Prayer, or rather the practice of prayer, reveals me as some rare coward. I tell you this sometimes for the sake of being known.
One true resemblance of a prayer passes my lips around 11:20 every Sunday morning, returning to the pew with a crust of bread; barely grape-kissed on some weeks, dyed and dripping new royal purple on others.
My only hope in life and in death, I say before swallowing.
And yet I keep building a playlist titled “Prayers.” Thirty-five tracks so far, enough for a common (song)book.
Every other hour, all through the hour, silent struggles branch two ways:
Why tell God what God already knows? When somehow I push past this objection, suck in my breath to ask for the already written, I only end up sighing. My lungs fill with portraits of kids—all their heads swimming, all their hands reaching—and with words I know about statehouses who damn them. Sighs as long as most sermons.
And yet I keep building a playlist titled “Prayers.” Thirty-five tracks so far, enough for a common (song)book. Two hours, 37 minutes of adoration, contrition, thankfulness and supplication, give or take a few Lord, pleases and our fathers.
Contrition and supplication, mostly.
Some songs paraphrase prayers you might hear almost anywhere. Fronting the Midwestern mystics Low, the late Mimi Parker croons “I need your grace / Alone.” Josh Radnor and Ben Lee join their voices to raise a modern echo of Julian of Norwich’s assurance with “All Shall Be Well.”
From within a record named for a Puritan prayer book, Manchester Orchestra bandleader Andy Hull counts up his shortfalls, uncorks communion wine with shaky hands, whispers a way back:
“I think I finally found the antidote / I’ve been lying to Holy Ghost / Holy beds that fully broke / Let me start again.”
Other songs elbow into sacred places. Against anxious guitars, and keeping the company of whirring, wordless angels, The National make their fears heard, ask God for drugs enough to sort them out. Bono shows up to pray against bad love, to plead for oneness with Father, Son, Spirit and every mortal.
My friend Rae Fitzgerald sings about how everyone in America has a gun, might as well be 100 guns, and I file the prayer two places. I for Imprecatory, L for Lament.
A few playlist prayers suspend belief. My imagination chafes at its own picture of Idles singer Joe Talbot, his voice like a car wreck, scuffing some transfigured cathedral floor. Wrestling his demons, he asks for antiphon: “Can I get a hallelujah? / Hear it from the back now?”
Somehow I can only imagine Nick Cave hovering feet above the English moors, his body pointed toward John’s baptism, singing “There are some people trying to find out who / There are some people trying to find out why / There’s some people who aren’t trying to find anything / But that kingdom in the sky.”
All those people are me.
In the space of a new breath, I can’t believe anyone prays without music.
One prayer fades away, and another begins with guitar strings bent and digital drums crackling, a singer already forming expletives beneath his tongue. And, in the space of a new breath, I can’t believe anyone prays without music.
I know, I know: We bend everything we receive. So hands wring over how the music moves us, what it moves us toward.
But when we surrender all our habits, tear pages from the manuals we inherit, lift our burdens with honest posture—friends and lovers, the music only ever ushers you. Closer to yourself, that is to say, closer to God.
We say “Teach us to pray” and perhaps God answers by counting in the band. Hallowed be thy name.
Overcaution halts most of my prayers. But I want to be soft and thoughtful now. Some songs resemble prayers to my God; some entreat any god. Others do their own thing, asking me to steer around the sin of imposition.
Maybe prayer is merely pure murmur, pure motion; a shuffling through the words we least expect till some secret melody comes close, lifts our language higher.
Yes, an Alexi Murdoch chorus sounds like church—“My salvation lies in your love”—but his opening prayers of thankfulness, for orange skies overhead and brotherly love beside, deserve to live by their own intentions. Frank Ocean sings of “Bad Religion” and isn’t calling me to anything, even as he rearranges my vertical desire.
But we are always losing our faith and lending each other words. I hum other people’s notes, which become prayers without malice or a conscious second thought.
We cannot even choose our intercessors; I will forever rehearse Tom Waits psalms but don’t want to tell you how often Rob Thomas prays for me. He sings “If you’re selling faith / I’m buying right now,” and oh how all the Monday through Saturday misfires cease to matter. Linkin Park comes behind with a chorus of digital “amens” and I bask in grace light with a band I barely care for or consider.
Something in me believes—even while making these slow claims—no one ever minds you turning their words towards even hinted transcendence, towards possibility. Songs fare worse fates every day.
Maybe prayer is merely pure murmur, pure motion; a shuffling through the words we least expect till some secret melody comes close, lifts our language higher. If this is true, shuffle the playlist again. And the songs will rise like incense and my prayers will feel like enough.