More than twenty years ago I was asked to give a week-long retreat to some nuns in rural Kentucky. One of the nuns, Sister Joan, a most earnest woman with a crinkled brow that seemed to suggest she was always thinking, had been on a retreat I had given a few years previously, and she thought that the same retreat would be perfect for her community. "Don't change a word," she said over the phone to me when we were chatting about the details, "not one jot or tittle."
The day the retreat began I arrived quite late due to a punctured tyre, so I only had about five minutes to change into suitable garb and get to the chapel where the sisters were waiting for me. Just before I entered, Sister Joan said, "Break a leg!" Then, as if it were an afterthought she said, "By the way, I think we'd like to make one slight change."
One slight change? Literally one minute before I was to begin?
"Yes," she said earnestly. "You know how you tell stories and then make the connections?"
"Yes, I'm vaguely familiar with the technique" I said, maybe with more sarcasm the situation warranted. (Maybe.)
"Well, we've decided that it would be nice if you just tell the stories and we can make our own connections. So you can just skip that part. Then after the story we can tell you we thought the point was."
I explained that people tended to make their own connections anyway, and that there was a danger in such a programme that people might think I was saying something that I wasn't, since I wouldn't really move from the illustration to the point. What if people got the wrong point?
"We're nuns, not mechanics," she said (I think vastly undervaluing mechanics). "We'll get your point - don't worry."
And so to begin talking about prayer I told the sisters about when I was a young boy staying with my grandmother. Every morning at 10:30 we would turn on Channel 17 to watch one of Grams' favourite game shows: Let's Make a Deal. The programme, hosted by Monty Hall, a round-faced toothy man with perfect hair, saw contestants dressing up in all kinds of outrageous costumes (I never quite understood why, to be honest) and basically having to decide whether to take what was on offer behind Curtain Number One (say, an Amana side by side stainless steel refrigerator) or risk choosing what was behind Curtain Two or Curtain Three. Of course, one never knew what was going to get behind the other curtains, and Monty's trusted assistant with the fabulous name Carrol Merrill was possessed of a smiling poker face that offered no clues at all. So one could end up with a bigger prize (say, a trip for two to exotic Puerto Vallarta) or what was referred to as a "Zonk," which could be anything from 100 lbs of pickled okra to a llama.
But my grandmother's favourite part came at the end, when Monty Hall would go into the audience filled with the wackily dressed people who hadn't been chosen as contestants and offer them cash if they could produce whatever item he asked for. Women (in those days I seem to remember they were always women) would reach into their handbags and frantically search for whatever Monty had just asked them for, which sometimes included normal items such as safety pins or hair clips, but could also be something a little less likely to be carried around in one's handbag, like a can of tuna or a toy horse. But if they could put their hands on whatever Monty had asked for, they would get some crisp dollar bills as a reward. My grandmother would lean forward and cheer these women on: "Come on, Linda: you've just got to have a picture of Richard Nixon in there; you've just got to!" She really wanted those women to have what Monty asked for and was overjoyed when out came the requested book of S&H Green Stamps. ("'atta girl, Emma!") At the same time Grams was gutted when someone came up empty-handed. ("Poor Darlene! How could she have forgotten to bring the spatula?" she would ask me. "My heart just aches for her.")
Now this was the point where I would have ordinarily moved from the story to the meat of what I wanted to say, but - this time - I just sort of stopped and shrugged my shoulders, feeling very much on the side - parsley-like, if you will. The sisters seemed to have enjoyed my story and - personally - I think they were waiting for me to go on to the explaining bit, but Sister Joan jumped up and informed them that they were now going to break up into groups of twos and threes and discuss what the point of the story was and how it was connected to prayer. In a half an hour's time we would all gather back together and share their reflections with the group. I, clearly no longer needed, went off to make myself a cup of tea and rethink the eleven other conferences I had prepared.
We gathered back in the chapel and the sisters started sharing their take on the story. I was amazed that - for the most part - they all seemed to view the basic premise in the same light. God was like Monty Hall, who expected certain things of us. Prayer was both the search for those things and the offering of them once we found them. And though we were rewarded when we did find them, the search itself was its own reward. And Monty/God was always there with us.
I smiled and nodded as I listened. And after the last person had spoken, a Rubenesque nun with a raspy voice shouted out, "Did we get it right? Was that your point?" (None of us are immune from wanting to get the right answer.) But Sister Joan said with a smile, "No, no Sister Eunice! Father Alaric just provides the stories, not the points," which I found slightly dismissive and almost seemed to put me in the same spiritual place as mechanics in her estimation. Now, you may ask, why am I sharing this particular anecdote? My first thought was to just leave it where it is and let you chew on it like those nuns did. But I'll tell you. We have been talking a lot about prayer in these past few weeks - probably more than we used to when our church buildings were open (which should maybe tell us something). I've heard from lots of people how they benefit from the online prayer we offer, and no two stories are alike. Some listen to the prayers from beginning to end. Some skip the sung parts (which makes me smile I have to admit). Some skip pretty much all of it and go to the intercessions at the end. Some might get around to Monday's morning prayer on Thursday evening. Some play both of the day's prayers back to back at bedtime. Some don’t tune in at all but are happy that it's happening. So many fantastic stories. I wouldn't change a single one of them. If prayer is at its root about communication between God and us, then it makes sense that that communication is going to be different for different people, play itself out in manifold ways and in countless stories. Were those nuns correct in their interpretation of the story? I would have to say that they were, even if the point that they seemed to take from the story was not the point I had hoped to make.
At the end of the day there is no right way to pray. The ministry team have been offering particular expressions of traditional prayer, but they are by no stretch of the imagination exhaustive; we’ve just continued what we traditionally have done and offered how we, as individuals, tend to do things. There are more ways to pray out there, and I hope we can be open to exploring them. And there are certainly more stories to be heard as we figure out how God enters into all of this, what he is trying to tell us, and how he longs to continue his story in ours.
In the end, I personally don’t tend to think of God like Monty Hall, asking things of us and doling out rewards. In my story God is more like a grandmother, leaning up on the sofa and genuinely desiring that good things happen to the Lindas and Emmas of the world, and aching when things don’t go so well for the Darlenes. And God is like a grandmother who sits next to me and lets me know with every breath that she wishes also for good things for me, and aches when I am hurting. And prayer, for me, is my awareness of my place on that sofa, of listening to those divine desires and aches, and responding as best I can.
That was the point I wanted to make all those years ago. That was my story.