I love prayer books and I often consult The Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayer Book, a mid 1970's liturgical gem from the Reform Jewish tradition. The volume begins with two dozen pages of inspiring quotes. Imagine arriving early to worship, and sitting in the pew with nothing else to do you flip open your prayer book and find:
The pious ones of old
used to wait a whole hour before praying,
the better to concentrate their minds on God.
Oh. Now you know what to do before the singing starts. Here's another:
The Rebbe of Tsanz was asked by a Chasid:
What does the Rabbi do before praying?
I pray, was the reply, that I may be able to pray properly.
Praying before prayer. It's like stretching before exercise to help prevent you from injuries during your workout. It's quieting the mind enough to pay attention and to listen. Prayer before prayer is like tuning your guitar so that the strings will be in harmony with one another, or playing scales on your flute so that the sound will be rich and warm. Praying before a meal is like prayer before prayer, because eating the meal itself, every bite like a Eucharist, is the prayer you've come to the table for.
Praying before prayer is shedding masks, pretensions, posturings, preconceptions. It involves gathering together the scattered strands of your humility, recovering your sense of awe hidden behind cynicism, strengthening your courage weakened by habits of distraction. It's a wonder any of us ever get to the prayer itself with so much else in the way.
You might argue with me and say that God is infinitely available and you can drop into prayer at any moment “Just As I Am.” That's true. But be honest. How often are you ready to meet the Divine just as you are? Both the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) dwell in us. But it is the humble sinner, the publican, who leaves justified. Sorrow, repentance, self-knowledge, and a heart broken open, prepares the publican to meet the Holy One, just as he is.
But sorrow doesn't monopolize vulnerability. What about playfulness? Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Luke 18:17). Where is that wise child you once were? The child with questions, laughter, a sense of wonder? Think about it: the very act of prayer, of positioning yourself before God in worship is such an absurd idea, I'm surprised we don't all laugh at ourselves and with God every time we kneel in the heart of our hearts. When did pretending to know what you are doing replace the urgency to keep investigating? When did piousness overcome delight?
Difficult prayer may take some heavy praying to get to. In their book The Book of Forgiving Desmond and Mpho Tutu acknowledge the difficulty of the practice of forgiveness. For those burned by betrayal, done violence to, stolen from, slapped on both cheeks, coat, shirt, shoes stripped, they offer this prayer before praying. Here is the beginning of it;
Prayer Before the Prayer
I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again
Not yet ready to see that there is
humanity in my tormentor's eyes
Or that the one who hurt me
may also have cried
I am not yet ready for the journey
I am not yet interested in the path
I am at the prayer before
the prayer of forgiveness …
I think most of us church folk skim lightly upon the surface of prayer and that the practice of praying before prayer might help us deepen. When you pray, are you really praying? How do you know?
ART Details, Christ before Pilate Heures de Marguerite d'Orléans c. 1426 Master of the Hours of Marguerite d'Orléans