A Box for Prayers

Thinking back over the week, it’s interesting to recall several conversations about prayer. Not a subject that typically recurs so often. With life moving quickly along from one thing to the next, I didn’t notice this thread weaving through the past few days until I stopped to reflect on what the week has brought.

This is a reason to write a blog, by the way. It helps me pay attention. The blog becomes a box for reflection, and its presence is a constant reminder to place something in it. A box for prayer can work the same way.

To one of these conversations from the week a friend brought a gift she had received—a beautiful handmade wooden box, shaped something like a medium-sized apple. The lid lifts off with a long stem-like handle to reveal a rounded interior, sanded smooth, the grain visible in the dark wood. It has just enough heft to feel solid in the palm of one’s hand.  After living with the gift for a few weeks, she realized that it would be a box for her prayers.

All sorts of prayers can be placed in such a box. Prayers for others can be held there, represented by a name written on a slip of paper. A gift that the day brings, a worry we can’t let go of, a feeling of fear or grief or longing—the concern and gratitude and pleas that color our spiritual life all have a place in a box for prayers.

To give our prayers a tangible expression is a comfort. A similar practice happens on a larger scale in Old Jerusalem where the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, holds the prayers of visitors who tuck their written words into spaces between the ancient stones. The space is considered holy because of the Jewish tradition that the Divine Presence remains there. More than a million notes are placed there every year. Semi-annually the notes are collected and buried on the Mount of Olives.

Most of us can’t place our prayers in the Wailing Wall, but we can set aside a sacred space of our own. It might feel right to ask a blessing on that space, or it may be enough to let the blessing come from the prayers with which we fill it. They may be in the form of written words, or in a simple nonverbal prayer such as lighting a candle.

A box for prayer might be a metaphorical one as well. It can be a place to visit that feels set apart. It can be a time of day. It can be the experience of sacred writings, or music, or art. It can be a ritual that helps to place us in the presence of the divine. It can be anything that helps us see that we are standing on holy ground.

What have you found that serves as a box for prayer?

Breakfast Stirrings

Most mornings this winter I’ve enjoyed oatmeal for breakfast. The kind that cooks on the stove is worth the effort for me, even though it means an extra pot to wash. Served warm with dried cranberries and a little brown sugar, a few chopped walnuts stirred in, it’s a healthy and comforting brace against a cold morning.

But with the welcome respite we’re having from winter in Central Kentucky right now, I can hardly bear the thought of another bowl of oatmeal. All winter I’ve loved it; now I’m sick of it. Maybe it’s really cold weather I’m weary of, but the guilt by association persists.

Poor oatmeal. A steady companion all these bleak months and now I don’t want it in my sight. Don’t need that remnant of the winter doldrums. It’s hardly fair. I just opened a tall new cylindrical box and it may be next winter before I finish it.

Fresh fruit! Whole wheat toast! Even cold cereal sounds better. Yogurt! Or smoothies! So many possibilities on a sunny spring-like morning. It’s spring fever at the breakfast table.

If the pangs over ignoring my faithful oats grow unbearable, I’ll make them into cookies.

What kind of change are you looking for?

Seeing the Picture

I’m remembering a dear uncle this week. Tall, gentle, and soft-spoken, his careful tamping of tobacco and patient lighting of his pipe fascinated me at family gatherings when I was a girl. Back then he was the only adult I knew who painted pictures, and I was confused when he said he didn’t think of himself as an artist.

One of his paintings was of a tree, which I remember him saying was out back of some building, in the parking lot. That was even more bewildering. How could something as special as a painting be made of something that sounded so ordinary? I would have learned an important lesson much earlier if I had been able to articulate that question, but I was a child with a thousand things I didn’t understand and no way to determine which I needed most to learn about.

Fortunately, I was able to know him long past childhood. He gave up his pipe in later years, and eventually failing eyesight took painting from him as well. But his sensibilities remained, and he appreciated the goodness of life. To talk with him was to share in a beautiful perspective on the world.

I took a break in the middle of the morning yesterday, from both the household chores I was taking care of and the writing I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days. Weary of all of it, I decided to just have a cup of coffee. Not to read or write, not to think or analyze or plan, but just to sit and look out the window and drink my coffee.

It was a beautiful day. The bright snow on the ground, the white-trimmed branches against a bright blue sky—“pretty as a picture” was the phrase that came to mind. It’s an old-fashioned idiom from a time when pictures were rare, special in a way utterly foreign to our image-flooded culture. But the phrase still evokes that sense of attention and value that comes with placing a frame around a scene. Making a picture is a way of saying this is worth noticing.

That’s what an artist can do. It’s what my uncle did when he saw something beautiful in an ordinary scene. Appreciating beauty doesn’t require a literal frame, but it helps to have some kind of reminder to pay attention. The frame could be the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It could be a particular place to be at a regular time of day. It might take the form of a ritual, like lighting a pipe.

It might even be a conversation with someone who can help you pay attention. Talking with Uncle Guyles often helped to frame something worth noticing. I’ll miss him.

What helps you frame the things you want to notice?

The Work in Front of You

I like what Karen Maezen Miller says about work in her memoir, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.

“Accord yourself with what needs to be done—the very thing that appears before you. What appears before you is not only the most important thing; it is the only thing, all other things existing in your imagination, for the time being.”

Miller is both a suburban mom and a Zen Buddhist priest, a combination of roles that seems particularly apt to me. When she talks about the work in front of her, she often means the same work that confronts me: piles of laundry and a kitchen to clean. Work that an unenlightened being on a bad day might consider drudgery.

Yet I know enough to recognize the wisdom in her teaching. I know that the dread I feel when the insurance company demands documentation is far worse than the effort of retrieving those papers from the files. I know that the frustration of cluttered counters and closets is far more painful than actually clearing them.

The problem is that I have better things to do with my time, or at least I think I do. I have more creative pursuits to follow, more important work to accomplish. I have a more fulfilling life to live than the messy one in front of me with all of its exasperating details.

On the other hand, sometimes the work in front of me is more complicated. That work may be the next step to take toward a larger goal. Often the problem that arises then is that I don’t know how to do it. Which means the additional task of learning to take on something I haven’t done before. There’s no ease with that, no sense of mastery. It would be so much more comfortable to just do what I’m good at.

I can avoid the big scary projects for a while, immersing myself in other things. But no one moves forward that way. And eventually all other endeavors lose their flavor if I’m not doing the work that calls to me. At the same time, it’s hard to do that higher level work when I’m tripping over the shoes and magazines piled on the floor.

So the work in front of me may be a sink full of dishes, or it may be the next step in making a dream come true. Both matter. Sometimes I experience a day in which each kind of work is a welcome respite from the other, a day in which I can gladly take on what’s in front of me without feeling I should be doing something different. When I can bring that kind of presence to my working, I’m released from the draining effects of second-guessing and doubt. What I’m doing is the right thing, and it’s all that matters.

As Miller says, “At the moment when I’m in the muck, at the moment when I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.”

What work is in front of you?