Hail Mary Full of Grace, All the Chickens are having a race. – Unknown Author
This irreverent chant heard in my Roman Catholic elementary school recess yard was bound to incite the wrath of a St Joe’s nun. The offending chanter could expect to be pulled by the ear into a classroom to remain in solitary penance while writing “I shall not mock Mary, the Holy Mother of our Lord, Jesus Christ” 100 times in the offender’s best Palmer method. If the nun was not inclined to make the trip from the playground to the classroom, a strong bop to the back of the head might be enough of a reminder to erase the blasphemous chant from memory.
I don’t know if it was fear of corporal punishment or the ease in which holy prayer words could be twisted that made me skeptical of prayer from a very young age. I loved words, but I was doubtful of their power. For instance, “if sticks and stones could break your bones, but words would never hurt you”, how could words strung together and then memorized as a prayer make all your wishes come true? I was more afraid of the after-life and what awaited me as a sinner once I reached the age of reason at age 7. I didn’t think any amount of prayer would save me from my self-centered and indulgent thoughts when I was older. Once when I stole some money from my sister to buy candy at recess, I opted to drink the holy water in our bedroom to save my soul. If holy water could remove sin or wipe out Satan that seemed a better way to cleanse my soul than chanting a few words.
As I got older, much of the doctrine my young mind took to heart seemed irrelevant. I envied members of my family who could find solace in prayer and seemed much better equipped to deal with whatever hand God gave them than I did. I yearned to believe, to accept, to not question everything so logically. In the late 60s and early 70s, my family knelt and prayed for peace in a weekly Rosary session (“The family that prays together stays together” is another mantra from my youth). No matter how well I memorized those Catholic prayers, all I could hear was “chickens are having a race”. While I appreciated the time with the family, those pesky chickens did not help me focus. Did chickens run in a straight line or did they just circle in a frenzied chaos like the world around us? I couldn’t see the finish line or the results of our prayers. The world seemed to be full of violent protests. The Viet Nam War continued to divide our nation and accumulate many lost lives, long after our rosary ritual stopped.
As I transitioned from my late teen years into early adulthood, I began to explore different traditions to find my solace. I pecked at different culture’s traditions, moving away from anything close to the Christian tradition I was raised in. Tuning into the natural world through Native American and/or Goddess based tradition had great appeal, as did many of the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and Yoga. Like the racing chicken, I sampled grains of wisdom with distraction. Sampling what I liked and discarding what I did not. Discipline was hard, but I found that meditation, mudras (holding the hands in different positions) and chanting non-English words was very grounding. These ancient practices were done with no other purpose than to find more ease and peace in my own being. It took a while for my mind to quiet but I wasn’t thinking about or seeing chickens anymore. For a long time, these traditions are what guided me in difficult times. Unlike prayer, I wasn’t asking for anything, I was only trying to quiet myself, find acceptance, or peace within when it was needed.
Then, this summer, as a result of one of my latest peckings, I stumbled across Lectio Divina – the sacred art, Transforming Words and Images into Heart Centered Prayer by Christine Valters Paintner, a Benedictine lay abbess. Normally, the words “prayer” and “Benedictine Abbess” would have had me running toward the race with the nearest group of chickens. I had heard Christine speak as part of an on-line course I was taking. Her recommendations for a heart centered practice were not the recitation of memorized scripts, but to explore sacred texts and words that had meaning to you from any tradition, religious or not. Heart Centered means to find words which speak to your heart, not rote memorization. Christine, also happens to be a practitioner of yoga, so recommendations such as to connect to yourself with breath and adding movement to your reflections, were familiar centering tools to me. I realized, my mediation coupled with words that were relevant to me was prayer.
Over the past few months, I’ve had periods of angst due to world conditions outside of my control. Natural disasters, man-made disasters, US and global politics or the health of a loved one can throw me into that chicken race, if I’m not mindful. I feel blessed to have found another practice to calm myself and connect to spirit. It calls to mind a prayer my Reiki Master, Mei Mc Connell has taught me:
Just for today, may I anger not
Just for today, may I worry not
May my heart fill with Gratitude
May I live with Devotion
May I be kind to All
In these stressful times, I wish you solace, whatever your tradition or practice may be.
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