By Rachel G. Hackenberg
For many years, it has been my spiritual practice to articulate prayers through my pen, a habit I began after spending my youth and young adulthood entirely convinced that I lacked the discipline for prayer. As a child, my mind wandered during mealtime grace and my spirit fell asleep during bedtime prayers (taking my body with it). During my teenage years, I felt paralyzed by the immense task of praying for the whole world; in college, it was the ease and eloquence of others’ prayers that daunted my own prayers. Yet when I took those same prayers out of my head and wrote them down—finally, splendidly, as an adult—praying began to spark my creativity and focus my spirit and engage my whole body.
Praying by writing hooked me with a deeply satisfying joy of exploring words to draw closer to the Word, and a creative invitation for my pen and spirit to recognize God within the details of life. With the devotional habit of prayer-writing, I finally named my fear of prayer... and let it go as I realized that I can attend to my conversation with God—anywhere, however imperfectly, yet fully focused—as long as I have blank paper in front of me and a pen in hand. Indeed, in my habit of prayer-writing, I have found that even when I am at a loss for words to pray, just holding a pen helps me grasp a prayer:
O God... grant me your patience.
O God... grant me your protection. O God... grant me your peace.
Dear Jesus... please.
Now I pray with pen in hand while sitting in a coffee shop during the noisy morning rush. I pray while watching my kids’ soccer practices on cool spring evenings, or when taking a break from pastoral busyness to be still in the church sanctuary. Around my house (on those occasions when I bother to sort through paper piles), traces of my prayer life are evident among utility bills, church bulletins, and recycled homework papers.
Spin me in circles, Holy Spirit,
and set my feet on a new path
—prayed on the back of the blue envelope of an electric bill.
God, bless me with a word
or else bite my tongue to stay silent
—jotted on a paper napkin.
In conversations and workshops about the discipline of prayer-writing, I am continually learning that I am not the only one whose fears of praying “the right way” or “perfectly” can paralyze prayer life itself. So many of us are easily intimidated by an inner demon whispering that our prayers (and our faith) are not good enough.
Still the end of the day comes, still the darkness falls
and Orion rises, and a glass of wine does not draw me any closer to
communion with You.
I am torn between guilt-induced prayer to bridge this silent chasm...
and mindless silence to turn prayerfully, painfully, away from
what I cannot hear anyway. You are—where?—
tonight, and I am here alone, here at a loss.
Be in the darkness, I pray. Return me safely to sunlight.
The relief of prayer-writing lies in the creative license to try out words and phrases and scribbles of prayer, to witness our own prayers displayed on paper, and to engage mind, body, and spirit in conversation with God. Praying through one’s pen is not about finding the right or perfect words for prayer; it’s about connecting the whole self in the activity of prayer. It’s about exploring the fullness of words in our journeys with the Word Made Flesh through the trials and passions and joys of life. It’s about enjoying our conversations with the Holy, creatively, freely, sincerely, and shedding the fears that have held us back in prayer.
Consider trying prayer-writing for yourself. Hear God reaching out to you in prayer:
Where are you going in such a rush, child of mine?
Today I am having lunch at your home.
Today I am spending the day with you.
Today I’ve planned to sit with you and listen to your thoughts.
Today it’s just you and me, reflecting together on life as good friends do.
What are your thoughts? Where is your heart today,
child after my own heart?
Now read Luke 19:1-6 in your Bible. Listen for words, phrases, emotions that resonate with your soul. Do you feel frustrated, joyful, anxious as you seek Jesus? Do you struggle to make time for prayer? Sit quietly in God’s presence before picking up your pen. Write a prayer to ask God to surround your day with holy stillness and peace.
You might try another prayer-writing exercise to explore the images of God that you use in conversation with the Holy. Begin with this prayer:
if I call you Father,
will you please watch over me and those in my house,
and guard us like a watchman at night?
if I call you Mother,
may I curl up next to you when I have nightmares,
and will you soothe me when I am sick?
if I call you Savior,
will you rescue me during hard times
and keep me from rebellion?
if I call you Lover,
will you keep me company through thick and thin
and encourage my best self?
if I confess that you are beyond naming,
will you please be greater than me and beyond
so that the things I cannot fathom but so
feeding miracles by the millions,
can be conceived and built by your imagination?
Will you please be holy so that I can be human,
to the best of my ability?
Now read Isaiah 9:6 in your Bible. What name of God—from this passage or from your journey of faith—resonates deeply with your spirit? Let your written prayer be centered on the name(s) of God that you love.
Trust that God does not judge your written prayers like an English teacher, checking your spelling and grammar, or even like a theology professor, double-checking the orthodoxy or coherence of your faith expressions. Use whatever literary style (or lack thereof) feels most comfortable and most prayerful to your pen. Trust that the Spirit is present as you pen your prayers, and allow that Presence to affirm your prayers as “good enough.”
Be blessed by the prayers of your pen!
What fears have held you back in your life of prayer? Try one or more of the prayer exercises in this article as a step toward shedding those fears.
From “Finding the Courage to Pray” by Rachel G. Hackenberg. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 2012), Vol. 27, No. 3. Copyright © 2012 by The Upper Room.
I could not have found The Upper Room Moments of Prayer (on Facebook Live) sooner. For it is during these moments of centering spiritual practices, meditating on the words of scripture, praying with and for the world, that I find moments of transcendence, hear whispers of peace and hope, see glimpses of truth and justice, behold visions of love and beauty amid all the stark realities that are around me.”