“I’ll pray for you.” We say it earnestly to convey solidarity. But sometimes, too many times, we simply say it and move on. The phrase becomes another cliché we keep on hand. But the promised prayer never happens.
I’m prone to forget promised prayers if I don’t somehow incarnate the intention. If I want to be true, I must make my prayers tangible. Moving mysterious prayers into time and space with objects I can see, touch, even smell help me remember to pray. My good intentions gain some gravity, my prayers some levity.
I imagine this is part of the rational behind prayer beads and rosaries – the prayers can be felt in our hands as the strand wraps round our fingers, beads and knuckles pressed together in supplication. It’s not about counting prayers, but remembering to pray them.
When a beloved friend passed away after a long illness I wanted to remember him well. I wanted his leaving to linger. So I put his framed picture on my kitchen counter next to my cutting board. I put a nosegay of rosemary, the herb of remembrance, in a julep cup next to his smile. Every time I sliced morning bread or a crisp apple to snack on I saw his countenance – remembering. When I made dinner I’d chop some rosemary and add to the meal. The aroma, the taste, it all spoke of his presence in our life. And for months after the photo was put away, I couldn’t smell rosemary without him coming to mind.
My close friend told me she was heading off to Spain to teach English. An entire year of missing her, a year I wanted to keep her in my prayers since I couldn’t keep her close. So I made a prayer covenant – for that year I would only use Spanish olive oil. Each time I reached for a new bottle of olive oil, seeing the Spanish label, I’d think of her. I’d say a prayer for her the rest of the way down the grocery aisle. Sometimes while cooking, the oil circling the pan glistened with heat and, funny as it may seem, I’d imagine the sun sparking on the Mediterranean. Another prayer would ascend.
When she sent me an email telling me she decided to stay on another year…well, I knew it would be another year of Spanish olive oil. But something so common in my kitchen kept her near and my prayers constant.
More recently I remember a friend traveling to Haiti. As we sat side by side in a café she asked me to pray for her as she traveled away from home, her trio of tinies and into the unknown of the place and the poverty. I wanted to keep my promise – so I bought a tall slender vigil candle.
I lit it the morning she left Canada. And each day as I moved in and out of the kitchen I’d see the flickering light calling me to pray. My counter became altar – where sandwiches were made and school lunches packed, onions chopped, pesto and tomato jam made, then cooled. All alongside the glowing candle that kept her near and reminded me to offer promised prayers.
I only blew it out the night she returned home, safely reunited with her family. Now what remains of that candle sits beside my icons, a reminder of a vigil kept and the Spirit that moved her to build a school in Haiti.
My praxis of prayer has to be concrete as rosemary, olive oil and burning candles or I’ll forget my own promises. I embody my prayers to rescue them from becoming a cliché – to keep them flickering and active and able to move mountains.