My two-year-old son is really into praying before dinner. He clasps his hands together enthusiastically, jubilantly declaring “I pray!” After everyone else at the table follows suit, placing our hands in a pious, prayerful position, my child then proceeds to the next part of the ritual, which apparently is to look meaningfully, in turn, at each person around the table with a slight nod of the head. My husband and I didn’t even realize that we did this silly thing until we saw it imitated, mirrored back to us with hilarious precision, by our son. The same is true for the dramatic sigh after saying “Amen” at the end.
Between the meaningful looks and the “Amen,” however, are the words. The words of my son’s prayers, like all of his words, are hard to understand because all of his pronunciation is baby pronunciation and very few of his words are clear or well-formed. As he prays, I usually understand about one-third of what he is saying. “Nay-noo” he says. This means, “Thank you.” And he says it many times. “Nay-noo …” followed by a string of indecipherable syllables. Then again, “Nay-noo …” and some more words I can’t understand. And so on, several times throughout the prayer. Sometimes I can recognize words or phrases. The words “nice day” and “food” usually are in there somewhere. And then at the end, clear as can be, “Amen” followed by that dramatic sigh.
It reminds me, oddly, of my grandfather’s prayers. At family gatherings, it was my grandfather’s prerogative to say the prayer before meals, and it was always the same. However, I couldn’t understand what he was saying because for all of my living memory the old man mumbled, and mumbled quickly. So the prayer sounded like this: “Our Father we thank theeumofupsmeobluehchsoermfffahthy service Amen.” Syllables all strung together into one unintelligible word like that, of which the only thing I could make out was the very beginning and the very end. From this family practice I learned, unfortunately, that prayer before meals was a hollow and meaningless ritual, and I did not take it up again until well into adulthood.
But I did take it up again. Even on the evenings when I am too tired, or had a day that was too crappy, or feeling just too overwhelmed or sad or whatever to say anything else, I can usually manage to mumble “Thank you” for the food that is on the plate in front of my face. And that is enough, and it matters that I manage to say that, if nothing else, before I eat. We like to make a big deal out of how we pray, whether or not we are doing it right. But I have found that if we start with “Thank you,” whatever comes afterwards – or doesn’t come – will be OK. This is what my two-year-old has taught me, which my grandfather could not. “Nay-noo.” Whatever words come after that are good and can be meaningful, but really are just icing on the prayer cake. It is OK that I can’t understand my young son’s baby pronunciation, that I have no idea what actual words he is praying. And my son’s joyful, enthusiastic, and yet totally un-intelligible praying has finally helped me to understand that it is OK that I couldn’t understand the words my grandfather was mumbling, either. All those years, it turns out that I could hear and understand the most important words, the ones that express gratitude.
The author Anne LaMott says that there are really only three prayers: “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” You might have words to add to that list, but it’s a good list. If one of those three words is all you can articulate, for whatever reason, that is a rich, worthwhile, meaningful prayer. And on the days, those hard days of life that we all go through sometimes, when “Thank you” feels a long way away, like mumbling those words feels a little hollow … well … mumble them anyways. Or maybe even just put an “Amen” after your sighs (rather than before them), and let those sighs of exhaustion, longing, despair, relief, contentment, pleasure or hope be your prayer. And the Holy Spirit will fill in the rest, with sighs too deep for words.