My best days always include a long walk alone with my thoughts. For the past few weeks, my daily treks have taken me on a path leading to a better understanding of the power of prayer.
Since the first of December, I’ve been living in my hometown with my mom after she had a mild stroke. Although I miss my hikes in the secluded woods of our home in Indiana, I’ve still been able to get in a daily walk. My route takes me through the neighborhood, down the sidewalk of a busy street, across the train tracks, to the intersection of a main road, and back again.
One blustery afternoon, a patch of woods along the train tracks called to me. I left the concrete sidewalk and headed a different direction across the frosty ground close to the tree line. As my feet kicked through thick crisp leaves, I heard myself let out a long breath I’d been holding for weeks. I closed my eyes briefly and opened them to find myself in a small prayer garden.
The garden is situated on the edge of the grounds of a large church that wasn’t there when I was growing up. It’s a small area that’s simply but well-designed. I sat on one of the cold stone benches, knowing what I needed to do. There was much to pray about, but my thoughts blew and swirled around like the dry brown leaves trapped against the garden wall.
I settled in for some serious invocation, but my mind focused on inconsequential details in front of me – moss growing on the large center boulder, the patterned brick below my feet, the low curved wall. Okay, pray.
In the silence, my attention turned to the sound of the wind shaking copper leaves still clinging to their branches, the distant squawk of geese dotting the gray sky, and the busy scratching of a squirrel in a nearby tree. C’mon, focus.
Frustrated with myself, I shook my head only to notice another distraction – an abundance of acorns, hickory nuts, and broken shells scattered at my feet. I scoffed at my spiritual ineptitude.
A train was rumbling down the tracks. Its low blowing horn and clattering of iron on iron came closer and closer, roaring louder and louder in my crowded mind. Suddenly I remembered the title of a book by Anne Lamott called Help. Thanks. Wow. In it the author advocates three simple prayers – one of supplication, one of gratitude, and one of sheer awe.
I walked in a slow circle around the center of the garden, picking up acorns and nuts and placing them on stones to help me visualize each individual prayer. Instead of a train wreck of messy thoughts in my head, my prayers were laid out in a neat, comprehensible pattern along the garden wall.
Help. Thanks. Wow. Help. Thanks. Wow. Help. Thanks. Wow.
I walk to the prayer garden nearly every day now. In my own way, I suppose I always pray as I walk, but time in this sacred spot makes my prayers more clear, more intentional, more hopeful, and more faithful.
The title of Lamott’s book reminds me to keep my prayers in specific, grateful, and humble balance. For every prayer asking for help, there’s another for thanks, and yet another for joyful praise of things like serendipitously stumbling upon a private and holy sanctuary just when it’s needed most. §