Today is my brother’s birthday. I have noticed that birthdays have become less about gifts and celebrations, given that those closest to me are the ones furthest away. If I had rubber arms I would gather all of you to myself in one big greedy gesture. Like in that dream I have every year or so where everyone I have ever known and loved (or some combination of the two) comes together in the same place. It is a dream, I know, of heaven, of peace and of community. And a typical extrovert’s dream, perhaps.
Birthdays have become less about the advancing of years, or the achievement of a new set of arbitrary freedoms. Rather, I find that they have become more like days of honour. I wake, and the dawn rolls back to remind me of someone dear to me, past or present. I bring them closer, meditating on them, framing them with my thoughts, bending to kiss their foot like a devoted worshipper before a revered image. Too often this reverence doesn’t translate into phone calls, cards, or gifts, as it most ideally should. But it is any less generous? I am, of course, not trying to get out of gift-buying, for at its best it is one of the most tangible expressions of love. However, this shifted understanding of birthdays helps me understand something far more mystical, something I have chased all my life in varying states of confusion, frustration, and tedium: prayer.
When we honour the passing of a day of birth, we honour not a day nor a moment in history, but a person. When we hold that person in the front of our minds throughout an entire day, we are turning the self toward the other. Perhaps this simple turning is also the primary goal of prayer. When a person—their face, laugh, interests, presence—pervades our conscious life more consistently than in singular fleeting thoughts, is it as if the whole of our selfhood is consumed by them. They are there, in the spreading of honey on toast and in the selecting of oranges. They are there, in the donning of raincoats and rhythm of travel. They are there in the playing of music and the chattering of voices long into the evening.
I have learned and forgotten a lot about prayer. It has been a long time since I’ve knelt on a padded prayer rail, feeling the soft give of the leather under my knee, joining this age old communal and individual practice. I have tried to make substitutions for prayer, letting thoughts, intentions, and leanings stand in for the rigours of devotion. I have also been too hard on myself, deeming my prayer-life to be sub par when instead I just should’ve turned my attention to the new forms it had taken. There are many things that prayer is not. But perhaps there are many more things that it is, or that it can become.
I believe that the presence of God can be practiced in more ways than it can be denied. Can even the good and true actions and thoughts, on the part of those who don’t believe in God, proceed towards God? Does Christ thus re-route our misdirected thanksgivings and our most haphazard joys? Does true prayer happen even in the places we least expect it? Does it require conscious attention? Does prayer always and at all times have to be located only in the heart of believers?
And so my musings on birthdays have diverged into this new territory, where perhaps only the magic of dialogue can lead. And I see that there may be as many ways to pray as there are bones in the body; tendons to curl or to fold or to lay down before, and in holy submission to, our God.
"Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link." -Simone Weil.
Pictures: 1- Traditional prayer, 2- "Study for the garden court" by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (a poster I had in my room througout adolescence), 3-Tibetan prayer flags.