“To you O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust . . . .”
I once asked a monk what qualified as prayer. I was asking because my own practice of prayer had evolved quite a bit in the previous decade of my life. Really, to say it “evolved” gives the wrong impression. The way I prayed had changed, not just once but several times. These changes weren’t prompted by the idea that my contemplative practice was getting better; I wasn’t becoming a professional or anything like that. The changes happened simply because a new way of praying seemed to fit a particular situation. As a graduate student I found myself most often praying in either a formal worship service or while I ran. Most of that prayer was verbal: questions, sorting and sifting. When I began working fulltime the best space for prayer was during my walking commute to my office: the beauty of mornings, the cracked sidewalks, winter ice—all of these became analogies of God’s way with the world. Then, during a sabbatical, I began praying something equivalent to the daily office. I appreciated the structure of that way of praying. It was good to be drawn out of myself into ancient forms of encountering God.
The beginning of the Lenten season, especially the first lines from Psalm 25, remind me of the monk’s answer. He was a Benedictine, which meant that his life was regimented by prayer and work. Though his own daily schedule was very formal, he told me that what was or was not prayer mostly depended on my intention. It could be that we go through the motions of formal corporate prayer without actually praying ourselves. It could be that we go through a long list of personal concerns and intercede on behalf of others—all from the mindset that God is one more aspect of our world that we can manipulate for results. That wouldn’t be prayer either.
What we see in the opening lines of Psalm 25 is that the poet actively “lifts up his soul.” Prayer acknowledges that we are orienting ourselves to something or someone very near but also very beyond ourselves. We cannot open ourselves to God in the same way we encounter the humdrum of our everyday concerns. Many who have commented on this verse, even older writers, have pointed out that “lifting up” one’s soul implies choosing to ignore the buzz of distractions for a time. Placing our trust in God is also a deliberate action. Our ability to trust is affected by many things, but prayer is always in some sense a willing stepping out or a stepping into. It is the deliberate choice to walk in one direction instead of another. Our annual observance of Lent is an opportunity to think again about those decisions.