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Thursday
Jan162014

A Prayer for the New Year

Photograph by Simon Brown

Twelve years ago in the little gift shop of St. Mary’s church in Oxford, I found a tray of laminated prayer cards. Assuming “An Ancient Country Prayer” would be about sun and harvest, I was surprised and delighted to read the first line:

Give me good digestion, Lord, and also something to digest . . .

I pounced on it happily — here was a prayer I could relate to. I would not know then, as I drew out my coins, that this prayer card would go with me for the next years to other countries, into married life, into motherhood. But as I read the card on the cobblestone street outside the shop, I might not have been surprised to hear it. From that first reading, the prayer shone as one that wears well.

I. The Prayer

Give me good digestion, Lord, and also something to digest . . . 

How humble the prayer starts, with the most bodily of needs. Sustenance and ease of receiving sustenance. And, too, how warm and witty it begins, praying for digestion before even the meal is secure. Right from the start, the prayer builds a fresh reality through, of all things, humor.

Give me a healthy body, Lord, and sense to keep it at its best . . . 

Ive always thought that the spiritual advice to take a nap is a tender, wise one. We are quick to forget the bodys need for rest. We are quick to fill it with food and drink, yet forget fresh air and movement. 

Give me a healthy mind, O Lord, to keep the good and pure in sight . . . 

The petition moves from what we take in through our mouths to what we take in through our eyes: what we look at, gaze upon, think about, dwell on. It takes health strength and vitality to be able to steadily look on whats good. 

Which seeing sin, is not appalled but finds a way to set it right . . . 

Another nod to our wily ways: how often do we find sanctimonious refuge in our shock over an outrage, rather than thinking about help or resolution? This line requests that clean, cool sweep of kindness coupled with common sense.

Give me a mind that is not bored, that does not whimper, whine, or sigh . . . 

Four punches in a row. Boredom is the worse kind of laziness the mind wont rouse for curiosity, the body wont rouse for fun. Its a passive destructive stance, a stagnant victim mode, where the only act is complaining. Whimpering is the helpless complaint; whining the manipulative; and sighing just gives up. 

Don't let me worry over much about that fussy thing called "I" . . . 

The prayer calls it like it is: left to our own devices, the self is a fussy thing. We will worry, defensively guarding our corner, relentlessly seeking what we want. 

Give me a sense of humor, Lord; give me the grace to see a joke . . . 

What a humble, resourceful request this is! Humor re-sees things. It brings light; it lightens the room; it meets the whimper, whine, or sigh with a laugh or chuckle. It brings us into a new perspective. When we see our circumstances with humor, what we were worrying over somehow becomes less worrisome. How life-giving to ask grace to move in this way, helping us see a joke in the midst of boredom or care. And, perhaps most often, it is ourselves that we re-see. The joke is me, that tall woman so dearly fighting tooth and nail for her tiny corner in this wondrous universe.

To get some happiness from life and pass it on to other folk . . . 

Why is it so easy to forget to enjoy the ride? Between flat tires, a broken air conditioner, nothing to eat but stale goldfish for three-hundred miles, a car trip can get long and hot and boring. But there is joy to be had too, songs to sing, interesting lands to gaze upon. Sometimes grace works to remind us to have some fun. And not just for our sakes, but for everyone else in the car with us.

II. The Grace to See a Joke: Re-Seeing Me

Well, that brief exercise went fairly well. Summing up each line with a bit of comment makes the prayer seem so practical, so — doable. But, in truth, the prayer is too acquainted with me and my ways. I mean:

Give me good digestion, Lord . . . 

Even the farmers on the ancient country knew that a good day can be blown with a bad case of indigestion. How desirable is peace and joy in the throes of bad heartburn? How gracious can a lady be, Lord, when the checkout line at Target is six-people deep and the bathrooms a quarter-mile away?

Give me a healthy body, Lord, and sense to keep it at its best . . . 

Ha. I might as well ask for two more hours of the day so that I actually had time to exercise regularly. So, Creator-God, I guess this means planning a meal around cheese dip, crab dip, French onion dip, and fondue isnt such a good idea? What else was on my Target list besides cheese anyway?

Give me a healthy mind, O Lord, to keep the good and pure in sight . . . 

But its so much easier to wail about the woes of LA driving, the state of childhood education, the crude checkout lines. I would rather ask for a healthy mind achieved through the wonders of modern television. Taking in hours of Downton Abbey and Parks and Recreation surely this is a little something like keeping the good in sight?

Which seeing sin, is not appalled but finds a way to set it right . . . 

But nice church society has used "being appalled" as entertainment for centuries! Acting shocked is so much easier than actually doing something. Doing something is hard. Like smiling at the checkout lady is hard when shes moving slow and Ive seriously got to go. And doing something about the state of childhood education? It might mean I need to get involved, which would mean spending time with people who do things differently than I do, and thats annoying.

