Involuntary Prayer

Author: James McKenzie ’71Ph.D.


I recently prayed an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be for my sister Lois at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris on a picture-perfect, no-cloud-in-the-sky, late April day. It was an entirely secular prayer.


My wife and I, both in our 70s, were in Paris for the first time. When Patti, a Jew, wanted to visit that historic cathedral, it sounded fine to me; never mind my dark, once unliftable baggage from fundamentalist Catholicism. Oldest of nine, I’d gone off to seminary at 13, headed, since birth it seemed, to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, yearning to be martyred for Christ in some far-off place, a pure virgin of course. At 20 I’d entered an old-school Capuchin novitiate near Annapolis, Maryland: rural isolation, acres of silence, prayer and fasting, chanting the Divine Office every day in our brown robes. No radio, TV, newspapers. Our only brush with the secular came during Christmas season. That’s when the novice master (we called him Father Master) gave permission to choose a book from a small collection of musty classics in Saint Conrad Friary’s scrupulously censored fiction library. I devoured David Copperfield in the limited time permitted for so secular an activity.


My cut-to-the-chase disclosure for demonstrating fundamentalist Catholicism is to explain “the discipline,” a euphemism for flagellation. I’d known nothing about it “out in the world,” but when the news filtered down to me at Saint Conrad’s that fall of 1960, I embraced it. Every Friday during major fasts — Lent, Advent, the Rule Fast, we whipped our naked butts with three-tailed chains, underpants hugging our knees or ankles, habits tucked up under their white cinctures; we chanted the Miserere, the De Profundis and other prayers in communal song, cell doors ajar so we could hear each other.


Our choral song was necessarily more ragged than the chanting of the Divine Office, aligned in choir benches beneath that vaulted ceiling, but I liked how flagellation moved the inspiring Gregorian rhythms from the confines of chapel out into the entire friary, ringing through hallways, stairwells and parlors, a rough anthem to the joys of penitence filling the building. Brother Paschal, our cook, a man of little education given to spontaneous pious outbursts, explained the exercise simply: “Beat Brother Ass,” he exclaimed, above the clatter of pots and pans, “Beat Brother Ass! Mortify the flesh; you gotta mortify the flesh! Ora et labora! Work and pray! What else is there?”

Entering Notre-Dame Cathedral that day I’d grabbed a souvenir from a rack, only to discover it was the past Sunday’s Mass program: Paques it read at the top; I’d forgotten we were in what I once called Easter Week. “O filii et filiae” was listed as the first hymn. Surprised they were still using some Latin, I heard the long-forgotten, jubilant melody rise unbidden in my memory. I was visiting not just a UNESCO World Heritage site but also a functioning parish. That’s when I thought of Lois: how she still goes to Mass, lights candles for people she loves and cares about, had once sent me a conical beehive woven from Palm Sunday fronds, the kind our mom used to braid. “Those palms are blessed,” Mother explained. “You can’t just toss them in the garbage; you have to burn them or make something.” I’d mail Lois the Notre-Dame memento, but was there something more meaningful I could do, light a candle maybe?


Banks of red and white candles flickered from every part of the massive cathedral, blending beeswax with the perfume of centuries of incense seeped into stone columns, a familiar aroma. Several dozen sites beckoned: side altars devoted to one saint or another; Mary in various guises; entombed cardinals; at least one dead king. I could slip into the stream of tourists, clank a few euros into some designated slot and, if I chose a big enough candle, light a prayer flame for Lois that might still be burning when I got back to Minnesota. I could tell her that. After all, I’d once lit a candle at a Buddhist shrine in Vietnam (or was that a stick of incense?); I enjoyed lighting Hanukkah candles with Patti every year, singing the Hebrew blessing. It had been my idea to place the menorah in the front window, a small gesture against anti-Semitism, I imagined.


