch once a month, to speak only Spanish. In all of these cases, my own motivation only took me so far, and my father’s was nowhere to be found. Too pressing, it seemed, was the ever-present to-do list: hardware store, bills, emails, bike rides, Meet the Press. By February of this year, I had all but given up. Then I got the prayer idea.

The prayer idea came from an obvious source. For the past few years, I’ve been taking classes at the Harvard Divinity School. I say “taking classes” because I am what’s called a “special student”—I am not in a degree program, and if I want to be in a degree program at some point, I will have to apply and they will have to want me. For a limited number of years, I am allowed to be there, to receive grades and credit, and to sometimes forget that I am not in my 20s anymore.

The first class I took at HDS (and, indeed, the class that brought me to the school) was called “Religion and Virginia Woolf,” Woolf being the famous writer and famous-in-some-circles atheist. This was the perfect entry to religion for me, a Woolf fan and a cultural Episcopalian for whom the expression “Obviously ‘God’ doesn’t exist” was bedrock. But I had always been curious about religions, about what they seemed to offer people, about the way they could seemingly hold all of life, including that which is unknown. And Woolf, though she could not and would not relate with the God of Christian men, was far more complicated in this respect than the limiting word secular might suggest. And so, as if I were a child holding the hand of my radical atheist auntie with the low bun and the vintage blouse, I tiptoed into the world of religion.

When acquaintances (non-religious ones, which is how I would describe most of them) ask me about divinity school, they often sound in their tentativeness like they’re asking me about something else—my history of depression, for example, or whether I have any tampons. But a quick description of the Woolf class is an antidote to such delicacy. “She was an avowed atheist,” I say, knowing that for most people (as it did for me), a sentence about the class would smash preconceived notions about what divinity school is.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston
Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston

Less easy to mention in passing was my most recent class, which began this past January, and which was called “Contemplative Prayer in Christianity.” If someone asked about my current curriculum, I would offer that it revolved around the work of six “mystics”; that all the books we read were radical in one way or another; that the most interesting conversations arose when different traditions were put in conversation with each other; that the religions (and non-religions) represented by my classmates were many. If I started with the class’s title, I hit the molasses: Christian prayer, huh? As in “thoughts and prayers”?

Of course, to reject the concept of prayer on the basis of a politician’s soundbite is like rejecting all art after encountering a sunset print in a gas-station bathroom (no offense). On the other hand, for many of us, the concept of prayer (along with the concept of religion in general) is unavoidably loaded. For me, for most of my life, references to anything religious sparked a visceral reaction. Christianity had always been tied to patriarchy, imposed conformity, a host of bad -isms, and uncomfortable and boring clothes that should be off-limits for Sunday, already the worst day of the weekend. Indeed, if my past self were to discover that my current self had a daily prayer practice that involved a piece of Biblical text, my past self would be alarmed.

By the time I suggested the prayer practice to my father as a last-ditch “activity” that we could share, I was a month into the semester and awash in writings on prayer. The concept of Christian prayer had become, in short, no big deal. The Lord’s Prayer (the prayer which, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus shares with his disciples when he is teaching them how to pray) was a reasonable choice for two reasons. First, it is quick—25 seconds if you say it like a good WASP—without pauses or emotion.

My father knows it because he had to know it as a kid. I kind of knew it as a kid but memorized it in the mid ’80s after I heard the song “In My Room” by the British rock band Yaz.

Of course, there was another reason for picking this most famous of Christian prayers over, say, “The Mouse Ran Up the Clock.” For billions of people across time and space, the Lord’s Prayer has been a sacred Christian text. Even for my father and me, it is at least a little sacred; we treat it with at least a little reverence. A month into the semester, having already read hundreds of pages about prayer in my class, I was curious—and my father seemed to be, too—about where an amateur tangling with this famous and revered piece of text might take us.

And so, in late February, we began. Here is our routine: When the thought occurs to me, I call him (he never calls me, despite my reminders that such a thing is possible), I ask him if he has time for “a Lord’s Prayer,” he says yes (hard to say no) and we recite the version we know at a good clip: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, amen.” We are quick to get off the phone—for both of us, other duties call. As February came to a close, CNN called us, too.

