Through twenty years and three kitchens, my refrigerator door has been graced by a copy of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” On most days, I consider the pivotal lines “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know what it is to pay attention . . .” as a variation on Paul’s instruction to pray without ceasing, an acknowledgment that prayer happens in many other forms besides the spoken word, a hint that thanking God for this good creation requires us first to notice it. But on other days, the “I don’t know” seems a cry from the scared turtle self within: Am I doing this right?
The first prayers I memorized were learned in the community of family, and there were two: a simple, reassuring one for day and a more complex, troubling one for night. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food” was straightforward—know God, put faith and trust in God, return that knowledge with thanks. From the mouth of my younger brother or me, it was sufficient to bring a blessing on the family’s supper, our four heads bowed toward the good smells before us.
For the bedtime prayer, though, I was on my own. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” raised questions that sometimes kept me wondering in the dark, delaying my laying me down to sleep. Why did I need protection for my soul at night? Where might it go if God didn’t keep it? And why on earth might I die before I wake? So my first extemporaneous prayers were tacked on to that quatrain, backtracking from and bargaining against the last line, enacting the struggle between God’s will and my own: “But please don’t let me die yet.”
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