The Praying Habit: Mormon Week!

My exposure to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a recent occurrence. My friends growing up were all from faith backgrounds that were accepting of, if not downright enthusiastic, about alcohol and coffee. When I accidentally stumbled upon the Bloggernacle a few years ago, I was astounded at the political and theological diversity I found. I obsessively listened to podcasts like Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories, and learned a completely  new faith vocabulary: stake, ward, bishopric, testimony, priesthood, Quorum of the Twelve, September Six, Heavenly Parents, Relief Society.

What was striking to me was how many Mormons, even those who were no longer practicing or who had left the church, had what they identified as a spiritual experience through prayer. Many conversion narratives mention asking God directly if the Book of Mormon is true.  There’s clear precedent for this: it was following this very protocol that Joseph Smith received his first vision telling him that none of the churches currently in existence were God’s true church.

Clearly, personal prayer is extremely important in the Mormon faith. Knowing this, and realizing after my flaky first week that I needed a bit more structure in this praying adventure made it  an ideal religious tradition to start with. Thanks to its missionary zeal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has fully embraced social media and search engine optimization, which made finding a guide to Mormon prayer quite easy.

To say that Mormon prayer was a shift from my usual practice is an understatement. Instead of praying all curled up in my cozy flannel sheets, I prayed on my knees next to my bed both in the morning and at night. I was not raised in a church that had the congregation kneel for prayer. When I attend services where this happens, I opt to remain seated with my head bowed and hands folded. This past week was the first time I knelt in prayer consistently, and I was surprised at how much of a difference it made. The physical shift from my bed to the floor facilitated a mental and spiritual shift. It was easier to focus solely on prayer because I kneeled specifically for that purpose, though admittedly I did a much better job with this at night.

Another practice  that focused my mind on prayer was saying the prayers out loud. This isn’t required for every time you pray, but the church guide says “we should make an extra effort at times to pray vocally.” The only times I pray out loud are when I’m participating in a congregational prayer or mentioning a concern in a bidding prayer, so this felt foreign to me. It also made me feel quite vulnerable, as I often pray about what is causing stress or pain in my life. That said, I also felt like my prayers for others were more heartfelt. There’s something about naming a person or group of people that seems to pack more of a spiritual punch than merely thinking of them.

There was also some Mormon-specific phrasing that I incorporated in each of my prayers. Many Mormons open with “Heavenly Father” (though some prefer “Heavenly Parents” or “Heavenly Mother”). This isn’t a random cultural tic—the phrase connects to some very Mormon-specific theology. While I don’t share those beliefs, “Heavenly Father” wasn’t a barrier for me. I interpreted it as another way someone could relate to the divine. In retrospect, I wish I’d mixed things up a bit and opened with “Heavenly Mother” or “Heavenly Parents” a few times.

The church guide also advises that one should “use language that shows love, respect, reverence, and closeness…If we pray in English, for example, we should use the pronouns of the scriptures when we address God—Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine.” Unlike “Heavenly Father,” this was a challenge for me. I don’t use that kind of language often and I found it distancing. One of my favorite prayers to date occurred when a young woman involved in the same campus ministry as I was opened a prayer with “Hey God, it’s me, Elise.” I don’t think this is disrespectful, rather, I think it demonstrates trust and intimacy.

As a whole, I’d say my Mormon week was significantly more successful than Week One. I prayed every night and missed just a few mornings. I found myself less bogged down by theology and more focused on who and what I was praying about. This isn’t to say I don’t want to struggle over and ask questions about the nature of God and forgiveness, just that my personal prayers are not the most effective venue in which to do this.

Next week I’ll be reflecting on praying like a Quaker. Unlike the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Religious Society of Friends is less on top of their Internet game, which makes hunting for prayer and ritual a bit trickier. I’d certainly welcome any suggestions in the comments, or on Twitter.

Carolyn Browender is an activist and seeker living in Washington, D.C. She was raised Lutheran by a practicing Christian mother and secular Jewish father. You can also find her on Twitter.