Unstoppable: A Reflection on Prayer

red begonia plant blooming

I have a thing for red flowers. Not roses, necessarily, but more everyday kinds of flowers: red geraniums, red tulips, red salvia. This summer I potted a red begonia on my front porch. Nestled in between the door and my favorite porch chair, I couldn’t help but see it every day. It bloomed all summer long. It’s still blooming now, and it’s November. I have no idea why.

My thumb is not all that green, and I honestly don’t remember the last time I watered it. But beauty is often unstoppable. I already pulled up the other porch plants, all in various stages of decline this fall, but I can’t bring myself to uproot my red begonia. Not yet.

I call it my God plant. Its blooming is a bit of a mystery, after all. I like to look into all that radiance and whisper a prayer of gratitude. Nothing fancy, usually just a “thank you God” with enough awe to truly be sincere. The red blooms remind of the saying: Bidden or not bidden, God is always here. The thought makes me smile, shake my head. How can I forget?

And yet, I did. I forgot. In the shift from summer to fall, I lost my routine, my evening ritual, my way of connecting with the divine. Temperatures dropped early this September, and now it’s too cold to sit outside on my porch late at night, staring up at the moon and pondering the vastness of God. And it’s too hard to pull myself up out of bed in the early morning dark, no less, to center myself in prayer before getting my son up for school. Both are excuses, I know. And both are also true. 

I have discovered that there are many seasons in our prayer life. A way of praying that suits us for a time. When I was a pre-teen, I prayed the rosary at night. I took the whole process rather literally, calculating that the more beads I fingered, the more I could win God’s approval, the more my requests would get answered. I’d pass my grammar test. My father would find work again. My parents would stop arguing over Sunday dinners. When those things did not happen, I assumed it was my fault. So, I said more rosaries.

That season ended sometime in high school when I experienced a different kind of connection during the liturgies at our all-girls Catholic school. We sang songs about inclusion and love, how God was gathering us all in—“the lost and forsaken, the rich and the haughty”—wherever we were in our lives, calling us to be light for the world. It felt energizing, and free. All these years later, I still hear those lyrics in my head. I remember singing them to my young son when we were both awake in the dark of night.

“Gather us in, the lost and forsaken. Gather us in, the blind and the lame. Call to us now, and we shall awaken. We shall arise at the sound of our name.”

Fast forward through college and early adulthood, where I landed in different churches for different stretches of time. I don’t remember how I found my way to a Saturday morning centering group in the basement of a church. But it felt good sitting in that circle of folding chairs and holding the stillness together, all of us in silent prayer for 20 minutes. Gentile and Jew, agnostic and devout, Buddhist monk and Catholic nun. In that circle, I felt closer to God, more so than any pew I’d ever knelt in.

Over the years, my seasons of prayer have continued to vary. I did Taize prayer and found myself lulled by the lyrics and refrains. I tried the Examen by St. Ignatius right before bed and slept more soundly than I knew was possible. (Perhaps rest, and not overcommitment, is closer to the divine than we like to acknowledge.) I’ve done mantras, Lectio Divina, and reiki. Bought prayer books, candles, incense. Petitioned with direct requests, pleas, and incessant bargaining. I even have meditation apps on my phone. I like the sound of the gong.

When I look back on this, especially now from this season of in-between, I wonder why I search for God. I know there is no one right way to pray, but why am I constantly changing it up, trying the next “best” thing. If silence is compelling, why don’t I stick with that?

When in doubt, I often turn to one of my favorite books, An Altar in the World. Writer and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor offers this insight. “Prayer,” she says, “is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer.”

She goes on to explain that prayer is not what we do, not what we have to say. “Prayer is happening … God is happening, and I am lucky enough to know that I am in the Midst.” 

Prayer defined in this way is freeing. Like beauty, it is unstoppable. It does not matter the form or the outcome. Any moment can be a prayer. Or rather, in every moment, I have the choice to pause long enough to be fully present and quiet my thoughts. To be still. To remember love. To let God do what God does without me interjecting directions. Or thinking I am in charge.

My red begonia is happening. God is happening. And I am lucky enough to be reminded that the divine is already here. I do not need to search. God always finds us.

“Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away. But here in this space, the new light is shining. Now is the kingdom, now is the day.“

Gather Us In

Written by Marty Haugen

Here in this place, new light is streaming,
now is the darkness, vanished away,
see, in this space, our fears and our dreamings,
brought here to you in the light of this day,

Gather us in, the lost and forsaken;
gather us in, the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise at the sound of our name.

We are the young, our lives are a mystery;
we are the old, who yearn for your face,
we have been sung throughout all of history,
called to be light to the whole human race.

Gather us in, the rich and the haughty;
gather us in, the proud and the strong;
give us a heart so meek and so lowly,
give us the courage to enter the song.

Here we will take the wine and the water,
here we will take the bread of new birth,
here you shall call your sons and your daughters,
call us anew to be salt for the earth.

Give us to drink the wine of compassion,
give us to eat, the bread that is you;
nourish us well, and teach us to fashion
lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

Not in the dark of buildings confining,
not in some heaven light years away,
but here in this space, the new light is shining,
now is the kingdom, now is the day.

Gather us in, and hold us forever;
gather us in, and make us your own;
gather us in, all peoples together,
fire of love in our flesh and our bone.