Thirsty deer, longing souls, readers’ words on prayer

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 18, 2012

Last week’s column on my grandson Thomas’s question about my prayer life set a new record for reader responses.

Our coffee companions were interested not only in the computer-analogy answer I gave him, however. Several were amazed that I could have any such conversation in the first place with an 18-year-old male university student.

Thelma Rhynas wrote from Ontario:

“Not only is Thomas's question a good one, but one I'm sure all your coffee companions have asked of someone in their lives. I know it's one I've thought about for years, and the answer has never been clear, until now. Thank you and Thomas, for your wonderful – yes, scientific-sense-of-wonder – question and answer.”

More pointedly, our dentist, Ralph Dubienski, of Springbank, responded:

“As always, Thomas has great questions, a very insightful person. Did you ask him about his prayer life?”

I shared Ralph’s question with Thomas and here’s his response:

Dear Grandpa,

For me, prayer is very similar to how you've described it. I recognize that my prayer life is immature in some respects: for example, I primarily use words when praying. But as God has progressed my relationship with Him, so my prayer life has in many respects matured.

I've grown to use words merely as tools for expressing myself to God as plainly as I can, so that my sentiments are brought to His light, thus revealing where I need to improve. Sometimes, when my thought-words don't cut it, I pray out loud.

Similarly to how you described it, prayer for me has grown to be a continual dialogue with God: whether I am explicitly conscious of it or not, I try to live a life of prayer. It's hard to express what non-conscious prayer is like. I primarily know of it both from the unsettling feeling of its absence when I am distracted and from the sense of peace that is present to varying degrees when I am living it.

—Hugs, Thomas

“Your grandson's question is wonderful,” wrote Denise Peterson, principal at the Siksika First Nation’s Sequoia School in Gleichen.

“Some years ago, when I was principal of Strathmore Storefront School,” Denise said, “I was fortunate to have a staff member who had worked for a year with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She told me of a particular morning, when the Sisters and volunteers were in prayer before setting out for their day’s work. When Mother spoke, she shocked and surprised them by saying she didn't feel like praying; instead she said, ‘Today let the work of my hands be my prayer.’”

About prayer as an urgent impulse, Cochrane photo-essayist Jack Blair wrote:

Warren, your column this week is, in a word, brilliant.

My experience with prayer is sporadic. I don’t pray too often. Nevertheless, there are times when I find that prayer is exactly the right thing to do.

One such occasion was when I was driving back from Regina and I was able to avoid hitting deer crossing the highway thanks to the “angel” in an approaching car just previous. At that moment, I wanted so much to say my thanks, and prayer to God seemed like exactly the right thing to do, as there was no way to thank the other driver. That prayer worked for me. (See my blog essay, “How Do You Thank an Angel?”)

Another type of situation is when friends, family, or acquaintances are in some dire stress for which I can be of no help. I can’t play my male “I’ll fix this” role. They may be too far away or taken with such a problem that there is no mortal help possible. Prayer gives me a way to show that I care. . . .

Media producer Ken Fast, writing from Derwent, east of Edmonton, sees such moment-by-moment conversational prayer as a lifetime learning experience. “At times that includes arguing (wrestling) with God,” he said. “Other times, just listening or sensing.”

And still other times, just chanting – or singing. Prayer as chanting is something my “adopted” Stoney Nakoda father, the late Jacob House – whom I call Ade (pronounced ah-DAY, “my father”) – taught me back in the 1960s while I was living on the Big Horn Stoney Reserve west of Rocky Mountain House.

On occasion, he would accompany me on the hour-and-a-half drive into town over the dusty, then-unpaved David Thompson Highway. When we were not otherwise chatting, he would tap rhythmically on the dashboard with his fingers and softly sing a traditional First Nations prayer song to pass the time.

This memory of Ade, together with Thomas’s and your responses, reminds me of a line from the Hebrew Scriptures. I’ll close for now with the opening words from Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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