In the end, I stayed in my seat; lighting that kind of candle was too hypocritical a gesture for my agnostic soul. I’d say a silent Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, thinking of Lois, then tell her when I mailed the souvenir program. That’s when I faltered. Dredging up the old formulae, gawking still at the splendor of a thousand shades of light streaming through those Gothic windows, I lost my way. “Hallowed be thy name . . .” Now what? I drew a blank. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done?” Those words are in there somewhere, but isn’t there something in between? Trying to locate the old rhythms, I tripped again, this time over “Lead us not into temptation.” I knew that came in near the end, but how confused were those early Christians? How could they worry, after Christ’s crucifixion and Easter resurrection, that “Our Father” might actively lead them astray — a trickster god?


I've long recognized that one root of such unwanted, involuntary prayer is the alcohol and violence I grew up in.


Beneath the murmur of hundreds of other tourists streaming through the velvet-roped aisles, my spirit finally quieted its Our Father hiccup, and I heard the ancient words of all three prayers slide silently into place. I could tell my sister I’d prayed for her at Notre-Dame Cathedral.


I sat in silence a while longer, surprised at what I’d done. Formal prayer, like belief itself, had ebbed gradually from my life many decades earlier. There was no dramatic “aha!” moment, no defiant gesture. Fleeing the novitiate seven months in (after six years of seminary), fearing I was damned and crazy, I soon found myself in the Army. It’s hard to imagine a stiffer antidote to my otherworldly, obsessive sanctimony than a cold plunge into barracks life. That, too, was old-school: yelling sergeants; the foulest language and anecdotes I had ever heard; a bunkmate who actually was recruited out of a Chicago jail cell; a guy in basic training who pawned his new wedding ring to fund his visit to a South Carolina whorehouse during our first weekend pass. “No problem; I’ll get it back on payday.”


Even as my religious cool-down began, I found secretive ways to continue an anonymous Catholic prayer life. I slipped away from the barracks to pray solitary, arms-extended, 15-decade rosaries in clapboard Army chapels: Fort Jackson, Fort Sam Houston, Fort Knox, Fort Campbell. Someone once said that this kind of perfectly rendered rosary (“don’t let those arms droop!”), imitating Christ’s three hours on the cross, would be heard, the prayer “answered.” I used to wonder, alone in those empty base chapels, what might happen if someone wandered in and saw me. But if anyone ever spied me kneeling in front of Mary’s altar, arms motionless at right angles, palms out, eyes fixed on her plaster face or slanted toward the glowing red tabernacle light, he slipped away without a word. Never “heard,” I was likely never seen.


Dramatic as my cultural whiplash was (tempered by those clandestine prayers), the Army’s after-hours education program soon had a more profound effect than my immersion in barracks life. Like Blake’s Sun-flower, “weary of time,” I was slowly drawn toward a new energy: a desire for unfettered rather than “revealed” truth, whatever its source or wherever it drew me. My new orientation began with evening classes at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee; anything to get off base and away from gung-ho 101st Airborne culture.


On my own for several years, far from home and encountering so many new, competing influences, my values remained but became more secular in their expression. By the time I reached my last duty post, Tripler Army Medical Center, Oahu, my sunflower had turned fully away from Catholic education: I organized everything around University of Hawaii (UH) classes, sucking down deep gulps of dogma-free inquiry. No more crucifixion rosaries; no formulaic prayer. I wanted a lot more of what I’d found on this major secular campus. With a local discharge set for January 1965, I imagined myself entering UH as a second-semester junior.


It was not to be. Paul Hendrickson, in Seminary: A Search, uses a wonderful metaphor for the staying power of his teenage seminary life, how it “comes softly clacking along behind, like a child’s duck pulled on a string.” I thought I’d slashed the string to my own drag-behind seminary quacker, but it kept turning up. “We can’t find this Saint Fidelis College anywhere, Mr. McKenzie; it can’t be accredited,” the clerk in the UH admissions office said. “We’ve checked every source. But your nine UH credits with the grades you got are a great start; you’re practically a second-semester freshman.”


The next time my seminary pull-toy stopped me in my tracks was entirely irrational and happened at the American Notre Dame, late summer 1966, near the holy hush of its famous Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Driving straight to campus from the toll road, I’d gotten a map from the security kiosk and was circling the campus with Elaine, my wife of a few months (now long deceased), when we came upon the shrine. Never having been to Notre Dame before, I’d grown increasingly uneasy as I discovered lakes named for St. Mary and St. Joseph, and especially what the map indicated was a seminary on the opposite shore.


