Through its comparison between the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector, this week’s Gospel from Luke invites us to consider our own prayerful attitudes. As I indicated a few weeks ago, I have found myself praying the Serenity Prayer multiple times a day lately, and I am curious what this says about my own prayer practice right now.
When I first started saying this prayer this summer, it occurred to me for the first time that the image in my head when I say “God” is a distant, stoic, male figure, a God removed from and not particularly interested in my life. This was a surprise because I have taken a lot of Bible and theology classes over the past fifteen years that have introduced me to the beautiful and inspiring range of images for God and challenged me to critique using solely masculine language for God and to recognize the dangers in doing so. And yet all this head knowledge had not yet seeped into my heart. In my heart of hearts, I still pray to a disciplinary God, a God who finds humanity weak and wanting, a God who cannot be bothered with the trials of mere humanity.
So now I take my time praying this first word of the Serenity Prayer. When I say “God,” I bring other images of God to my mind: God as Mother, giving birth to humanity and rocking Her children to comfort them; God as a Potter, patiently shaping me and seeing me as perfectly lovable despite the inevitable lumps; God as Water, infiltrating all the spaces of our lives with love. It is my hope that over time these images will seep into my heart, so that I am praying to a God who is overflowing with love.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
When we ask God to grant us something, we are acknowledging that we cannot do the work of our lives on our own. We open ourselves to God’s presence and power and begin to align our will with God’s will for our lives.
The idea of being serene, that is, calm and unruffled, so that we can accept what we cannot change is similar to what religious traditions have called mindfulness. In Buddhist traditions, mindfulness connotes an acceptance of the way that things are in the present moment, which in day-to-day living involves paying non-judgmental attention to our bodies, feelings, and thoughts. Mindfulness feels like going with the flow of the current, rather than actively paddling against it. Praying for serenity has illuminated for me the many ways in which I have been paddling upstream against parts of myself that I believe God is calling me to simply accept as part of who I am. In particular, I am learning that I have been using food to suppress the anxiety that arises in countless situations in my life. I am praying to be able to accept this anxiety as part of how God created me, rather than desperately trying to escape it.
The courage to change the things I can;
Some of these revelations have come to light during my counseling sessions at the Emily Program, which serves to provide real help for eating disorders. Despite my healthy respect for counseling programs and those who avail themselves of the help that counseling can provide, when I first started going to my sessions I felt weak. A tape in my brain, recorded long ago and based on sources I can’t really even identify, kept telling me that I should be strong enough to change on my own and that I was a hopeless, broken person for seeking help.
Well, I am a broken person. As my counselor has pointed out, it is our vulnerability that defines our humanity. But this does not mean that we are hopeless or weak. It actually took hearing Sara Bareillis’s “Brave” playing in the car to help me realize what is implied in this line of the Serenity Prayer: if you are working to change the things you can, you are not weak but are demonstrating tremendous courage.
And the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Thank goodness we can rely on God’s wisdom! The task of discerning what we are called to accept and what we are called to change in our lives is not something we can do solely on our own. In our humanity, we are too good at tricking ourselves into doing what is not good for us. There is a good reason that one of the titles we use for God is Truth, with a capital T. When we pray to God for wisdom, we can trust that the answer will be the truth that sets us free.