"Do you have a quiet time?" asked the shaggy haired cute guy from the bible study I attended on Monday nights. I was 18 years old. It was the 80's, and in the 80's, as well as most of the 90's, it was a Christianese question that was commonly asked, answered, analyzed, and for me, lied about.
"What do you mean by quiet time?" I asked, unsure of this new church language that I kept bumping into as a new follower of Christ. "Are you asking do I pray?" And so began the long guilt trip of being assessed by others as well as myself of whether or not I:
Number One: Had a Quiet Time
Number Two: Had a long enough or consistent enough quiet time.
Being the overachiever I am I quickly turned my prayer life into a spiritual workout. I bench pressed intercession every morning. If I missed a session, I was sure that God was frowning at me.
Over the years, my quiet time, (which, by the way, was anything but quiet!) developed into a place of meaningful interaction with the Almighty. I would take time out on a regular basis and pour out the angst of my heart into God's lap. I often felt his presence near me when I paused to pray. Many, many times I heard his voice, speaking from the well of my own fucked-up heart.
I am a wordy woman when I speak, and I am also wordy when I pray. This has made me somewhat of a prayer star at public prayer meetings. There have been times I have held back from praying, waiting on the bench, as it were, until that crucial moment when I need to sprint out on the court and bring home the winning point. Many dry prayer meetings have been revved up when I'd finally open my mouth and let it rip. I have a knack, apparently, for insightful and passionate prayer.
As a result, I gained a reputation, at least at one church, of being the prayer lady, the one who prayed up a storm about everything. People would approach me after service and ask me to pray for them. I was invited to all kinds of private prayer affairs. A couple of times I was asked to speak about the subject of prayer at gatherings. I was perceived as a Prayer Warrior.
My prayer life soared in secret as well as in public. I spent many nights in the basement of my home wailing and shouting and crying out the prayers that burned in my bones. I have a remarkable history of feeling God so strongly in those basement times that I would fall down, nose to the carpet, and just drown in the Spirit of Jesus' love and kindness.
Sometimes I have felt other things, negative unclean things that I reckoned were ungodly spirits out to harass me and intimidate me from my prayer battles. Courage against unseen enemies grew in my gut. I learned to withstand the presence of demonic entities. I took this as a good sign. "I must be stirring something up to have this kind of resistance," I would say to myself.
I hung out with other prayer warriors. They weren't hard to find, usually women, usually women in their late thirties and older. We'd pray hard and strong, certain of our spiritual power having an influence in unseen realms. We'd holler our prayers and bellow our prophetic messages as if there was a spiritual dynamic in volume.
And then, somehow, it all came to a stop. Not a screeching stop, as if I had fallen out of grace from my fellow warrior women, but rather a gradual halt. I stopped at home first, stopped going down those basement stairs to meet up with God. I found myself watching Dog the Bounty Hunter instead. Or The Sopranos.
During a crisis at one church I attended, I signed up for a prayer slot on the 24-hour emergency prayer chain. When the time arrived, I chose to watch a movie, ignoring the guilt of how my prayerlessness could affect the outcome of this urgent call to arms.
How do I pray? It used to be with loud words and passionate pleas, whether privately or publicly. I was once a prayer warrior, a sought out member of the SWAT team. But nowadays, since wandering into this spiritual wilderness a few summers ago, I can barely muster up the words for bedtime prayers with my own kids. And really, I ought not to be asked to say grace at the dinner table anymore. I rush through it like I rush through washing dishes.
I'm still a wordy woman. But my prayers are no longer wordy. In fact, there are barely any words to them at all. How do I then pray?
I pray with art, with images and color that reflect outloud the embers that still burn in my bones. I pray with paint, and glue, and scraps of paper that I collage together. Quiet time. This is my best time to do art.
When my father died this past summer I went to a local art store and filled up a bag with supplies. Before we had even buried him an art piece flowed out of me. Grief, prayed out with images rather than words.
I had another crisis, an emotional crisis earlier this summer. It caught me off guard. An incident tore an old scab off a hidden hurt and I bled all over the carpet. In times past I would have headed for the basement and prayed it all out to my father in heaven. Instead, I grabbed my art box, a glass of wine, and sat at my table, collaging images and phrases of grace and beauty. It has now become one of my favorite art pieces, a vivid prayer that hangs on the wall of my bedroom. It is a living prayer that has yet to be amen'ed.
How do I pray? I listen to the Blues, and sing. I sing my prayers along with Mavis and Ted and Muddy. I hum and harmonize, prayer boiling over like a kettle of simmering black-eyed peas.
I danced my prayers this week. A friend invited me to a concert in a nearby park. A dozen of us swirled and twirled in time to the guitars. I jazzed up my Pentecostal two-step and became lost in the magic of the sound. Prayers throbbed through my bare feet into the earth. The trees and the sky watched me, the dancing prayer warrior, as I slew dragons of grief and despair.
I do not know how to pray anymore. I do not know how to stay locked in my basement, alone with loud words and ghosts, unholy or otherwise. My prayers now have life, have purpose. Like blue tape, the tape I keep in my art drawer for using whenever and however. Prayer is no longer confined to words or places in my life. It is whenever and however. It is like blue tape.
The companionship with God I once enjoyed exclusively through prayer is nowadays enjoyed through the companionship of others. I detect God's loving presence when I enjoy my children, when a friend and I reveal our inner selves in conversation, when my husband tells me "I love you." I hear God beyond the basement walls and prayer circles. I hear him in music and see him in art.
My prayers creak and groan throughout the everydayness of my ordinary life and finds it way into the stream of artistry that flows through it.