February 24 was the day Vladimir Putin’s forces flowed into Ukraine and initiated what has become the first war in Europe since World War II. By the end of the first week in March, bombs had changed the faces of Kiev, of Kherson, of Kharkiv. In Bucha (though the rest of the world wouldn’t know of it for some weeks), Russian soldiers had raped women and girls. They had tied men’s hands behind their backs before shooting them at point-blank. Bodies lay unburied and barely buried, the living left to find their way amid the wreckage.

My father and I suspended our prayer practice. Like so many others, we were riveted by a conflict that seemed—for once—so simple: One side was right, and the other was wrong. By the time spring began to emerge in Massachusetts, we knew exactly where Ukraine was, which countries bordered it, what its flag looked like, how its national identity was affected by Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and all about the unlikely career of Volodymyr Zelensky. We could find Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Donetsk on a map. We knew what these cities’ roads looked like, their March weather, their bundled children, their luggage and pets, their train stations.

The day after the shelling of a civilian corridor in Mariupol, I was running in the woods with my dog. We came to a field and the pale sun that hung above it. I called my father and suggested we resume our practice and wondered if we should somehow connect it to what was happening in Ukraine. Maybe we could dedicate the prayer? Maybe, today, to the people of Mariupol?

“Can’t hurt,” he said.

And so we proceeded, the words—by silent agreement, it seemed—heavier than usual, our recitation of them slower.

Around me, the field waited. The sun warmed the thin spring air. The dog sniffed about.

The regular energy of my day resumed. I packed the dog into the car, plugged in my phone, checked my texts. It felt as if something important had happened, but what had it been? The most common critique of prayer is also the easiest to make. As the war raged, as people died, there I was—a privileged white American whose kids were at school and whose dog needed exercise—stopping to say a few lines. Was I praying for my own benefit? Was I doing it to assuage guilt? To honor my concern for others, and my father’s, too? These things are probably all true. But if the alternative was not stopping, not praying, not bearing witness, not linking hands with another in the process, surely that is worse?

Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston
Photo credit: Courtesy of Farley Urmston

In my class this semester, we read three books written by people who had lived in the 20thcentury. Simone Weil (“Vay”) was a French Catholic writer who declined to join the Church because to do so would be to leave behind all who were kept out of it. Howard Thurman was a Black American who was criticized for not being more of a civil rights leader and whose book Jesus and the Disinherited (not the book we read) Martin Luther King reportedly carried wherever he went. Finally, Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who once drove around Bardstown, Kentucky, in a rainstorm with Joan Baez looking for a pay phone so that he could call his girlfriend. All three writers had written about contemplative prayer in the context of modern life—war, politics, innovation, greed, globalism, beauty. As the war in Ukraine unfolded with the semester, and as we reread and discussed the books, I wondered how their ideas about prayer could inform my thoughts about Ukraine. What was prayer in the context of war? War in the context of prayer? I had always liked Gandhi’s reported statement that his “greatest weapon [was] mute prayer.” But I had never known what he meant.

In Disciplines of the Spirit, Thurman argued that it is not what prayer offers the person praying that’s important but how prayer changes the person praying. In the male-oriented parlance of the time, he wrote that “the man [who prays] exposes the need of the other person to his total life and resources, making it possible for new insights of helpfulness and creativity to emerge in him. In other words, he sees more clearly how to relate himself to the other person’s need.”

Weil wrote that “prayer consists of attention” and that “the actions that follow are just the automatic effect of this moment of attention.” Both Thurman and Weil would argue that by praying in the field and at the kitchen table, my father and I were shifting ourselves toward the needs of the person or group for whom we were praying. By shifting ourselves in this way, we were positioning ourselves to be able to help.

Yes, said Thurman, there may indeed be something supernatural that happens during prayer, but more “provable” is its effect on the person praying and on what that person does next.

For Weil, Thurman, and Merton, to pray is to step away from the ingrained idea that our survival depends on holding the center of everything.