But the Grotto, despite its beauty, struck like an ambush. Rounding a corner and seeing that high, curved cave of stone; that snow-white kneeling child figure, adorational, gazing up at a blue-sashed Mary staring serenely from her rocky niche; the entire hollow space, glowing with the flicker of dozens of candles, I felt a wave of nausea and dizziness. A communion-rail-like barrier separated the Grotto’s well-kept garden from kneelers and benches where several young men, solitary supplicants, were hunched over in prayer or aligning their gaze with that bright-white stone child I’d recognized by then as Bernadette Soubirous, one of my mom’s favorites.


The roots of prayer in its many forms are deeper than any particular religion.


I was in total meltdown, an embarrassing but understandable panic attack, given my history. A welter of associations too numerous to sort out stormed over me: May crownings, confessions and communions, Forty Hours devotions, Our Lady of Fatima novenas, all those outstretched-arm rosaries I’d prayed — I felt under assault and drowning at the same time.


“I can’t do this, Elaine,” I said. “This is all a big mistake; I gotta get out of here.” We’d driven to campus from Pittsburgh shortly after my graduation from Duquesne, all our belongings in the trunk of a Chevy Bel Air, with room to spare. “Let’s not even unload; we can go right back to Pittsburgh and regroup. Case Western said I was high on their wait-list for a TA and they always get late cancellations. Maybe we could do that.”


After my crushing disappointment at the University of Hawaii, I had gotten into Duquesne University, February 1965, before the ink was dry on my Army separation orders; Duquesne accepted all my seminary credits. Suddenly I was a college junior, majoring in English, and, to my utter surprise, stood out enough that a kind professor told me Notre Dame had National Defense Education Act, Title IV Fellowships in English and I should apply. I got one — full ride plus stipend. After an agonizing struggle over signing the federally required loyalty oath (I was a righteous anti-war activist by then) I’d embraced my fate: a total Catholic education after all. At least our poor steel-town parish did not have the money or space for kindergarten, or I’d have done that, too: K through Ph.D., my sardonic joke at the time.


I don’t remember how Elaine got me to stick with Plan A (actually at least Plan G by then; I was 26), but we drove quickly from campus, found our way to the apartment we’d rented, unloaded that Bel Air and settled in.        



The end of religion in my life has not meant the end of prayer. Though I left prayer behind long ago, it would not, like that quacking duck, leave me. Habits of mind and feeling die hard, and just as well: Those patterns are seeds for character and personality. I sometimes laugh audibly when, even today, I catch myself silently invoking a kind of God I don’t believe in, begging for help — always at times of extreme, concealed distress. I am, I realize, involuntarily praying: unconsenting participation in a civilian version of “no atheists in foxholes.” I’ve long recognized that one root of such unwanted, involuntary prayer is the alcohol and violence I grew up in; Mom always led us to prayer, especially rosaries and novenas, before, during and after my father’s drunken terrorizing. Late in life, Dad dead, she several times mused aloud about how maybe she was trying to spare us by getting so many of her children off to seminaries and convents at the earliest possible age.


The other root of my unwilling, unconscious God beggings is the intensity of early religious experience away from home. Paul’s “pray without ceasing” became a literal goal once I’d entered the Capuchins. Our novice master’s instruction descended from Paul, through the Desert Fathers (all that sun, sand and celibate isolation), into specific techniques less violent than flagellation but more insidious. Each of us was to devise his own short prayer, called an ejaculation; we were to tell him and God only — a “little secret,” he called it. The goal was to have that secret formula whirring inside at all times, prayer on autopilot. Father Peter Hohman would never have allowed Franny and Zooey into his novitiate library, but I remember a shock of recognition as I was jouncing along in a Greyhound bus from Fort Jackson to Pittsburgh when I encountered Franny’s embrace of the Jesus Prayer. How relieved I was to discover, long before reaching home, that Franny’s prayer-obsessed breakdown had lifted by story’s end, my fictional, spiritual sister smiling at her bedroom ceiling after Zooey’s long phone call. I felt less alone.


