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UNDERSTANDING PRAYER: In the tomb of a saint, I thought about Twitter — thoughts on praying together

UNDERSTANDING PRAYER: In the tomb of a saint, I thought about Twitter — thoughts on praying together

Editor’s Note: Spokane FāVS is publishing a series of columns on the subject of prayer. Prayer is a common religious concept and is used in secular, colloquial speech and circumstances. Early humans may have used a version of prayer, even before the advent of formal religious observances.

But what does prayer mean? What is it? Who does it? Can you pray if it isn’t to a Divine Being? How do you do it? Is it a solitary and/or communal activity? Why do it at all? What motivates a person to pray? What are the expectations on the part of the pray-er? Should there be some type of tangible outcome or after effects? These and other questions have been be addressed the past few weeks.

By Tara Roberts

The crypt was cool, a welcome break from the heatwave pelting the land above. My family and I crept into a pew beneath stone archways. My husband bowed his head, and our kids followed suit. I glanced around the room at my fellow pilgrims, drawn to Assisi from all over the world, and tried to remember the famous prayer associated with St. Francis, whose bones lay a few feet away.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

The words scattered in my mind. I’d read them dozens and dozens of times — but almost always out of order. A year before I knelt in the tomb of the saint, I’d built a bot to repeat the prayer, twice a day every day, on Twitter.

Social Media and Prayer

It felt uncomfortably anachronistic to think about social media in such a reverential space. But I closed my eyes and imagined the words, in whatever order I could think of, scrolling past on my computer screen.

Maybe some anachronism was appropriate. After all, the prayer’s true origins are closer to the time of Twitter than Francis. According to University of Orleans professor Christian Renoux, it was first published in a French magazine in 1912 before (very slowly) going viral. The attribution to St. Francis popped up around World War II. 

I encountered the prayer about five years ago, when my pastor added it to our liturgy for a few weeks and sent everyone home with cards printed with the words. I stuck the card on my fridge. A few months later, when refugee bans and mass shootings and oil spills felt like more than the world could bear, I thought of it. I built my bot, followed a handful of Lutherans like me and Catholics like Francis, said the prayer once by myself and let it go.

A Twitter Connection

The account, @prayerstfrancis, is far from viral. But I’ve watched it steadily grow as more people stumbled across it and connect with the words, as I had. Love, pardon, faith, hope, light, joy. The shift from requesting good things for yourself to seeking them for others. The reminder of gifts that arrive in unexpected ways, the way God’s kingdom tends to turn human systems and priorities upside down.

I like to scroll through the names of people who like and retweet the posts. It’s an entertaining mishmash of Catholics and mainstream Christians and people who don’t mention religion at all, liberals and conservatives, grandmothers and writers and college students, people with a few thousand Twitter followers and folks with a few dozen. Some people like every post for weeks or months — a few for years. Others dive in with a retweet and never show back up.

Some say thanks for the bot or the prayer. Others get snarky (you can imagine how “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned” played in late 2020). Some people add to it, argue with it or amplify it.

I like to imagine us all there in the tomb of St. Francis, whispering it — in or out of order — together.

Reciting Prayer Together

For much of my life, I belonged to evangelical communities where communally reciting prayers was uncommon, even frowned on. At some point in my teenage years I received a pamphlet listing all the “bad” things about other denominations, knocking Lutherans in particular for repeating the words of old prayers instead of really praying.

But my most formative spiritual moments were as a small child, when I only attended church when we visited my grandparents. My grandpa was a preacher in a tiny country church, which at the time was largely made up of very old women, including my great-great-grandmother. Many of them had lived there since the early 1900s, attending Catholic mass when the roads were dry enough for the priest to ride into town.

We knelt at the altar for communion, and we recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison. I remember the joy of hearing our voices together, before I understood how many millions of people had prayed that prayer for how many hundreds of years.

The church stopped the practice as the women died, the courtesy to their liturgical roots no longer needed. But I missed it. When I left the traditions of my younger years, I sought it out again.

What is prayer, anyway?

I don’t always feel like I know what prayer is or what its purpose is. I’ve spent years wrestling with why and how and when I should do it. I return to the prayers I’ve said most often with others: the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, the Doxology, and, now, the Prayer of St. Francis. When I don’t know how to say them alone, I remember the times I recited them with the grandmas in my childhood church, with the people in my church today, with my children in their beds at night, with a few hundred strangers on Twitter.

Said together, the words feel less like pleas, demands or wishes, and more like promises to God and each other. Your will be done on Earth, as it is in heaven. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Praise God, from whom all blessing flow. Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

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