It’s my eyes that never seem to know what to do, darting around the floor and the food, glancing up to see if I’m the only delinquent. My hands somehow have retained protocol, instantly grasping each other. Maybe to curb the possibility of having to reach for another’s hand around the table, and therefore being exposed by my shaking and sweating that I don’t belong in this custom. Maybe to keep from reaching for the nearest doorknob, returning only after the first clink of a spoon on a dish. But my eyes: I can’t will them to tradition. And then, taken by some unexpected reflex– like a knock on my adolescent bedroom door– they snap shut at the Amen, and then swivel wide and open and expectant at the others in the room, congratulating everyone on that long and illustrious holy haven of a moment. Like being surprised by a nap, and waking somewhere new.
Praying makes me squeamish.
Thinking about the pre-dinner Christian tradition at family holiday celebrations makes me feel like I have to simultaneously defecate and push my brains back in through my ears. This isn’t for my lack of know-how. Back in my Christian hey-day, I was a world class, state-of-the-art-president-of-my-youth-group master of all manners of evangelical praying. From the prostrate-unworthy-oh-Lord’s, to the petition-forgiveness-for-someone-else’s-dire-sins, to the round robin classic popcorn-style-speak-when-you-will-and-prepare-to-be-impressed-with-my-thoughtfulness-and-intimacy-with-God. I grew up and out of “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food…” by the time I reached Junior High. I was on the advanced track to Holy Roller-my-eyes-at-everyone-else’s-infantile-invocations.
In the last few years, I can count the number of times I’ve prayed. Always in secret, and always in desperation– for a lost husband, for a lost dog, for a lost baby. Always, with a bargain to the Almighty: I’ve now divinely quit smoking… three times. I’ve also quit drinking once, but it was a long time ago, and lasted only until a hallowed glass of wine arrived the next day. The blood of Christ, right? God works in mysterious ways. Prayer changes things. God never gives more than you can handle…
It isn’t as though I think praying is bad, or even that it’s unwelcome. In fact, more and more these days, I am finding that I am jealous of other people’s Grandma Prayers. My own grandparents have been gone for almost two decades, now, and I am often feeling a bit slighted by the celestial due to the lack of petitioning on my behalf. I am in need of a bug to bend the ear of the Lord, and all kinds of people– including my Someone– have Grandma Prayers on their side, clogging the pious pipeline for themselves while people like me have only the nighttime consistency of parental pleas. At least I hope my parents still pray for me. Somehow, even if I don’t know how it works or if it works, I like the idea of someone having a thought or two for me and sending it upward or downward or outward or inward to something they think is bigger than themselves.
Grandma Prayers are a commodity. These are the prayers of the persistent, the has-time-to-sit-and-keep-praying kind; the I’m-not-budging-til-something-changes kind. These are the kind of bugs in God’s or the Universe’s ear that I need. Every Christian I know will try to tell me this isn’t how it works. Maybe it’s my overactive competitive gene. But I think there is something to the collection of other people’s prayers. These are the prayers that separate me from my Someone– why it’s my hand that burns accidentally on the kettle, why it’s my feet that trip on the hike, why it’s my ankle that sprains the same time that I get the flu the same time that someone close to me dies. I try to tell my Someone this, but he’s on the phone with his Grandma. Secure it while you’ve got it, bud. If you don’t got your Grandma Prayers, you don’t got anything.
The prayer my own grandmother left with me had been filed away for years as Prayers That Don’t Count But Are A Nice Try If You Don’t Know Any Better. My father’s mother, an angry woman with a soft spot for her grandkids, was the first person I can recount for whom I prayed that a Hell didn’t exist. A racist with a phobia of cats, I knew from the vast spiritual inference and overt pulpit words that this woman had not put in the proper amount of time to have her prayers heard by the Lord. She hadn’t yet said the right prayer that would make her current prayers come close to even the earlobe of God. But somehow, the little ditty I spoke only at Grandma’s house as I put my head on the overstuffed pillows, tucked snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug under the heavy, white comforter seem more valuable than the loads of venerated vomit I spiritually spewed in the years to come.
Taking her cue, feeling the enormity of a sacred ritual, I would recall the words from my last overnight stay,
As I lay me down to sleep,
pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake,
pray the Lord my soul to take.
Maybe I don’t have loads of Grandma Prayers going up to the sky that will keep me from snagging my favorite sweater or breaking my favorite mug, but at least this is the truest prayer I can imagine for me or my dead grandmother or anyone these days. It’s not new and it’s not original: but at least it’s true. I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if there is a God out there and she/he/it has any control over the next thing, it would be nice if we could be part of it, too. That is, if you’ll have us.