Give me a mind that is not bored, that does not whimper, whine, or sigh . . . 

Babys new wake time is 5:00 a.m. = good reason to whimper. Second trip to Target that day (forgot dishwasher soap while sighing over no more holiday cheese dips) = superb reason to whine. Internet problems while streaming Brooklyn Nine-Nine = what else to do but sigh? The whimper, whine, and sigh are the ultimate coping mechanisms for the challenges of the dreary quotidian day. I dont want to give them up. 

Don't let me worry over much about that fussy thing called "I" . . .  

Please, O please, O please tell my husband there is a right way to load the dishwasher. Help him know it is a serious thing to rinse the peanut butter knife. That putting Tupperware on the top is not a suggestion.

Give me a sense of humor, Lord; give me the grace to see a joke . . . 

Even if its me, Lord. Really and truly, You take me seriously enough for the both of us. Let me look into the mirror and see someone whos ready to laugh, to give up her place in line, to practice healthy eating cheerfully, to say thanks for help in the kitchen . . . 

to get some happiness from life and pass it on to other folk. Amen. 

So be it, this prayer, and all the work it has to do.

III. Being Made in Human Likeness

Awhile ago, I re-opened Thomas Merton’s theological book The New Man that had been left to get dusty on my bookcase. In its pages, I found my old prayer card and read it through again. Again, I was surprised at all it encased, at all the prayer’s understanding of the self, put in such a laconic way. 

But I didn’t want to just revel in the words. It was as if the prayer had struck a beam of light into places needing love’s warmth — the way a flashlight beam bounces into the musty shadows of an old basement. There was something about the prayer that I wanted to sit with. Something in the prayer I wanted to ease across the dark floor of my heart’s back room. 

Have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, He humbled himself . . . 

As I read these words Paul wrote to the Philippians, I can comprehend in some way that Christ knows the struggle with our more epic temptations — the hot, dramatic desires for power, lust, anger, and despair. But it is hard for me to imagine that Christ knows well the cold, nit-picking, often ridiculous, terrier-with-a-bone propensities we so unquestioningly live our lives from. This is the fret over “correct” dishwashing, the desire for a perfect Christmas Eve to the exclusion of caring for family in a real way, the satisfaction in “appalled” gossip, the habit of whining about stupid e-mails and bad traffic — Christ understands this? He will spend time in these mean regions of the heart? It’s like Jane Austen wanting to spend time with the plotting Mrs. Bennett or the small-minded Mr. Collins — it’s unthinkable and, even, embarrassing. Jesus, soothe my deep angst; bring healing to my broken, fearful imagination. But don’t — please — don’t look at the way I will obsess over Christmas décor or turn sour when my husband lets the expensive coffee burn. 

For all these small tics aren’t just that. The large-scope character arc happens here. That’s why this prayer is so vital and difficult — so deep-reaching into the caldron of where character boils into existence through hidden beliefs and perspectives, old routines of passive sadness or white-knuckled striving.

There’s a hardness to this fussy “I” that is only soothed, only softened into humor and generosity, through the sweet balm of unwavering love.

I say the prayer again. I let the prayer, the love tipping out from the prayer, drop deeper.

Give me good digestion, Lord . . . 

All my anxiety about weight and clothes, or the way I eat too fast because Im embarrassed to be eating such high-calorie food, or the way I will turn to wine before sleep, or the relentless hunger I feel during harder days: these habits, I give to you.

Give me a healthy body, Lord, and sense to keep it at its best . . . 

O, Lord, I live in Los Angeles. What is a healthy body? I have forgotten. I get carried away with fads, and ask too much of myself, and burn out, and am embarrassed. When Im sick I dont slow down. When Im sore I dont stretch. I need your wisdom how should I look at my body? How should I care for it?

Give me a healthy mind, O Lord, to keep the good and pure in sight 
Which seeing sin, is not appalled but finds a way to set it right . . . 

I am scared to take on any setting it right.I joked about it before, but it does mean spending time with others, and thats stressful to me. I need the light of your countenance. Jesus, you lived among us you know what collaboration is like. Help me to let go so that I can work toward your good without getting in a bind of stress and worry.

Give me a mind that is not bored, that does not whimper, whine, or sigh . . . 

I use boredom (and I admit, mindlessly watching TV) as a refuge, God. It means I dont have to rally myself. Not that I want to rally myself into more busyness, but I dont even want to rally myself into your arms, your tender love. I would rather whine and whimper than receive holy comfort. For some reason it seems so much easier. Safer. Forgive me.

Don't let me worry over much about that fussy thing called "I" . . .  

Oh, Lord, truth be told, I hate this fussy self. I make so much more work, so much more noise, for myself. So much more pressure do I pump into this chest, so much more burden do I pile on these shoulders. And for what? What cubit of life have I added? But also, what cubit is added through self-disgust and shame?