The roots of prayer in its many forms are deeper than any particular religion: 30,000 years ago our ancestors were drawing those beasts on the cave wall we call Chauvet with charcoal sticks and the dyes they made, expressing or invoking some of the many forces beyond our own perception, thought, ability to control. Were they beseeching, hoping, praising, appeasing? Yes.


When I think of prayer, as opposed to its thrusting itself upon me, many words come to mind, all of them from poetry. First among them, Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer.” Ever since I discovered it, Kinnell’s poem has seemed the fundamental expression of what one would ask of a God, were there one, who, as Matthew defines Him — His eye on every sparrow that falls — has numbered “the very hairs on your head.” The only thing one might say to such an omniscient, omnipresent, loving God:


        Whatever happens. Whatever

        what is is is what

        I want. Only that. But that.


When I first encountered it, the first phrase of the second line was not italicized. Both poet and teacher in me were challenged by those three uses of “is” in the poem’s exact center. How to read that? Is is is without commas, an unparalleled insistence, in 15 words (counting title) on the present. That, and the happy palindromic wit of this brief poem’s first two lines. How playful; its mysteries drew me in ever deeper.


But it’s the impossible object of the prayer itself that most interests me: that ability to recognize clearly what already is, as it is; to find a way to accept whatever happens immediately, as it happens. Beyond that: to desire only that. The whole poem, with all those “is”es in the present tense. The 14 words of its body loop us back to the title, its status as “prayer,” an asking.


I know and cherish many other “prayers” of that kind: Philip Levine’s asking, from a poem

called “Words”:


        I want your blessing

        whoever you are

        who has the power to give

        me a name for

        whatever I am.


Another such prayer is the title of a Ferlinghetti collection, Open Eye, Open Heart, a plea for radical openness, discernment, recognition. Then there is the whole body of work by other poets: Whitman, Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Wallace Stevens, John Berryman.


As for my silent Catholic formulaic prayer for Lois at Notre-Dame Cathedral, I am reminded of a particular client I drove home from her appointment at St. Paul’s Center for Victims of Torture (CVT). I was a volunteer driver there for a decade, taking several hundred clients to appointments, people from many different cultures and religions, pretty much every one of whom blessed me in the language of their particular cultures. One day I drove a woman who might have been from Cameroon home to a Minneapolis suburb and, as was usually the case after such therapy sessions, she was visibly more centered and present, if not downright joyful. After I extended my gratitude for her expression of blessings on me, she mentioned that she would be okay since, as she did several times a day, she would be turning on her TV and watching Mother Angelica pray the rosary, praying it with her. “It always helps me feel better,” she said.


And that was the end of my ever apologizing, mostly to myself, for the thousands of rosaries I’d said in the 1940s, ’50s and well into the ’60s, and who knows how many Hail Marys. I was a driver, not a counselor, but inevitably some clients, trusting the victims’ center as they did, would pour out specifics of their torture, deaths they’d witnessed, things I might never have imagined. I knew nothing of this client's particular horrific suffering; she knew nothing of me, except as a supportive, reliable volunteer CVT driver. But her trusting, matter-of-fact mention of praying TV rosaries instantly revealed to me the shallowness of how I’d previously thought of such prayer when I tumbled on Mother Angelica as I surfed the channels. I thought about it all the way home to St. Paul.


I was happy to find, eventually, and repeat, those formulaic prayers of my growing up that beautiful April day in Paris. When I asked my sister if she thought it was hypocritical of me, agnostic at best, to pray for her at the cathedral in that way, Lois was emphatic. “Oh my God, no! Everyone has their own understanding of these things. Of course it wasn’t.”


Lao-Tzu, near the end of his life, writes: “Everything is clear; I alone am cloudy.”


Whatever happens.


James McKenzie, a University of North Dakota professor emeritus of English, now lives and writes in St. Paul, Minnesota. His current project is a collection of prose poems on public art in the Twin Cities.