What is prayer? For most of us, the word evokes a dutiful disciple in church. Hands folded, head bowed in reverent silence, the praying man asks for guidance as glorious light streams through stained glass and illuminates the pews. The daybreak strikes him as a benediction, cleansing his spirit of yesterday’s sorrows so today can begin anew. Through prayer, he makes contact with a an endlessly wise, boundlessly benevolent source. And when he opens his eyes, he and his world appear reborn.
Men have been praying for millennia. Some pray for forgiveness; others pray for help. Some pray to express awe and wonderment; others to simply give thanks for the bountiful blessings bestowed upon us. Some pray to sanctify a part of their ordinary day-to-day routine— as Christians say grace before every meal or Muslims pray five times a day— while others reserve prayer for the out-of-the-ordinary. A panicked middle of the night phone call from the E.R. A devastating natural disaster. A terminal diagnosis. Even the most skeptical atheists among us have found ourselves humbled by calamity and crisis, kneeling on the ground and begging a god we didn’t quite believe in for mercy and guidance.
For Mary Oliver, large-hearted lover of books and devout disciple in the denomination of paying attention, prayer is a way not to manifest her own yearnings but to align herself with her highest principles and values. In recent years, Oprah’s endorsement of New Age notions of manifestation like the “secret” has popularized the idea of prayer as a magical means of wish-fulfillment: rub the magic lamp and unleash an all-powerful being whose one purpose is to make manifest your every desire. Prayer has become a transaction, the Universe, our endless mail order catalog— all we have to do is step up to the register and submit our order. More often than not, our nightly prayers are a demanding list of “I want’s” rather than an appreciative inventory of wonder-struck “thank you’s.”
But for Oliver, prayer is not where we commune with a higher being to get something— it’s where we commune with our higher selves. In her form of prayer, she asks one thing: how can I best contribute my own small portion of beauty to my broken world? At the heart of her prayers is not “what’s in it for me?” but “how can I serve?” Enchanted by the grandeur of the natural world, she worships in the temple of Provincetown, breathing in the intoxicating smell of violets and standing in awe at how the pristine landscape eternally renews itself:
“Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.”
And in a moment of delightful humility, she utters a prayer we should all adopt as a personal mantra:
“May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”
In this endearing excerpt from her altogether lovely essay collection Upstream, Oliver reminds us sacredness isn’t confined to church. The most ordinary act— a summer stroll through a dew-drenched morning, a New England sunrise— can become an occasion for contemplation and prayer. Oliver argues we pray any time we act with intention and whole-hearted presence, any time we make a deliberate effort to reconnect with our best selves. Perhaps the world would be better, she suggests, if we prayed not for things but for the ability to embody our highest values.