How You Do
This week we will delve into the different ways people pray as well as the various types of prayer. First, though, ask yourself this question: How do you do prayer? Is it a quick mental thought or a hurriedly whispered plea? Do you observe a strict formula for your prayer or recite something from a published book of prayers? Do you bow your head or your entire body? Is there music with your prayers like the Gregorian chants of old or do you pray by moving not just your toe to keep time but your entire body, an offering of movement that accompanies and/or explains your words?
OF course the most important thing about praying is that you do; pray, I mean. I have already shared that I like Vinita Hampton Wright’s definition of prayer the best: “Prayer is the sharing of presence.” How do you share your presence with the deity you worship? Do you call upon that deity who, for the sake of ease, I will refer to as God but willingly and happily realize you might call that deity Buddha, Goddess, Allah, G-d, or any of the other hundred-plus names for and of a supreme deity, and put yourself into communion with him or her or it?
Once in the proper mood and presence, do you then pray by giving thanks for your being and the love your deity has for you? Does you prayer continue with a request for understanding? As you pray, do you review the past day or perhaps your past life, remembering specific events, feelings, and words? Did those remembrances make you feel closer to your deity and reflect your faith or did they serve to drive you away from your spiritual base? If these questions sound familiar then give yourself a gold star because they comprise the “Daily Examen” of Ignatius of Loyola we discussed last week. Finally, does tomorrow figure in any of your prayers?
“How do you do?’ This is a rather common greeting that is found in literature a great deal and said less often in today’s world. In Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which appeared in 1892 it was a reciprocal greeting. It conjures up a comical vision of hordes of people passing each other and asking “How do you do?” without anyone every really answering. Sometimes, I fear, our prayers might be similar in nature – a greeting without answer or depth rather than a real sharing.
The word “do” is at the heart of this question, a question which modern grammar rules would rather read “However do you do?” Do is a verb which has meant “thrive” since the fourteenth century. Etymologically speaking, though, it really means “to cause”. The first reference of “How do you do?” being used to mean thrive, as in one’s health, dates back to 1463. A family in the English county of Norfolk did what many would have believed impossible. They began as poor rural peasants and gained stature as wealthy gentry, a rung on the ladder of the aristocracy. A collection of letters and papers was acquired in 1735 from the estate of the last remaining member of the family, William Paston, 2nd Earl of Yarmouth. The letter dating back to 1463 merely inquired: “I wold ye shuld send me word howghe ye doo.” In his book “The Book of Martyrs”, describing persecution of Protestant believers, John Foxe recorded a similar question: “God be thanked for you, How do you? “ (In the interest of fair disclosure, I should add that John Foxe was a very distant relation of mine as was John Donne whose prayer will be found later in this article.)
Today we ask people we greet “How are you?” which is a more updated version of the sixteenth century “How do you do?” It was Samuel Richardson’s novel “Pamela or Virtue Rewarded” published in 1740, which made this question a simple greeting. “How do you do Rachel? How do you all do?” he wrote. The phrase would take on another meaning with Thomas Haliburton’s “The Clockmaker” in 1835 when he penned: “Here’s a pretty how do you do”, meaning here’s a problem.
All of these derivations and origins can well apply to our subject of prayer. In a daily reflection we might very well ask what did we cause to happen today or what did we wish had happened. What thrived in our life that day and how would we like to thrive tomorrow? Maybe the most expedient prayer is one we can borrow from John Foxe: “God be thanked; how do you?”
John Donne wrote a prayer for all situations: “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end.”
I think how we day it might be of less value than the meaning with which we pray. That would encompass not only how we are but what we are and where we are in our living. “How you do” would, then, not only mean the past and present but our intentions for tomorrow. After all, life is about today as we learn from yesterday and prepare for tomorrow. I hope today finds you doing well, having caused a blessed yesterday and preparing for a prosperous tomorrow. Mostly, though, I give thanks to God for your being.