What makes a place familiar? What makes a visit feel like a return? Part of the familiarity is knowing what I can or cannot do in a place—the rights and duties the place affords me. In the place I am now writing about, one of my rights is the right to pray. I have the right to pray despite my uncertainties and despite my faults. Perhaps I have the right and duty to preserve this place of praying. I am not exactly the same person who watched my grandmother pray. Neither is the place exactly the same as it was before. My grandmother is gone. But I cannot deny the reality of the place she created, what still remains from her rituals. The goldenrod low table can never again be just a table, and I can never be someone who hasn’t seen it as what it is. To say that the place doesn’t exist any longer, because my grandmother is not with me, would be to refuse and deny her gift. To say the place doesn’t exist would be to deny a part of myself that remains connected to her.
This place, then, whatever its nature, can be in part characterized by the rights and duties it gives me, which include the right to pray. I can pray while walking, while drinking coffee, while sitting, or while lying in bed. I can pray in the morning, when I see my wife’s face again, while petting our cat, while opening the curtains to let in the daylight. Thus, in the past few years, the door to prayer has re-opened and I feel connected to what was beyond the door—my grandmother’s friend, the rays of light that, with their entrance, transform ordinary rooms and objects into sacred places and artifacts.
My state of mind is still not as peaceful and unitary as these first descriptions might suggest. There is no one single voice in my mind, no one single judgment, no one single attitude free from doubt and negative self-evaluation. I hear, “You’re just getting old and conservative. It’s in the human DNA.” I hear, “How do you know you are not instrumentalizing spirituality? Are you using prayer to fall asleep, to keep yourself calm, to quiet the chatter, to repress the absurdity of existence? Why can’t you just face the cold, brutal reality, with courage and honesty?” No. I am not instrumentalizing spirituality. I don’t insist on falling asleep, being calm, or escaping absurdity.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say—once and for all—what praying is, and what it does. If it insists on anything, if it aims at preserving anything, it is probably an insistence on a type of place. Correspondingly, keeping in mind how different places are entangled with different modes of being a person, praying might aim to preserve a type of person and a type of relating as a person. An elaborate and firmly established theology is, I think, quite unnecessary. What is more relevant is a reflection on who we are and who we wish to be.
There is another side to this, which we can talk about with reference to a scene from the recent movie, The Two Popes (2019). In one of their private conversations, Pope Francis told a joke to Pope Benedict about a man who wished to get the license to smoke during prayers. After asking a priest, he was told smoking while praying is not permitted. Someone finally told him: “You’re asking the wrong question. Rather than asking whether it’s permitted to smoke during praying, you should ask whether it’s permitted to pray while smoking.” The fact that Francis appreciated this joke, at all, was significant in his character portrayal. The joke plays on the ambiguity of what is, on one hand, the background, the primary, and the given, and on the other hand, what is the foreground, the secondary, the supplement (If you’re interested in exploring this, I’d suggest reading Sam Rocha’s Folk Phenomenology). Am I a flawed individual who is striving toward goodness, truth, and beauty, or am I a perfect person at the risk of committing errors? Like the wise guy in Pope Francis’s joke, I take the flaws and imperfections as given, as primary, as background (as “original sin”), not as something we fall into. I don’t see our flaws as foreign elements, as contaminations to who we really are. This makes our spiritual strivings all the more important. Losing the gift of my grandmother, the place she built in my mind with her daily rituals, means falling back on my own flaws and limitations.
Now I want to tell you about my prayers and the recent change. Something has changed in recent days. I started to feel a sense of fullness in my prayers. I don’t mean that my prayers are being heard or answered. The fullness doesn’t come from a felt reciprocity. It comes from a sense that my prayers are now directed at an appropriate object. I feel that something is there toward which the attitude of prayer is well suited. These include, above all, my own actions. I care about life, about my loved ones, about my friends, in a way that feels new. I care about what will happen to us and our connected existence. Have I started to make demands again? Have I reverted to my childish style of request-praying? I don’t think so. I do not wish to push God’s hand in any particular direction. I just wish to let him know that I care. When I pray, I am closer to an act of remembering than to an act of requesting. Maybe I am requesting to remember, simply asking to keep my ability for remembering. Remembering what (doesn’t) matter.
Remembering isn’t a neutral act. It isn’t exclusively rational or informational. We can be full of passion and longing when we remember, but that doesn’t have to contradict our acceptance of reality. I can pray and, in my prayer, embrace reality. Part of reality is that I care, that I wish to remember, to protect, to preserve, to love and be loved. And it is also part of reality that I regularly fail, suffer, and lose.
I think the sense of fullness in my prayers might come from recognizing the realities of life. Perhaps I am finally learning to pray, without running away from reality, without making demands, and without anger. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. I am open to seeing more and revising my current understanding. I might lose this sense of fullness and go back to praying with an empty heart, but I will cherish the fullness for as long as it stays with me. And, if it leaves me, I will simply pray for its return—without a demand, without jumping to conclusions, and without anger.