I think of lyrics from Over the Rhines Undamned:

I've got a thousand lost songs
(Far too many they just got away)
I've done a thousand things wrong
(Far too many for me to name)
But I'm not too far gone
To fall
Headlong
Into the arms that love me

All I have to do is fall. Lord, help my fussy self, so hard-edged in her corner to fall, to sink and rest, into your loving arms. 

Give me a sense of humor, Lord; give me the grace to see a joke 
to get some happiness from life and pass it on to other folk . . . 

This is a beautiful gem of a prayer but its hard. It means calling things differently than I want them to be. Less important. And yet, I say these words, and I mean them. Come into the place where my ideas of life generate, to the furnace of the heart, to the shelves of the mind where ideas cool and dry and harden. I need your freshness, the bloom of your eyes in comfort and laughter. I need your strong arm of courage for agency and movement. I need to re-see things. I need that fresh snap of a good laugh and the ability to see where the jokes been hiding between the dirty dishes and the Pepto-Bismol. Between myself and this life youve given me to live to the full.

“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. . . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” That’s what this Ancient Country Prayer moves us toward — the peculiar, sweet, new burden that Christ gives us. It’s an alighting of fresh relief, perhaps through forgiveness, or a bright streak from new thoughts, or a hearty chuckle after re-designating what matters in a stressful situation.

At this start of the new year, I pray this prayer. Give me good digestion, Lord — help me digest all that’s around me without the bitter taste of that fussy self-defense, with a tonic of laughter, with the sweet honey syrup of knowing myself to be your prized beloved. Let the cool breeze of your loving vision blow through this heart, Lord; bring me out of my fighting, small corner; let me dine and drink in large meadows and wide seas. Or — we know your ways — come into this corner and make a home here. Let it widen with your mercy and cheer.

Give me good digestion, Lord, and also something to digest.
Give me a healthy body, Lord, and sense to keep it at its best.
Give me a healthy mind, O Lord, to keep the good and pure in sight,
Which, seeing sin, is not appalled but finds a way to set it right.
Give me a mind that is not bored, that does not whimper, whine, or sigh.
Don't let me worry over much about that fussy thing called "I."
Give me a sense of humor, Lord; give me the grace to see a joke
To get some happiness from life and pass it on to other folk.
Amen.


Jessica Brown lives in Culver City in Los Angeles with her husband Simon and nine-month-old son Calder. She's lived in Texas, Indiana, Oxford, Boston, New York, New Zealand, Ireland, and San Francisco — all the while, writing novels. She loves the crossroads of literature and theology and has published essays on Gerard Manley Hopkins and Jane Austen — the latter just being released in Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony (Lehigh University Press). 

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Reader Comments (10)

The prayer is beautiful in its meaning. Thank you for your words that encircle it round about.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

Beautifully crafted essay, Jess. I love your honesty and humor in this piece, and how you draw such piercing insights from it, line by line. And how you manage to bring Jane Austen into the mix! I am copying this lovely prayer for my own storehouse. Thank you.

Mary

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMary Van Denend

What a wonderful essay. I love how you illuminated this old text and brought it into the world for the 21C.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSimon B

Wonderfully pieced together. Thank you. I plan on putting it onto. My fridge door, for all to share!
Encouragement, thought and humour mixed with a vulnerability most of us camouflage alot of the time. Refreshing!

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEmilieB

Jessica, this is a fine example of leading with the light of Christ. Your honesty honors God, your flash of humor opens the heart of man so His perspective can be entreated by us humans, your self-effacing humor makes us ashamed of our pride. The angle that brought introspection was the "fussy little I" verse. . Jesus came as a servant with His eye on others, not on himself. You point to sublimate one's ego follows service to others. May we carry on following your message!

January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSid

These comments are beautiful! THANK YOU.

January 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Brown

Heard at an AA meeting: "When I become a sponsor of a newly sober alcoholic, I have him do what my old school sponsor asked of me - "Hey, you're on the 'butt brigade.' Empty the ash trays; sweep the floor; make coffee; clean the bathrooms.
Selfishness got you to AA. Servanthood will help you stay sober."

It's apparent that the "fussy thing called "I," can bring us to our knees.

January 29, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercynthia s

You've digested this prayer quite well. Thank you.

February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterResa

Thank you for this beautiful, meaningful essay. You write so honestly and vividly and humorously about life, and faith, and parenting. And your lovely soul shines through every line. This essay is a gift, as are you! I so relate to the hard-pressed moments of hectic parenting days.

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBecky K

Thank you for this, Jess. Like others who have commented before me, I've printed out this prayer and will be hanging it by my desk. Thank you for the three levels of examination of its words, taking me deeper along with you at each turn. Beautiful!

February 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNancy N

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