Pray as you can

Marlene Kropf at Pacific Northwest Conference Assembly. Photo by Donald Bacher.

Marlene Kropf lives in Port Townsend, Washington. She is a spiritual director, ordained minister and Professor Emerita of Spiritual Formation and Worship (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). She also served for more than 20 years as Mennonite Church Minister of Worship and Spirituality. With Daniel Schrock, she is co-editor of “An Open Place: The Ministry of Group Spiritual Direction” (Morehouse Publishing, 2012). Marlene is a member of Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Spiritual Directors Network.

Perhaps the best counsel I ever received for learning to pray was, “Pray as you can, not as you think you should.”

As a child, I learned to pray with words — in King James language. For a long while, I thought the only proper way to pray was in words, preferably spoken aloud. And perhaps that’s a good enough way to begin, though I usually felt I didn’t pray enough.

What completely escaped my notice was that many days I spent a good 15 minutes after school playing hymns at the piano, singing along, expressing my heart’s deepest desires. Only after that interlude did I get on with practicing my piano lesson. Because no one ever suggested that singing might also be a way of praying, I failed to value the intimate connection with God that developed in that practice.

In high school (and for many years afterward), I kept a journal. Many of those adolescent journal entries evolved into prayers in which I brought my anxieties, questions and hopes to God and knew that my voice was heard. Later, in silent retreats, I learned to pray the Psalms and the gospel stories. I rewrote the Psalms in my own words, gaining an understanding of the scope and depth of prayer in the process. With gospel stories, I often imagined myself as a character in a story — the woman at the well, the man born blind, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, or Mary Magdalene at the tomb — and was transformed by these personal encounters with Jesus. Even today, when I spend time on retreat, I return to those journaling practices as a way of focusing my attention on God.

In mid-life I found myself drawn to centering prayer, the prayer of quiet, in which I opened myself to BE-ing with God, resting in God’s presence and yielding to the Spirit’s persistent, ongoing, inner work of transformation. The beauty of centering prayer is that it can be practiced anytime, anywhere — it can be as brief as a few moments while waiting in the grocery check-out line or as long as a quiet hour at sunrise or even a whole day and night in solitude.

For many years I have enjoyed walking as a form of exercise. Now that I live in the temperate Pacific Northwest, I can walk outdoors comfortably in all seasons. On my daily walks, I often find that whatever has been occupying my mind and heart recedes — and prayers of thanksgiving emerge spontaneously as I enjoy the change of seasons, the view of the bay on the horizon and the beauty of my neighbors’ gardens. From there my prayer often shifts to intercession, holding before God the people whom I care for and places and situations in the world beyond my neighborhood. These prayers are usually not filled with words, but rather are more like “abiding in the Vine” — simply being with my concerns in God’s presence.

A simple prayer I often repeat as I walk is one I learned on Celtic pilgrimages:

I on your path, O God;

You, O God, on my way.

In retirement my husband Stanley and I have the privilege of enjoying a leisurely breakfast many days and praying a “daily office” together afterward. We have used a variety of books as guides for morning prayer, including “Celtic Prayers from Iona,” by J. Philip Newell; “A Wee Worship Book: Fifth Incarnation,” by the Wild Goose Resource Group; “Celtic Daily Prayer,” by the Northumbria Community; and “Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book.” We appreciate the structure of scripture reading, praise and thanksgiving and petition and intercession. In addition to the printed resources, we sing the Lord’s Prayer together, as well as a “Gloria” or “Kyrie.”

I could name other prayer practices I value — art or movement as prayer, repeating the Jesus prayer, praying with icons, the daily examen, praying in a labyrinth and many more.

Each practice has enlarged my experience of God’s presence and sustained and guided me on the journey. The counsel, “Pray as you can,” has encouraged me to experiment with a variety of modes of prayer and to trust that the Spirit will guide me to even more fruitful ways to pray.

A book that provides abundant resources for many ways to pray is Paths to Prayer:  Finding Your Own Way to God by Patricia D. Brown (Jossey-Bass, 2003).