Stumbling Through Lent: I Don't Know How to Pray -- And Neither Does Barbara Brown Taylor

I don't know how to pray. I haven't figured that out yet. But I'm in good company.

Barbara Brown Taylor -- professor, author, theologian, Episcopal priest and a woman TIME magazine once designated one of the world's most influential people -- seems to be as flummoxed by the prayer question as I am.

"I am a failure at prayer," she once confessed in her book, "An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith." "To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much."

Now there's a woman after my own heart.

I belong to a group that meets once a month. Some people might describe it a prayer group. But I don't -- because I, for one, am not that good at praying. Our group is

'Like the wide iris of God's own eye.' Photo by Barbara Newhall

good at talking, and we're really good at listening to each other. And, somehow or other, God seems to be there when we meet on a week night for a simple meal and talk. Prayer -- how to do it, why do it -- is a topic we bump up against from time to time.

Like me, Taylor expresses consternation at trying to formulate a clear theology and practice of prayer. The author of the acclaimed "Leaving Church," she waits until the second to last chapter of "An Altar in the World" to finally bring up the subject of prayer. When she does, it is with trepidation. "I would rather show someone my checkbook stubs than talk about my prayer life," she writes.

I have shelves full of prayer books and books on prayer. I have file drawers full of notes from courses I have taught and taken on prayer. I have meditation benches I have used twice, prayer mantras I have intoned for as long as a week, notebooks with column after column of the names of people in need of prayer (is writing them down enough?) I have a bowed psaltery-a biblical string instrument mentioned in the book of Psalms-that dates from the year I thought I might be able to sing prayers easier than I could say them. I have invested a small fortune in icons, candles, monastic incense, coals, and incense burners.

Every once in a while, prayer overtakes Taylor and she is flooded with a transcendent presence. But most of the time, she finds a more immediate sense of God in what she calls "enlarged awareness" -- in paying attention -- as she bites into a homegrown tomato, or sets the table for guests with her best dishes and silverware, or pauses to notice the moon, round and full "like the wide iris of God's own eye."

"An Altar in the World" limns a spirituality of the everyday, of finding Holy in the feeding of the cats and the dogs, the family and the friends. It suggests that, instead of waiting for God to answer our prayers, we wake up to the fact that our lives are the very answer to the question we ask. The sacred is right there in plain sight and always has been.

Maybe that's what happens to me when my once-a-month group meets to eat, talk and be present for God. I listen to the others speak. I offer up my own private stories -- and I feel them coming back to me, intensified, enlarged and sanctified.

© 2016 Barbara Falconer Newhall. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this post appeared on, where Barbara writes about her rocky spiritual journey -- and the view from the second half of life. More essays at "Does Islam Scare You? If So, Here's Why" and "The Center of the Universe Lives at Our House."

Forty years ago today, on Leap Year Day 1976, Barbara proposed marriage to her then boyfriend. Here's what happened next: "The Day She Popped the Question."