From the air around me, I can pluck the proof: nationalism, capitalism, white supremacy, war, mass incarceration, militarism. “Prayer,” said these thinkers, points the other way. “Prayer” to them is something quite different from what I once took it to be: a signal of obedience, of conformity to patriarchal structures, of close-mindedness and complacency. Rather, in the context of Weil and Thurman and Merton, prayer becomes something countercultural, a deliberate refusal to accept the world as it has been presented, and an invocation to recognize our own responsibility to help find a better path.

As I considered the prayer that had been closest to hand for my father and me (Protestantly secular as we were), I began to wonder: If I could look past the use of the gendered term father, could I see even the Lord’s Prayer as a revolutionary tool? Could I argue that by pausing in the middle of a field (/kitchen) and inviting God’s will to be done on earth that my father and I were doing something kind of radical? Is this the whole point of prayer? Is this what the Jewish thinker and leader Abraham Heschel was talking about when he said that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive”? Is this what Gandhi meant?

I will offer here that my father and I are a long way from feeling that our hasty recitations are in any way “subversive.” Still, as I experienced on the day that followed the bombing of Mariupol’s civilian escape route, even paltry prayers like ours have value. By trying out this experiment in the days prior to the city’s siege, we had unwittingly established for ourselves a means of bearing witness. When the impulse became acute to pause our own lives in recognition of suffering and in acknowledgment of human culpability, there was the Lord’s Prayer—ready and relevant, a weapon at hand that would hold anything we asked it to.

I cannot say how and if I have been changed by my nascent prayer practice, nor whether I will be able to sustain it. If anything, it—combined with the books I read in class, combined with the violence I have witnessed from afar—has taught me something important about what prayer can be. If nothing else, the kind of prayer that Merton, Thurman, and Weil write about is a stopping of sorts. A listening. It is an attempt to stand up in a strong current and steel oneself to step upstream. It is not in a category of its own but is a partner to literature, to listening, to kindness, to education, to journalism, to art, to music, to comedy, to care, to legislation, to law—to anything that counters that which we have been taught to internalize: that humans are made of separate groups, that the unequal distribution of power is necessary, that the capacity to commit harm is something to be nurtured and grown, that if we do not fight for more we will get less, that some are right and others wrong, that the past does not influence the present, that we are not at fault.

In my parents’ house, there is an old black-and-white photograph of a group of a dozen or so children arranged in rows on a rocky beach. In front, a knobby-kneed kid of about 7 sits next his siblings—his sister in braids, his little brother balanced between her legs. I know this picture well. I know well the gaze of the boy who would become my father but who—when the photograph was taken—was simply a kid gazing at his baby brother. I used to feel sad when I looked at my father in the picture, so distanced did I feel from both the child and the man. Lately, though, I experience something new when I see it, and I think it has to do with the prayer we have been reciting, surprising as that is to write.

For although we have, in recent weeks and in classic fashion, become somewhat lackadaisical in our commitment to the prayer routine, something stubbornly remains. The prayer, it seems, remains. Like a rope of many twisted fibers, the Lord’s Prayer seems to hang beside and between us now as something we can wrap our hands around when we need to, and which runs along next to us– next to my life, next to my father’s life, next to the children we have both been, next to the people we have loved and the strangers we seek to help, next to the violence we witness (and commit) and which we try to stand against.

The other day, I asked my father how the prayer routine was feeling. “Well,” he said, laughing, “I’m trying to stay patient.” When I (also trying to stay patient) asked him what he meant, he said that it sometimes just feels so—I could picture his grimace—“rote.” I asked him what it felt like for him to admit, every day, that he has trespassed against others and that he, too, can be tempted into causing harm (“evil”). He balked at this at first—he wasn’t sure to what extent he’d trespassed against others; certainly he didn’t on a daily basis! I said something about the harm a mere assumption can do to a person, and he grumbled an assent. For a moment, I thought we would wrap up the practice and chalk it up as not quite worth the while, that we would end our small attempts to reach deeper into our own depths and perhaps find each other there, that prayer would not be given the chance to become, for us, a revolutionary tool. Then my father said he thought it made a difference when we dedicated the prayer to another person or group.

Then he said, “If I did call you, what would be a good time?”

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