The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
My Neighbor’s Prayer: The Vocabulary of Blessing as Common Bond
I wasn’t sure where to start. My neighbors’ prayers proliferate. I went to Evanston’s finest theological library (at Garrett Evangelical Seminary) and there are multiple sections of the library with multiple shelves filled with extensive collections of prayer books from around the globe. I checked out a dozen of them, and then bookmarked about a hundred prayers before feeling utterly overwhelmed. The depth and beauty of the global language of prayer is unending. What have I gotten myself into?
With that in mind, I will start a little closer to home. And by that I mean I will start with a book on my shelf: the meditative words of Richard Wagamese from his book “Embers” which was given to me this fall by a friend. I guess it’s not technically on my shelf because I have been carrying it with me for weeks now, and his words offering an entryway into spiritual life in a way that seems at once familiar and foreign.
Wagamese was among the 150,000 native Canadian children who were—for the sake of “civilizing” them—placed in (typically Christian) residential schools. After some time in foster care, he was adopted into a family where he says he experienced “beatings, mental and emotional abuse, and a complete dislocation and disassociation from anything Indian or Ojibwe.” When he was 16, he ran away. Later, his older brother tracked him down and reconnected him with his Ojibwe tribe. Throughout his writing, I sense a deep treasuring of the sacred ways of his people that comes from that long suffering and separation. In the New York Times obituary published about his life in 2017, they report that the first word of Ojibwe he remembers speaking aloud as an adult after his return home was the word “peendigaen,” Ojibwe for “come in.” The very word in his mouth brought him closer to exactly who he had always been, and allowed him to cross the threshold into himself and his community. Somehow his writing offers us too, a chance to “come in” to the sacred.
For example in his book “One Drum” published posthumously, he writes out instructions to indigenous religious ceremonies that are important to him. In the ceremony called “Sacred Breath” he invites you to breathe, saying “as long as we breathe, we carry the Creator with us.” The ceremony does not take much preparation or pomp and circumstance: once you have found a place alone and are relaxed into the silence, quietly allow one simple thought to penetrate, “I am one with Creation.” Word and breath together offer a way in.
Below might be categorized less as a prayer and more as a reflection on the act of prayer, but I wonder if one of the things we learn from our neighbors is how to be less worried about categorization and instead simply live more in tune with the sacred. May the vision of silence knee-deep in snow be a blessing for you as you find your way in the new year that unfolds.
My Neighbor’s Prayer
In the bush, knee-deep in snow,
laying tobacco down
and offering prayers of thankfulness
for the life of my mother,
I became aware of silence.
It was full and rich and tangible:
I could almost reach out and touch it.
I smiled then.
it becomes so simple
when you surrender grief
to the ongoing act of living,
You become aware
of the silences
that exist between words,
That’s where you grow
—in those silences.